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Crisis of confidence is widespread

It’s no secret that America is suffering a crisis of confidence. The breadth and depth of that crisis, however, is overwhelming. Attention has been focused on Congress’s low ratings, but Gallup reported this week that Americans were expressing “historic negativity” toward the U.S. government overall. Eighty-one percent are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed, nine points higher than the previous record during the Bush administration. From the mid-1980s through the spurt of post-9/11 unity, fewer than 40 percent were dissatisfied with our overall government. Now it’s more than twice that.

In the aggregate, Americans repose little confidence in the officials who populate our government. Through the 1970s, two-thirds expressed trust and confidence in those who held public office. That number too has receded to a record low, 45 percent.

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Lack of confidence is hardly confined to government and public officials. In the ’70s, about a third of Americans had confidence in big business — now it’s just 19 percent. In 1979, 60 percent expressed confidence in banks. Now it’s just 23 percent.

The media, too, have suffered in the public mind. Pew reports that in 1985, 55 percent thought news organizations got their facts straight — a number that has been cut by more than half. Over the same period, the number perceiving political bias in the media rose almost 20 points.

Yet declining confidence is hardly new. Already 35 years ago, the Trilateral Commission was so worried about the consequences of this affliction that it commissioned a special report titled “The Crisis of Democracy,” which concluded that the “lack of confidence in the functioning of the institutions of democratic government have thus now become widespread.” A few years later, President Carter made declining confidence the centerpiece of his now-famous “Malaise” speech.

In “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen lampooned romantic notions of earlier, golden ages — but there was a golden age of confidence. A former professor of mine, the late Robert Lane, wrote a pair of papers in the mid 1960s tracing rising confidence in institutions from the beginning of polling in the ’30s through the ’60s. Those years proved the high-water mark, though, as confidence eroded though the ’70s. As bad as things were in the ’70s, though, they are demonstrably worse today.

Any number of theories have been advanced purporting to explain the crisis of confidence, and most have proved wanting. 

Performance is likely the most important factor. When things are going well, Americans have confidence in their institutions. When politicians prove good stewards of the economy and employ wise modes of decisionmaking, confidence is greater. When the economy is in a shambles, when the far right regularly brings the federal government to the brink of closure, even default, and all the way to downgrade, it is difficult for citizens to blithely express confidence in their leaders or institutions. When banks cause financial meltdown, it’s hard to repose confidence in banks. When media outlets blatantly pursue a partisan agenda and ally themselves with movements and parties, it is reasonable for people to conclude they are biased.

Reality counts. A lot.

In my view, however, while objective indicia of performance are central, they are not the whole story. Though evidence is admittedly sparse, I can’t help but believe that the anti-government narratives of both left and right contribute to the crisis. Republicans are by nature anti-government, so their vision of government as picking your pocket and wasting your money furthers their ideological goals. 

By contrast, those on the left who raise money and issues by repeatedly bewailing the capture of government by special interests undermine confidence in government and do themselves no long-term favors.

Restoring confidence will require better outcomes, but also a commitment from leaders across the spectrum that they are willing to forgo short-term gain to rebuild the nation’s spirit.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).