Congress, the presidency, the FBI, the judiciary, the media, colleges and universities, big business, churches, scientists, technology companies, labor unions, and public health leaders – all of these institutions share a common characteristic: Americans no longer trust them. Over the past three decades, there has been a significant and dangerous decline in public trust in these leaders and institutions, posing a threat to American democracy. Our society has become a culture of mistrust, where faith and confidence in the major institutions that have shaped our democracy have drastically declined. In “American Breakdown: How Americans Lost Trust in their Leaders and Institutions and How to Rebuild Confidence,” I analyze the reasons behind this collapse in trust and explore potential solutions to restore it.
For the past 50 years, The Gallup Organization has been measuring public trust in key American institutions. Their latest survey conducted in July revealed that the average proportion of Americans with “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in these institutions was at an all-time low of 26%. In the 1970s, when Gallup first began tracking this data, the number was close to 50%. Only the military and small businesses have maintained the level of public trust they enjoyed decades ago, while other institutions have experienced a significant decline.
In the past two years, trust in various institutions such as the presidency, the criminal justice system, television news, newspapers, the Supreme Court, organized religion, Congress, the police, public schools, large technology companies, and big corporations has reached its lowest levels ever. The media has been particularly affected, with trust in newspapers dropping from over 50% in the 1970s to just 16% last year. Television news only garners trust from 11% of the population. Other surveys, such as those conducted by the Pew Research Center, the General Social Survey, and American National Election Studies, have also demonstrated declining levels of public trust in American institutions.
Even more concerning is the fact that Americans not only distrust their leaders and institutions but also each other. The proportion of individuals who believe that most people can be trusted has dropped from around half to less than a third in the last 50 years. This decline in social trust is detrimental to the cohesion of our society.
Some may argue that this decline in trust is solely the result of unscrupulous Republican politicians, right-wing media, former President Donald Trump, and social media spreading “misinformation.” While these factors have contributed to the erosion of trust in recent years, the problem runs deeper and predates Trump’s presidency. The heads of our leading institutions often deflect blame onto others and fail to acknowledge their own role in this crisis. Over the past decade, people have realized that they have been misled, lied to, and deceived by our leaders, leading to a loss of faith in these institutions.
Factors such as a media that promotes an ideological agenda, social media companies that suppress opposing views, universities and schools that restrict certain speakers and ideas, public health officials who exhibit double standards, corporations that prioritize foreign interests over American ones, and scientists who deny biological sex have further contributed to the decline in trust. Additionally, our institutions have exhibited poor performance over the years, being responsible for disastrous foreign wars, open borders, addiction epidemics, financial crises, corporate scandals, widening economic and social inequality, and privacy and mental health concerns. This, combined with a widening gap between the elite establishment and ordinary Americans, has led to a loss of faith in these leaders who control our institutions.
It’s time to transform these institutions and guide them back to pursuing the highest American values. This will be a long process, but by doing so, we can gradually rebuild trust and restore confidence in our leaders and institutions.