In June, Gallup released a survey that got a fair bit of attention for its headline finding: Only 10 percent of Americans trust Congress as an institution. What didn’t get quite as much coverage was the fact that Congress was just one of 16 institutions whose public standing Gallup measured. Atop the list in Americans’ confidence was the military, followed by small business and the police.
The presidency enjoyed the confidence of only 36 percent of poll respondents. The Supreme Court stood at 34 percent, down three points from last year. Add in Congress, and these are deeply unsettling numbers. I suspect they stem from a broad perception of dysfunction and a deep distaste for the extreme politicization these institutions have displayed.
We’ve always looked on the Supreme Court as standing above politics, for instance. These days, however, the Court is seen as divided into political factions, with each trying to advance its own agenda. It is perceived less as an institution of law and more as a political institution. Congress and the presidency, of course, are political institutions. But every move politicians make today appears to be about “playing to the base” or putting the other side in an uncomfortable spot. Resolving problems doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.
Americans’ lack of confidence in their governing institutions makes correcting most any political or policy problem more difficult. The voters are less open to policy-making or reform, and politicians tend to back away from bold initiatives. The result is that only very modest efforts can be expected, reaffirming voters’ belief that government can’t be trusted to work and fueling political tensions that rise when problems remain unresolved.
It may be trite to say that “trust is the coin of the realm,” but it’s no less true for that. Without it, our institutions simply cannot be effective.
I don’t expect this recent poll to be seen as a wake-up call in Washington. Yet if members of Congress, the White House and even Supreme Court justices want Americans to treat them seriously — to listen to them, believe them and, above all, believe in the institutions they serve — then they won’t treat our declining confidence in them lightly. They have to invigorate their efforts to renew Americans’ trust. Because unless they can do that, it will get harder and harder for them to do their jobs.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.