How Americans Lost Trust in Our Greatest Institutions

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It's not just Washington. Across the country, citizens' faith in their city halls, newspapers, and churches is fading.

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MUNCIE, Ind. -- Johnny Whitmire shuts off his lawn mower and takes a long draw from a water bottle. He sloshes the liquid from cheek to cheek and squirts it between his work boots. He is sweating through his white T-shirt. His jeans are dirty. His middle-aged back hurts like hell. But the calf-high grass is cut, and the weeds are tamed at 1900 W. 10th St., a house that Whitmire and his family once called home. "I've decided to keep the place up," he says, "because I hope to buy it back from the bank."

Whitmire tells a familiar story of how public and private institutions derailed an American's dream: In 2000, he bought the $40,000 house with no money down and a $620 monthly mortgage. He made every payment. Then, in the fall of 2010, his partially disabled wife lost her state job. "Governor [Mitch] Daniels slashed the budget, and they looked for any excuse to squeeze people out," Whitmire says. "We got lost in that shuffle -- cut adrift." The Whitmires couldn't make their payments anymore.

They applied for a trial loan-modification through an Obama administration program, and when it was granted, their monthly bill fell to $473.87. But, like nearly a million others, the modification was canceled. After charging the lower rate for three months, their mortgage lender reinstated the higher fee and billed the family $1,878.88 in back payments. Whitmire didn't have that kind of cash and couldn't get it, so he and his wife filed for bankruptcy. His attorney advised him to live in the house until the bank foreclosed, but "I don't believe in a free lunch," Whitmire says. He moved out, leaving the keys on the kitchen table. "I thought the bank should have them."

A year later, City Hall sent him salt for his wounds: a $300 citation for tall grass at 1900 W. 10th St. Telling the story, he swipes dried grass from his jeans and shakes his head. "The city dinged me for tall weeds at my bank's house." After another pull from the water bottle, Whitmire kicks a steel-toed boot into the ground he once owned. "You can't trust anybody or anything anymore."

Whitmire is an angry man. He is among a group of voters most skeptical of President Obama: non-college-educated white males. He feels betrayed -- not just by Obama, who won his vote in 2008, but by the institutions that were supposed to protect him: his state, which laid off his wife; his government in Washington, which couldn't rescue homeowners who had played by the rules; his bank, which failed to walk him through the correct paperwork or warn him about a potential mortgage hike; his city, which penalized him for somebody else's error; and even his employer, a construction company he likes even though he got laid off. "I was middle class for 10 years, but it's done," Whitmire says. "I've lost my home. I live in a trailer now because of a mortgage company and an incompetent government."

Whitmire is a story of Muncie, and Muncie is the story of America. In this place -- dubbed "Middletown" by early 20th-century sociologists -- people have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It's not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clichés oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation's onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.

Knock around Muncie for proof: City Hall, like Washington, is petty and polarized, driving down voter engagement. Stodgy mainline churches are losing worshipers in droves. Low-tech and unruly public schools are prompting parents to pull their children out. The city's once-beloved business class shuttered its factories, leaving a legacy of double-digit unemployment and helplessness. Labor unions once credited with creating the middle class are now often blamed for the demise of industry. Even The Star Press, Muncie's daily newspaper once venerated for holding locals to account, was gutted after a job-killing merger in 1996 and the sale, a few years later, to media giant Gannett.

Muncie is a microcosm of a nation whose motto could be, "In Nothing We Trust." Seven in 10 Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track; eight in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Only 23 percent have confidence in banks, and just 19 percent have confidence in big business. Less than half the population expresses "a great deal" of confidence in the public-school system or organized religion.

"We have lost our gods," says Laura Hansen, an assistant professor of sociology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. "We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can't point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians' lives. We've lost it -- that basic sense of trust and confidence -- in everything."

We've been through this before, and Muncie is again instructive. Nearly nine decades ago, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd moved here to document the transition away from an agrarian economy. Americans were battered by unbridled commercialism, stymied by an incompetent government beholden to special interests, and flustered by new technologies and new media. The Lynds found a loss of faith in social institutions.

But, somehow, institutions adapted or gave way to vibrant new ones. The Catholic Church took on poverty, illness, and illiteracy. The Progressive movement, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, grappled with the social costs of modernization and equipped the government to offset them. Labor unions reined in the corporate excesses of the new economy. Fraternal organizations, a new concept, gave people a sense of community that was lost when knitting circles and barn-raisings died out.

Perhaps the problem is merely cyclical. "To a degree unlike any time since the Lynds' time, we've lost trust in one another and the institutions that are supposed to hold us together," says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University here. Yet unlike that earlier era, vibrant new institutions are not generally springing up to replace the old ones. And even when they do, they don't always restore Americans' faith in institutions and each other. Schools are worsening (especially relative to competitors abroad); politicians are limited to small-bore, partisan measures; and corporations' power over people like Johnny Whitmire is rising. What if, this time, institutions don't recover -- and our faith dies with them?

Yes, frustrated citizens have tried to fill the vacuum. Like-minded "followers" and "friends" feed us news online; people sometimes barter on eBay rather than bow to big corporations; and parents increasingly homeschool their children rather than expose them to failing public schools and unsafe streets. But this is coping, not institutional adaptation. And sociologists say we need the control that institutions provide: It's how things get done.

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Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton

Ron Fournier is editor-in-chief of National Journal. Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter (politics) for National Journal.

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