Losing Confidence: Americans and Social Institutions
Do you feel less confidence in the government? In corporations? In the press?
If so, your feelings reflect a general trend found in the most recent data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative household survey taken every other year of American attitudes on a variety of issues. Since 1973 the survey has asked respondents how much confidence they have in a variety of American social institutions. Their 2008 survey results suggest that the public has less confidence in every major social institution (except the military) compared with 2006.
Looking at year-to-year trends might not tell us very much, but if we examine the more than 35 years of data we can see some interesting patterns and think about why Americans might have less faith in various institutions.
Our declining confidence in the news media is rather clear in the graph below. For the past fifteen years, the percentage of people having a great deal of confidence has hovered at or below just ten percent. There are likely many reasons for this, but I suspect that the blending of opinion with reporting—especially on cable news—is partly responsible. If “the news” seems to just be someone’s opinion, especially if it is constructed to influence our political views in one direction or other, we might be less likely to see the press as a reliable source of information. As I blogged about last year, journalism as an industry is in danger, and this loss of confidence is likely a big part of the reason.
By contrast, far more people reported a great deal of confidence in the press in the mid-1970s, in the years following the Watergate scandal and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon. Investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of what seemed like a minor burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and continued to pursue the story, revealing a major cover-up.
Not surprisingly, these revelations led to a sharp decline in those who felt a great deal of confidence in the executive branch of the federal government, from 29 percent in 1973 to 14 percent in 1974, as you can see in the graph below. Unlike confidence in the press, confidence in the executive branch of government—which mostly refers to the president—has had many peaks and valleys in the last few decades. Confidence can rise and fall rather quickly.
Most recently, we can see that close to 28 percent felt a great deal of confidence in 2002, just following the terrorist attacks in 2001. But that number fell to 11 percent in 2008, as President George W. Bush’s approval ratings sunk and the economy fell into recession.
Not surprisingly, with news of the collapse of the financial and automotive industries, confidence in major companies fell to the lowest point in General Social Survey history: from a high of 32 percent in 1974, 1984, and 1987 to 16 percent in 2008.
This is a meaningful decline. President Calvin Coolidge famously said that “the business of America is business”. For the past several decades American confidence in business largely reflected this sentiment, that major companies would lead us towards prosperity and opportunity. Scandals in recent years, such as Enron’s massive fraud in the energy market, led to declines in confidence after the financial boom of the 1990s.
These are just a few institutions with declining American confidence, according to the General Social Survey. Medicine, science, and religion are some of the many other institutions that Americans feel less confident about. What does this loss of confidence mean in the grand scheme of things?
It’s possible that mistrust of several major institutions can impact the way we view other institutions, even if there has been no significant reason to doubt them. For instance, despite the advice of public health officials, a large proportion of the population reports that they don't want to be vaccinated for the H1N1 virus. Some just aren’t interested, but others don't trust government officials; some even view calls to get vaccinated as a government conspiracy for control or profit.
When major institutions lose their legitimacy with a large proportion of the public, people are likely to disengage from these institutions, and maybe even ignore important information they provide. What sociological theories do you think might explain why Americans seem to trust social institutions less?