America's Crisis of Confidence

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Here's something to think about when you cast your vote today: A new study shows that Americans have lost faith in the people who lead their federal, state and local governments, and in businesses, churches and schools. And they are afraid to fly.

"America is in trouble," reads the introduction to the 2006 National Leadership Index, sponsored by U.S. News & World Report and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. According to the report, nearly three-quarters of Americans think that the nation faces a "leadership crisis."

This is the survey's second year, and it has been downhill all the way, said Todd Pittinsky, the center's research director. "Most groups are following the general trend of having low confidence and, if anything, having that confidence slip further."

The only leaders who earn more than a smidgen of Americans' confidence, the researchers say, are those in the military and medical fields. (Confidence in the media didn't slip, but it was in the sewer already.)

"We could have asked about grandmothers," Pittinsky said. "Maybe we could have had more confidence in grandmothers."

The researchers hope the survey will "contribute to our ongoing civic dialogue -- deepening our understanding of ourselves and the pressing need for effective, responsible democratic leadership."

Sounds scary. Like the section called "Global Leadership and Fear," in which 1,600 people were asked: "How optimistic do you feel about the safety of the United States from a terrorist attack?" Half felt at least a wee bit optimistic. But of the other half, 18 percent were somewhat pessimistic, and 16 percent wigged into the panicky "very pessimistic" category. Oddly, an additional 15 percent were neither pessimistic nor optimistic about the nation's safety.

Perhaps, joked survey researcher and assistant professor Seth Rosenthal, these are people "so paralyzed they can't even tell you if they're pessimistic."

The researchers also asked: "If you flew today, how confident do you feel that you would be safe from terrorist harm on a domestic flight?" Nearly half sucked it up on this one, saying they felt confident about flying safely. But 13 percent put a potential evildoer on every plane. "That's pretty bad," Rosenthal said. "Obviously there aren't planes being dropped out of the sky every day."

Blending fears of leadership failure and flying, the study further found that "Americans who are not confident at all that government leaders in Washington will respond effectively to an emergency crisis are less confident than other Americans about their safety from a terrorist attack on a domestic flight."

Any bright spots?

The group was asked to guess where the United States ranks among the top 32 industrialized nations in terms of citizens' life expectancy, economic equality and mathematics literacy.

Sunny optimism: The group put the United States in 10th place for longevity, and 15th for both economic equality and math skills.

Misplaced optimism, it turns out: Global rankings place the nation in 24th place for longevity, 30th for economic equality and 25th for math literacy. In other words, we are more elitist and lousier in math than even these disappointed, mistrustful and frightened Americans imagined. And we'll all die sooner than they thought.

"Americans . . . hold the country in high esteem," Rosenthal said. "Maybe higher than is realistic."


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