Trust in US institutions has ‘never been lower’ – here’s why that matters | Well actually

The distrust is partly the result of a decades-long effort by political leaders to erode public confidence in institutions like science, media and government. Illustration: Sebastian König/The Guardian

Americans don’t have much faith in America right now. Or at least not in its institutions.

In 2022, a Gallup poll found that Americans had experienced “significant declines” in trust in 11 of 16 major US institutions. The supreme court and the presidency saw the largest drops in public confidence – by 11% and 15%, respectively. Trust also fell in the medical system, banks, police, public schools and newspapers.

Things didn’t improve in 2023: a follow-up poll found that levels of trust remained low, with none of the scores “worsening or improving meaningfully”.

Public confidence waxes and wanes, but these numbers are notably bleak. Trust in institutions has “never been lower”, confirms Jeffrey Jones, a senior editor of the Gallup poll and the author of the 2022 report.

This mistrust is not a one-time blip, a rough patch in an otherwise happy relationship between a country and its people. According to polling experts, it is partly the result of a decades-long effort by political leaders to erode public confidence in institutions such as science, media and government. And the consequences are serious. Not trusting the forces that govern their lives is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities, and makes the country less prepared to face a major crisis.

“Trust is the grease that oils the gears and makes things work,” says Dr Marc Hetherington, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Without it, everything is more difficult.”

But how did we lose this trust in the first place? And is there a way to get it back?

With the exception of a couple of surges, the US “has been in a really low-trust environment since the 1970s”, says Hetherington.

At that point, public confidence in institutions started to fall. Part of this was a natural leveling out. After the second world war, trust levels had been “extraordinarily high”, Hetherington says. “Probably anomalously so.”

And part of it was due to the simple fact that – after the civil unrest of the 1960s and the energy crisis followed by stagflation of the 1970s – many Americans felt the government just wasn’t performing very well.

But there was another force at play. Around this time, the Republican party became “the anti-government party”, Hetherington says. “There was a lot of political hay to be made from actively saying negative things about institutions, and it helped win elections.”

By 1984, the Republican party’s official platform condemned government overreach. “Not every problem cries out for a federal solution,” it read.

Over the next few decades, there were spikes of trust – usually during sunny economic times, like in the middle of the Reagan administration or at the end of the Clinton presidency. There were also spikes that arose from crises, like the months following 9/11.

A convoy prepares to travel to the nation’s capital to protest against Covid vaccine mandates in Adelanto, California, on 22 February 2022. Photograph: David Swanson/Reuters

But overall, trust trended downwards. “For the last 20 years, confidence has been depressed,” Jones says. He notes two major drops. The first during the second term of the George W Bush administration, when average confidence dropped 10%, and the second from 2019 to now, when average confidence dropped another 10% (save a brief spike during the early days of Covid).

Numbers can feel abstract. But the effects of low public confidence are very concrete for both individuals and communities.

“As individuals, we rely on institutions to sustain various aspects of our lives, whether we realize it or not,” says Keanu Jackson, a licensed social worker and therapist in New York City. Trust gets undermined when people feel like the institutions they rely on are not concerned with their wellbeing, he says, adding that when it happens, it can lead to “feelings of disillusionment, increased anxiety and stress, identity confusion, and a decreased sense of stability”.

Constantly questioning the organizations that govern our lives is exhausting. “Having institutions that we trust is an easier lift for us cognitively,” says Dr Lynn Bufka, deputy chief of professional practice at the American Psychological Association. If someone feels that they have to double-check government guidance, news reports and medical directives, it wears on them and leads to a greater sense of uncertainty and anxiety.

Low public confidence can also suggest “a lower collective sense of who we are”, Bufka notes. If Americans don’t have a shared understanding of how institutions represent them and what they can depend on, that may lead to greater splintering between groups. “That can potentially lead to anticipation of more general conflict, which at minimum would put you on edge,” she says.

On a larger scale, the effects can be even more devastating. And perhaps they already have been, Hetherington says.

Consider the Covid crisis. “Government was responsible for carrying out whatever ideas scientists thought were best practices,” he says. But significant mistrust of both the government and the science made many Americans treat official health guidelines with suspicion, if not outright rejection. “The ramifications of that are pretty clear. Probably tens if not hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths happen in the US,” Hetherington says.

Is there potential to turn it around? Experts are torn.

Jones says he is not optimistic that there will be a reversal in the mistrust trend anytime soon. In the past, he says, moments of economic prosperity have buoyed public trust, but he’s not sure that can happen any more. “Even when the economy’s good, there’s still economic angst,” he says.

Hetherington says that, given how unwilling both major political parties seem to give each other any credit, he doubts “whether it’s even possible” to have a meaningful surge in trust. “I’ve come up with lots of problems and too few solutions,” he admits.

Bufka is more optimistic. Leaders can rebuild trust with their public, she says. In the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Stress in America report, 59% of Americans said it is stressful that “politicians aren’t talking about things that are most important to them”.

So, Bufka says, leaders need to speak on issues that matter to people. “Are [officials] talking about the things that are important to the people they represent? Does the news focus on things that are important to the average person?” Doing this, and explaining how and why they are making decisions, makes a big difference, she says.

“Institutions have some opportunity to make change here, and it’s important for those who have power to think about what it is they could do,” she says. “It often comes down to transparent and honest communication.”


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