“American Breakdown: How Americans Lost Trust in their Leaders and Institutions and How to Rebuild Confidence,”

POLITICS: Faith in US institutions and each other takes dangerous drop

Congress, the presidency, the FBI, the judiciary, the media, colleges and universities, big business, churches, scientists, technology companies, labor unions, public health leaders. What do all these institutions have in common?

Answer: Americans don’t trust them any more.

In the last 30 years, we have witnessed something unprecedented and perilous to the very survival of American democracy — a collapse in public trust in the nation’s leaders and institutions.

If there is one phenomenon that captures better than anything else what’s gone wrong with America in the last few years it is this: we live in a culture of mistrust.

All the major institutions that have defined and shaped American democracy have witnessed a dramatic decline in the faith and credit Americans place in them in the space of a generation.

Is it any wonder, given how they have behaved?

In my new book, “American Breakdown: How Americans Lost Trust in their Leaders and Institutions and How to Rebuild Confidence,” I look in detail at the collapse in public faith and confidence in our leaders in the last few decades, how it happened and how we can start to restore trust.

Hard to believe

The Gallup Organization has been measuring trust among the public in the most important American institutions for 50 years. 

In its latest survey, conducted in July, Gallup found that across nine key institutions, the average proportion of Americans who said they had “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in them was 26%. 

That was the lowest number ever recorded; in the 1970s, when Gallup started measuring the number, it was close to 50%.

“American Breakdown: How Americans Lost Trust in their Leaders and Institutions and How to Rebuild Confidence,” details the collapse in public faith and confidence in U.S. leaders in the last few decades.

Of the institutions Gallup has tracked consistently, only the military and small business have held onto the level of public trust they enjoyed a few decades ago.

The rest have seen the confidence we once placed in them collapse.

In the last two years, trust in the presidency, the criminal justice system, television news, newspapers, the Supreme Court, organized religion, Congress, the police, public schools, large technology companies and big corporation of all sorts — have recorded their lowest ever levels of public trust.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the institution that has seen the biggest decline in trust has been the media. In the 1970s, after Watergate, more than half of Americans said they had a high level of confidence in newspapers.

Last year that number was just 16%. Only 11% now trust television news.

Other surveys matched these findings. The Pew Research Center has conducted similar surveys for 30 years, and it finds that the public’s trust in most of the cornerstone American institutions has dropped sharply.

The General Social Survey conducted by NORC (formerly the National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago and the American National Election Studies at Michigan and Stanford, have found the same broad decline in levels of trust Americans have in their institutions.

Suspicious figures

Perhaps even more troubling, Americans have not only stopped trusting their leading institutions. They don’t trust each other. 

When asked, in the words of the General Social Survey, “generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” the proportion of those saying people can be trusted has dropped from about a half to less than a third in the last 50 years. 

This plummeting social trust is doing irreparable damage to the bonds that tie Americans together.

America finds itself today, then, a country fundamentally ill at ease with itself — a nation where large numbers of its citizens profoundly mistrust the leaders and institutions that govern them, the businesses that supply them with their needs, the people who educate and inform them and, increasingly, each other.

What’s gone wrong? The progressives who control most of these institutions want you to believe there’s a simple explanation — and it’s nothing to do with them. It’s all the fault of unscrupulous Republican politicians, right-wing media, former President Donald Trump and his allies and social media peddling “misinformation.”

And yes, let’s acknowledge it: Trump and his friends have surely played a part in undermining trust in recent years with their stream of falsehoods about stolen elections and other bogus claims.

But the rot in our institutions not only predates Trump, it goes much deeper. In fact, it’s typical of the heads of our leading institutions to blame everyone but themselves.

Over the last decade or so, people have come to the realization that they have been misled, lied to, sold a bill of goods — and in the process America has been failed by its leaders.

A media that consistently promotes an ideological agenda, pushing politically useful stories like Russian collusion hoaxes and ignoring inconvenient ones like Biden family corruption; social media companies that suppress information that doesn’t line up with the ideological views of their bosses and employees; universities and schools that bar speakers and ideas they regard as unacceptable; public health officials who told us gathering in large crowds during COVID-19 would kill us unless we were protesting on behalf of Black Lives Matter; big businesses that shipped jobs overseas, kowtowed to the Chinese Communist Party and then lectured Americans about how evil this country was and how we needed to atone for our sins; scientists who insisted there is no such thing as biological sex and to argue with that was bigotry.

Leaders mislead

Other factors have contributed to the collapse in trust — our institutions have not only been mendacious and deceptive but over the last few decades their performance has been abysmal: governments that have gotten us into disastrous foreign wars and presided over open borders, addiction epidemics, financial crises, corporate scandals, a dramatic widening of economic and social inequality, technological innovations that have exposed us to privacy risks and mental health crises.

And, above all, a widening gap between an elite establishment that dominates these institutions and looks with disdain on the beliefs and aspirations of ordinary Americans. 

America hasn’t failed. It has been failed by these so-called leaders who control so much of our culture and so many of our institutions.

The rest of us have lost faith in them. We need to begin the work of transforming these institutions so that they once again pursue the highest American values — and start the long process of rebuilding trust. 

Excerpted from “American Breakdown: Why We No Longer Trust Our Leaders and Institutions and How We Can Rebuild Confidence,” out tomorrow from Twelve Books.

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