No one doubts that faith in government plummeted over the last several decades. What’s less well known is that Americans aren’t just turning their backs on Washington—they’ve lost confidence in institutions across the board. In 1979, 60 percent of Americans had a lot of confidence in banks or more—today that figure hovers around one in four. Faith in organized religion—which once hovered in mid 60s—has taken a 20 point hit over the last 40 years. And it doesn’t end there. Public schools, newspapers, and big businesses have all slipped down the same slide.
There’s a natural tendency to look inside each institution for a diagnosis of what’s wrong. Americans critique the government by blaming the filibuster, the gerrymander, and the outsized role of lobbyists, among other factors. The Big Short has reshaped perspectives on financial regulation. School failures are blamed on a whole range of problems. Rarely does anyone step back and ask if anything links each separate illustration. Could any single factor explain what appears to be a broad-based trend?
The failure to ask that question reflects a more fundamental misunderstanding. Americans tend to think of institutions as machines, capable of being tweaked like a mechanic tunes a car engine. But from another perspective, the big organizations in need of repair are something altogether different: They’re collections of very different people, operating under rules that can be hard to understand. The real issue isn’t just why Americans don’t trust “the government” or “big business.” It’s why Americans no longer feel comfortable trusting the faceless individuals inside those institutions. Why has the unfamiliar become strange—or worse?