Polling by Gallup shows that since June 2009, in the heyday of the new Obama presidency, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspapers, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, the medical system, the criminal justice system and small business.And where does that leave us? I suppose an optimist might answer, "nowhere to go but up." But I can't see why things are likely to get better soon, because all of these problems undercut each other. I think most American police forces could use major reforms, and the public is coming around to my view, but who will carry out those reforms when people have even less confidence in politicians and judges than they do in the police? Public disgust with political deadlock feeds angry cynicism, which leads to the election of angry obstructionists like Ted Cruz, which leads to yet more deadlock. I think middle class stagnation and ever increasing inequality are at the root of all of this, but I also think that only dramatic government action has a chance of reversing those trends, and I doubt our divided, cynical country will ever find the nerve for dramatic action.
The only institutions that Gallup tested that showed slight improvement from June 2009 to June 2014 were banks, organized labor, big business and health maintenance organizations. Even so, all four of them had the confidence of just roughly a quarter of the population or less.
One of the issues I follow most closely is public confidence in science, which is very shaky. This has something to do with big fights over evolution and climate change, but it is also fed by whipsawing advice about diet and health, contradictory theories about obscure entities like dark matter, decades of false promises about fusion and solar power, and so on. All the incentives are for scientists to trumpet their findings with the biggest available microphone, no matter how dubious, but every time those confident pronouncements are called into question, people's confidence in science is sapped.
Maybe this is all overblown and the numbers will turn around when the economy picks up real steam, but I worry that the decay of confidence in our democracy points in very bad directions.