The last half century has been a period of great disillusionment. In the 1950s, the American people overwhelmingly trusted their government, their president, news sources, educational systems and basic American institutions from the Justice Department to the Department of Defense. Today, the American people are largely disaffected and cynical about those same institutions. A recent NBC News poll indicated that 74 percent of the American people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. According to Gallup, the American people’s general confidence in their national institutions is at an all-time low, averaging 27 percent, down from just under 50 percent in 1979.
In the past year alone, the people have reported significant losses in respect for 16 national institutions: The police have a 45 percent approval rating, down 6; the American health-care system 38 percent, down 6; organized religion 31 percent, down 6; public schools 28 percent, down 4; the Supreme Court 25 percent, down 11; the presidency, 23 percent, down 15; the criminal justice system 14 percent, down 6; television news 11 percent, down 5; and Congress, as usual at the bottom of the barrel, with only 7 percent approval, down 5. And yet the incumbency re-election rate for members of Congress is nearly 95 percent.
These institutions are the glue that holds our civilization together. Social cohesion starts with family and then widens out to include friends and associates, then community, then state, then nation and finally humankind. We cannot sort out our social relations (taxing ourselves to pay for services, defending the nation from its adversaries, settling disputes between individuals, etc.) without these institutions. If we don’t believe in them or if we view them with serious disillusionment, we cannot achieve what Thomas Jefferson called “that social harmony without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
It is clear that the American people are unhappy and convinced that the institutions that exist to coordinate our shared national destiny are no longer working. Our national political system is in a state of advanced paralysis. The culture wars (broadly defined) indicate that we are at the very least two nations now, urban blue and rural red, and neither grants much legitimacy to the other. You hear people saying, “I don’t want to live in Nancy Pelosi’s America” or “I don’t want to live in Donald Trump’s America.” And yet, at least for the foreseeable future, we have to share the continent.
This is all deeply troubling and it makes us wonder if a country so disjointed “can long endure.”
It’s hard to imagine how we recover from this national malaise. When your respect for Congress is less than 10 percent and your respect even for organized religion is lower than 35 percent, and you don’t trust the media to explain to you what exactly is going on, it would appear that things can get worse but not better. How do you rebuild public trust after it bottoms out? I suppose we all dream of a visionary Kennedyesque national leader who will emerge to remind us that perhaps we share more than we think, who could govern from the broad center and lift us to a new plateau of national confidence and satisfaction. But who thinks that possible in the third decade of the 21st century? And where are we to find this individual?
Maybe we need to be shocked into an understanding of what’s at stake and of our unique national prospects by a fundamental crisis — economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, war. My own Archimedean solution would be two years of national service (broadly defined) for all American young people, but though that idea is widely admired, it never seems to get much traction. Is it possible that if we lowered the political temperature just a bit that the approval ratings would creep up in the institutional categories? Is that our only hope now?
One way to look at this is through the lens of the Roman Republic, which broke down when its constitutional structure could no longer hold the burgeoning Roman world empire together. Perhaps we are just too vast and powerful a nation to pretend any longer that we can live under the strictures of an 18th-century national constitution, designed for men in wigs and tights who lived in a 3 mph world. Maybe we need to break up into two or three or four confederacies of like-minded people, while still agreeing to share a common currency and national defense policy. The best model we have for that is the European Union.
Has It Always Been This Way?
There are several ways to think about the cascade of disillusionment. Perhaps things have always been this way and we just know more about our public institutions now given greater transparency and the hyper-media of our time. When I was growing up in that simpler America, there were only three television networks and you had to get up to change the channel. Eric Sevareid and John Chancellor were our two national television pundits. Everyone watched “Bonanza” and “Get Smart.” We weren’t “wired” then and now we are. There has been a revolutionary fracturing of our popular culture. Given the myriad of cultural possibilities not just per week but per hour, no single television series, whether “The West Wing” or “Yellowstone,” now commands a sufficiently broad market share to enable a cohesive national cultural dialogue.
In POTUS We Trust — A behind the scenes look at the thinking and feeling behind the creation of the character at the center of “The West Wing.”
Processing our national experience through the lens of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Three’s Company” may have been silly and delimiting (in retrospect), but it meant that we were all, or mostly all, talking about the same things at the water cooler. I try to think of Chappaquiddick in the age of the Fox News Channel, or Mỹ Lai in the age of MSNBC. And I shudder.
The opening sequence of “The Andy Griffith Show,” much watched and much loved by a trusting American public at the time.
Because we are now in touch with so much information and news, our cynicism and disillusionment may not be irrational. We were perhaps naive then and we are not naive now. Let’s review.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz goes on a family vacation in Cancun during a statewide winter storm that left tens of thousands of Texans huddled under blankets without power or heat. His logic? “With school canceled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends. Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night.” His career was not damaged.
The only thing more troubling than Georgia Sen. David Perdue’s use of insider trading tips to enrich himself just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to shut down the nation’s economy is that the Senate Ethics Committee quickly dropped its investigation into his investment practices. We are now so remote from the idea that a public official must be more virtuous than Caesar’s wife that almost nothing — including undeniable conflict of interest — brings retribution or even accountability to our congressmen and women.
If this doesn’t make you cynical, what will? It was Mark Twain who said, “There is no distinctively native American criminal class except Congress.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appears to have been caught flat-footed by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, I had always seen the CDC as one of our premier nonpartisan science entities. The mixed messaging of the CDC enabled millions of “don’t tread on me” Americans to defy mask orders and recommendations, and to declare that they had no confidence in government epidemiologists
The ubiquity of smartphone cameras and police body cams has brought to public attention hundreds of examples of police misconduct in recent years. Before those cameras were in place, such abuses of police power surely occurred, but without the kind of scrutiny that is now unavoidable. In the long run, universal surveillance will probably force the nation’s cops to be more careful and humane in their conduct. It may well be that there is substantially less police misconduct now than in previous decades, but the video records, especially when taken out of context, present to the public a very troubling picture of systemic abuse. The George Floyd murder in May 2020 shocked the nation into one of its periodic national conversations about race. But it has not stopped the abuse.
The Senate Church Committee in 1975 investigated abuses in the CIA, the Natural Security Agency, the FBI and the IRS. The record of violence, extra-constitutionalism, meddling in and destabilizing foreign governments and outright assassinations, was a shocking revelation of all that does not make it into a civics textbook. More recently, the CIA failed to warn the U.S. government of the imminent Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Our intelligence agencies mistakenly concluded that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction that represented a clear and present danger to the United States and the world. They were wrong. They may have been willfully wrong. What followed was a $5 trillion catastrophe in the Middle East.
We need to remember that the FBI has a long and not altogether admirable history. J. Edgar Hoover presided for 48 years over a bureau that was often out of control, at odds with the Bill of Rights and minimally supervised by Congress. Remember that Hoover collected intimate audio tapes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s extramarital affairs and used them to blackmail him.
James Comey’s public comments before the 2016 election discredited him and may have affected the election results. On July 5, 2016, Comey broke agency protocol to announce the FBI’s recommendation that the Department of Justice file no criminal charges relating to Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified documents. Comey called Secretary Clinton’s and her top aides’ behavior “extremely careless,” but concluded that “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.” Three months later, just days before the 2016 election, he announced that he was reopening the case in light of recent developments.
The Supreme Court:
The current slide began on Dec. 12, 2000, when the court voted 5-4 along strict party lines to stop the Florida recount and declare George W. Bush president. Justice Antonin Scalia (a Reagan appointee) said continuing the recount might bring “irreparable harm” to the legitimacy of Bush. In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens declared, “counting every legally cast vote cannot constitute irreparable harm.”
A New York Times documentary on Bush v. Gore, the election count that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
More recently, the Dobbs decision (June 2022) overturning Roe v. Wade struck many court watchers as a naked political (rather than constitutional) decision.
The sexual predation scandals in the Catholic Church have been seemingly endless. Every time it seems as if the church has weeded out the worst offenders and paid off the victims, another round of horrifying revelations sweeps America. More recently, the Southern Baptists have acknowledged a widespread pattern of sexual misconduct in their ranks. A recent report found that since 1998, approximately 380 clergy, lay leaders, and volunteers had been accused of misconduct involving more than 700 victims.
The Post Office:
The American people have had a jaundiced view of the U.S. Postal Service for a long time, but it wasn’t until the 2020 election that they faced the possibility that the post office was being used for partisan purposes. The withdrawal of hundreds of blue post boxes across America and the early retirement of dozens of high-tech sorting machines hearkened back to the 19th century, when the post office was the most corrupt entity in the U.S. government.
This list could be extended to truly depressing dimensions.
Corrosion from Above:
It is important to acknowledge that the decline in respect for our institutions and for government is not based solely on citizens’ observations and experiences. Our national leaders, particularly angry Republicans, have spent much of the last 50 years denouncing government and blaming government agencies and bureaucrats for the nation’s ills. The general attack on government may be said to date from the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It was President Reagan who said, “The top nine most terrifying words in the English Language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Fighting for his political survival in the face of the 1994 Contract with America, President Clinton said, “The era of big government is over.”
Beginning with the Gingrich insurgency in 1994 and taking on more aggression in the politics of the Tea Party and more recently the Freedom Caucus, Republican anti-government conservatives have made their way to Washington, D.C., with the express purpose of dismantling parts of the national government.
The Trump presidency was particularly corrosive. If the most powerful man in the United States repeats over and over again that the media is “the enemy of the people,” that the Department of Justice, the CIA, the FBI, the national security apparatus and the court system cannot be trusted and do not work for the benefit of the American people, that nihilistic message is going to influence the thinking of millions of people who look to their national leader for insights.
A nation is held together by shared purpose and shared values. We may disagree about policy and the priorities of government, but we need to be able to agree that elections are fair and decisive, that power should be transferred as responsibly as possible, that government agencies do their work within their constitutional and legislative lanes, that our institutions perform a positive role in coordinating our national life, that nobody is above the law, and that what might be called constitutional “norms” are as important as specific constitutional articles. When this civitas or “civic religion” unites the American people in a common purpose with a common set of values, extraordinary things can happen. When it breaks down as is now the case, the result is fractionalization, mutual distrust, political warfare, perhaps even a cold civil war.
Just how we are going to dig out from this?
That we need to find a positive path forward is a matter of great national urgency. It may begin with civil service reform. It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” What we need, he said, “is a few plain duties performed by a few honest men.”
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.