The lack of trust in longtime pillars of society among millennials is striking both for its depth and its breadth. No one is spared their side-eyed looks.
The media gets its worst — with 88 percent of millennials saying they only "sometimes" or "never" trust the press. Wall Street doesn't fare much better, with 86 percent of millennials expressing distrust. Congress is at 82 percent. Three in four millennials (74 percent) sometimes or never trust the federal government to do the right thing, and two in three (63 percent) feel the same way about the president. The Supreme Court, once a beacon of trust societywide, isn't seen that way by millennials, with 58 percent saying they only sometimes or never trust the nation's highest court to do the right thing. Heck, even local police aren't spared; 50 percent say they trust the cops only sometimes or never to do the right thing, while 49 percent said they trust police "all" or "most" of the time.
Now, it's easy if you are not a millennial to roll your eyes at these numbers. What could be more distinctly millennial (or just plain young) than not trusting institutions? After all, Jack Weinberg insisted not to trust anyone older than 30 in the mid-1960s, when the parents of today's millennials probably hadn't even met yet.
But, to dismiss millennials' distrust in institutions is to miss something bigger at work here. Societywide trust in institutions is at or near record lows. Check out this chart from Gallup's annual national, survey on confidence in institutions. (This is the 2014 edition because 2015's hasn't come out yet.)
Three institutions — the military, small business and the police — break 50 percent on that confidence meter. Sound familiar? (Millennials: They're just like us.)
The erosion in confidence is impossible to blame on any one factor because it is so widespread. I believe that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made clear in a very powerful and frightening way that those tasked with protecting us might not always be able to do it. That led to a general sense of unease amid the populace that the bad behavior of Wall Street, the faltering economy, an ineffectual Congress and the string of high-profile killings of black men by police have all heightened.
There is a feeling that the safety net is gone. In political terms, the conviction that honest brokers simply don't exist leads people to seek sustenance from those who affirm their points of view. They watch the same TV shows, listen to the same radio stations, shop at the same places and live in the same neighborhoods as people who believe like they do. Interactions with people with whom they disagree and entities such as Congress or the news media dwindle. Suspicion rises. Distrust becomes pervasive.
The fact that millennials are so distrustful of institutions doesn't make them unique then. It makes them part of a broader cultural trend with dangerous potential political consequences. If we all become nihilists — " We believe in nothing, Lebowski, nothing" — the ability of politics and politicians (or any other major institution) to effect any real change among the populace becomes virtually impossible.