Culture, Issue: Trust
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Why Don’t We Trust the Institutions We Create?

(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)

In June of 2017, the Gallup organization conducted its “CONFIDENCE IN INSTITUTIONS” poll, which it has been conducting pretty much every year since 1973.

And this year, despite what you might expect would be some sort of pre-apocalyptic low water mark in America’s trust in institutions, our trust in general went up. Specifically, it went up 3 percent. The poll measures confidence in 14 major public institutions — from public schools to banks to labor unions to the Supreme Court to police to big business to small business to newspapers to television news to churches to the military to the medical system and, yes, measuring trust in Congress and the presidency as well. The fine people at Gallup found that in 2016 just 32 percent of the American people on average said they trusted these institutions. A year later — this is THIS YEAR — we now trust these institutions 3 percent more or a WHOPPING 35 percent.

Now, you may be thinking — as I was when I encountered this data — that WHOA, that 35 percent is still abysmally non-trusting, that this must represent some ridiculous historic low. But alas, since Gallup has been polling about trust in these 14 institutions since 1993, the highest average confidence registered was just 43 percent. In other words, 35 percent isn’t some ridiculously low number but sort of in the usual range. In fact, the historical average is 37 percent.

I actually looked up the definition of trust to make sure I knew what I was talking about here, and the Oxford English Dictionary says trust is the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” Confidence, which is actually what the Gallup poll asked about, is a lower bar, technically speaking. The Oxford English Dictionary says confidence is “the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.” Trust has even more certainty — it’s a firm belief.

The way the Gallup poll was introduced to participants was: “I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one.” But here’s the thing: The 37 percent historical average of trust in these 14 institutions is actually a bunch of different numbers factored in together. I know, I know — that’s how averages work. But what I think is important to understand here is that we don’t feel the same way about all institutions. Some of them we REALLY trust. And some of them we REALLY don’t.

Specifically, in June of 2017, our collective confidence in the United States Congress is 12 percent. Our confidence in big business is 21 percent. Our confidence in newspapers and television news are both below average. And our confidence in news on the internet in 2017 — the first year that question has been asked — is 16 percent.

And, incidentally, our confidence in the presidency is 32 percent. I actually can’t believe it’s that high, though that’s a 4-point drop from before the 2016 election and is still below average.

[pullquote]And, honestly, I think trust in Internet news should be, like, in the negative percentile. [/pullquote]

So what’s at the other end of the scale? What institutions do we have extra trust in? What institutions do we, the American people, have confidence in? The big one is the military with 72 percent in confidence. The second biggest, 57 percent — or still more than half — is the police. Americans ON AVERAGE trust the police. We also, relatively speaking, have higher than average confidence in the Supreme Court and in churches.

In the middle is everything else, like public schools and banks and the medical system.

So here’s why this blows me away and reveals, I think, a fundamental irony about the American psyche today that troubles me deeply: We don’t trust Congress and the president, the institutions of authority in America that we have a direct say in. That’s fair — though perhaps maybe reflects some dark distrust in ourselves and our own judgment. But overall, we can think of that lack of trust as the kind of healthy skepticism of which accountability is born and that hopefully our concerns make us pay more attention.

But the institutions at the top of the trust scale also have authority over us, without any mechanisms of accountability. We don’t elect the Supreme Court. We don’t vote for the military or, for the most part, police. And yet they have equal-if-not-greater authority over our day-to-day lives than Congress and the Presidency. Why do we automatically trust them? You’d think by actually participating in a piece of the process of who gets into Congress and the White House, we’d then trust those institutions more. Whereas the big powerful institutions we have no say in would be met with our skepticism. But instead, we trust them MORE?

Okay, now there are two ways to go with this argument. On the one hand, we could argue that we, the American people, born of political ancestors whose skepticism and lack of trust in institutions literally birthed our nation, shouldn’t trust ANY institutions AT ALL. And that’s fair. In this context, it’s not surprising that we only have 12 percent confidence in Congress. It’s surprising that we don’t have 12 percent confidence in ALL institutions.

But the other way to go is to note that this isn’t some natural result of our historical DNA but rather a recent phenomenon resulting from strategic attacks on government. While today just 12 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress, in 1973 that number was 42 percent! What happened between then and now is that there was a coordinated attack on our trust in government to make us extra critical and even suspicious of the very nature of a centralized government PRECISELY at the time that government was FINALLY starting to do things for women and people of color and immigrants and the poor. And even those of us who supposedly like these things have also bought into the critique of government — otherwise those current numbers wouldn’t be so low.

But okay, even still, why aren’t we more skeptical of the military and police and Supreme Court — institutions of power that operate largely outside structures of direct accountability and transparency?

That’s where the final leg of the stool comes in: We also don’t trust the news media, our only other venue for information about those institutions.

Seventy-two percent trust in the military, 57 percent confidence in police, 41 percent confidence in religious institution and 40 percent confidence in the Supreme Court AT THE SAME TIME AS 27 percent trust in newspapers, 24 percent trust in television news and 16 percent trust in internet news is a recipe for those powerful institutions to act with impunity and abuse their power without anyone watching or anyone trusting the news sources that ARE watching.

Now here’s the thing — I understand why trust in Congress and the various news media is low. I definitely understand why trust in the Presidency is low! And, honestly, I think trust in Internet news should be, like, in the negative percentile. We need to figure out, and fast, ways to distinguish credible news sources online from garbage conspiracy theory fear-mongering Russia hack sites so that the American people can actually trust that what they’re reading online is credible and accurate.

But at the same time, how did the military get such a trustworthy track record? I still remember them lying about weapons of mass destruction and drone strikes and covering up sexual assaults and Abu Ghraib. And the police — I get it that white folks don’t regularly experience police abuse, but even those of us with our heads up our asses are learning more and more every day about the reality of how police in the United States systematically profile and penalize people of color, often with deadly results. But we trust cops more than public schools or religious institutions?!?!

Trust and confidence are social constructs. And, in this context, they are not fixed notions attached to fixed institutions, but rather subject to our will and whims. In 1973, our collective confidence in religious institutions was 24 points higher and our confidence in Congress was 30 points higher. And in 1973, our trust in the military was 14 points lower — and then dipped lower still in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. We’d learned what horrible things powerful, unaccountable institutions could do and developed a healthy skepticism.

I would like to see the American people trust our elected leaders and institutions more — I’d also like us to elect people who EARN our trust. But at the same time, I’d like to see us trust some of our institutions less — especially the ones that, in the absence of our collective scrutiny, are doing so many so much harm. Those institutions aren’t just abusing their power — they’re abusing OUR TRUST. The response — the response of all of us — should be to trust them less and scrutinize them more.

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