Have Americans lost confidence in America?

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Shawn Gaynor's picture
Gallup poll listing public confidence in American institutions

By Shawn Gaynor

A new Gallup poll out today shows an American populace with slipping confidence in its most fundamental institutions. While mainstream media headlines focus on Americans' historically deep disenfranchisement with Congress, and its potential impact on the midterm elections, an overview of the poll's results across the 16 major institutions Gallup examined shows a nation increasingly cynical and skeptical of society's major decision makers.

Nearly half of the institutions that Americans were asked to rate fell at or below their historical low points in public confidence. The institutions that are experiencing what can only be characterized as a historical crisis in confidence are: the US Supreme Court, the public school system, newspapers, Congress, television news, the medical system, and internet news. None of these institutions received a favorable rating from more than one in three respondents.

Congress received the lowest favorable rating of any major institution in the history of Gallup's annual confidence poll, with a mere seven percent saying they had either a “great deal,” or “quite a lot” of confidence Congress's ability to govern the nation. Congress has never enjoyed a high approval rating from the public, with 42 percent confidence in 1973 being its high water mark.

Historically, people rate Congress with lower confidence than their individual congressional representative. However, the shockingly low rating of Congress prompted Gallup to sound an alarm, characterizing the public's disenfranchisement with its own elected leaders “a challenge to the broad underpinnings of the nation's representative democratic system.” Speaking about the public's perception of Congress, Gallup Editor-in-Chief Dr. Frank Newport said, “That is significant. That is the lowest rating of an institution we have ever measured in this index. Congress has never been rated highly … but to be at seven percent is extraordinary.”

Only three major societal institutions enjoyed the confidence of a majority of those surveyed: the military, the police, and small business. Of those institutions, the police with a 53 percent confidence rating, dipped to a near all time low of 52 percent recorded in 1993, in the wake of the Rodney King beating.

In fact 15 out of 16 institutions represented in the survey were rated within five percent of their historical low points in a survey where five percent represents the margin of error. Only the military received a rating more than five percent above its historic low which was recorded in the wake of Vietnam. Confidence in the military remained high after peeking at 85 percent during the first gulf war. Since that time it has rated as the institution that enjoys the most public confidence except for 1997 when small business rated slightly higher.

A staggering three of four people voiced a lack of confidence in: banks, public schools, newspapers, congress, television news, organized labor, the criminal justice system, big business, and internet news.

Public schools continued a historical slide in public confidence.  Once among society's most trusted institutions, enjoying the confidence of a majority of Americans, schools now rate at 26 percent of positive response, down from a high of 58 percent.  

Even President Obama, who once enjoyed the confidence of a majority of Americans, did not escape America's sour mood, receiving only a 29 percent favorable rating -- brushing up against the historic low confidence mark for a US president. That low was recorded in 2007 and 2008 when Americans rated the Bush administration at 25 percent and 26 percent confidence in those years respectively.

Gallup has been conducting its annual poll of institutional confidence since 1973.

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