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Has the U.S. motto become ‘In Nothing We Trust’?

February 5, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
Only 19 percent of American trust the government to do the right thing most of the time, according to a recent Pew Research poll, down from 77 percent in 1964. This lack of trust isn’t limited to the government -- Americans today distrust everything from churches to public schools. Journalist Jeff Greenfield offers an essay on how we became a nation of doubters.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we pause for a PBS NewsHour essay.

Jeff Greenfield is a seasoned political journalist and author, and he shares his belief about the end of trust by Americans in this country’s institutions.

Greenfield has titled his essay “In Nothing We Trust.”

JEFF GREENFIELD, Journalist: It’s not exactly breaking news that we’re entering this political high season in the winter of our discontent.

The polls and the political rhetoric speak to a mood of anger, distrust, even outright betrayal. But take a look beyond the political realm, and you will find something that runs longer than the current campaign, and deeper than politics.

The unhappy fact is that Americans’ trust in just about all our institutions has been in a long, almost unbroken decline. Our trust in government? A Pew Research poll last November found that only 19 percent of us trusted the government to do what was right all or most of the time. That’s close to an historic low.

But the real story here is how long that distrust has been festering. Go back to 1964, when the U.S. was in the midst of a long period of economic growth, when the Cold War was easing, when a major civil rights bill had just been passed.

Back then, 77 percent trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. A decade later, after a divisive war, racial and generational unrest, a president driven from office in scandal, the number had dropped to 36 percent. And in the four decades since, it has never hit 50 percent, not even in the surge of patriotism after 9/11.

That’s about 40 years’ worth of alienation from the government of, by and for people.

Well, OK, but that’s the government. We are a nation born in revolt, with a permanent skepticism about our leaders. But now look at our feelings about other major institutions, and the picture, painted by a series of Gallup surveys going back decades, finds a disturbingly similar pattern.

Our churches? Two-thirds of us had a lot of trust in our religious institutions back in 1973. Now barely 42 percent do. Banks? Trust has gone from 60 percent back in 1979 to 28 percent now. Our public schools? More than half were trusting at the end of the ’70s. Barely three in 10 are today.

Organized labor? Big business? The medical system? The presidency? All get low grades. And before you ask, 21 percent profess a lot of faith in television news, less than half the percentage that did so little more than 20 years ago.

Other than the military, the police, and small business, no institution commands the trust of a majority of us, and even those are less trusted than they once were.

Well, the question is, why? One obvious answer, there’s good reason for this mistrust. How confident should we be in banks after the financial meltdown, in our public schools, given the woeful marks our students get compared with other nations, in our religious leaders, given the criminal sexual behavior of those who’ve spoken in God’s name?

But we’re also living in a less innocent time. The press was strictly controlled in World War II. The failures, strategic and moral, in places like Iraq, are on full display. The private lives of politicians, once carefully concealed, are now matters of public speculation.

Movies that celebrated heroes of the church or finance now tell very different stories of greed and sin. And the media messengers who show us the feet of clay on those that stand on the pedestals, well, they are increasingly seen as carriers of a partisan agenda, or guilty of their own failures.

But, deserved or not, the lengthy disaffection that so many feel about so many important parts of our national life clearly puts a heavy burden on anyone asking for the trust of the citizenry. It may, indeed, reward those who seek power, not by offering to ease that disaffection, but to feed it.

And it’s worth asking, how does a nation thrive when, year after year, our motto is, in nothing we trust?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can find more of our essays online at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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