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Gallup Podcast
The Crisis of Confidence in U.S. Institutions
Gallup Podcast

The Crisis of Confidence in U.S. Institutions

Public confidence in U.S. institutions is down to a new low in Gallup's trend spanning more than four decades. Which institutions have lost the most confidence -- and are there others that remain largely trusted by the public? Confidence in institutions is the "glue that keeps society together," says Gallup senior editor Jeff Jones, who joins the podcast to discuss the latest findings.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

For Gallup, I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. In this episode, we explore the current crisis in confidence in institutions across American public life. Dr. Jeff Jones is a senior editor at Gallup. Jeff, thanks for coming back on the show, sir.

Jeff Jones 00:24
Sure, my pleasure.

Mohamed Younis 00:26
There's really been a lot of reporting out there on our new record drop in confidence in institutions here in the U.S. Let me start, Jeff, by just asking, which institutions lost the most confidence recently? Let's start there.

Jeff Jones 00:39
Yeah, the two that have lost the most just in the past year -- so we're looking at 2022 compared to 2021 -- are the presidency, which is down 15 points from last year: 38% were confident In 2021 compared to 23% today. I think that largely reflects the decline in Joe Biden's approval rating. So when we did this poll a year ago, his approval ratings were good, in the 50s. Now he's in the low 40s. So it almost perfectly tracks the 15-point drop in confidence, exactly the drop that we've seen in his approval rating over that same time. So that pretty much reflects that.

Jeff Jones 01:21
The other big one was the Supreme Court, down 11 points from 36 to 25. So when we did this poll, it was before they released the Dobbs decision which overturned Roe v. Wade. We knew from other polling that that was not a decision that most Americans supported. And we saw this drop -- people knew the decision was coming, obviously, because of the leak of the draft opinion. But we had seen confidence in the Supreme Court decline even before the leak -- not quite the same measure, but we had asked about approval of the Supreme Court last September. This was about the time where they let the Texas law stand instead of, you know, stopping it from going into effect. And at that time, we saw a drop. So I think a lot of that is related to abortion decisions -- not just the Dobbs decision but ones around it.

Jeff Jones 02:13
And I think broader the bigger point you talked about -- the crisis of confidence -- we saw confidence in pretty much every institution drop this year. So none showed an improvement. There are some that showed like a modest drop that wasn't significant, but on average, across all the institutions that we tested in the survey, it was a drop of about 5 1/2 points for every institution. So not just the Supreme Court and the presidency driving this; it's pretty much almost across the board.

Mohamed Younis 02:42
A lot of the conversations I've been having around these data and this topic, at some point early in the discussion, somebody brings up Donald Trump and presents the question of how much of this lack of confidence or really decline in confidence in institution -- institutions in general can be tied back to the Trump campaign, where, you know, the ineptitude, if you will, of various institutions was often discussed and brought up and debated. Let me just ask you, Jeff: Does the data kind of indicate that this is because of Donald Trump?

Jeff Jones 03:15
I don't see Donald Trump being a big factor in this at all. The decline in confidence that we've seen, it predates Trump. So where we have been in confidence in the last really almost 15 years -- we kind of really saw it drop in 2007. That was when the average confidence across all the institutions we tested was 33, which, you know, at that time was a low. It went even lower in 2014. So that one was when Obama was in office; it was 30% that year. Now we're down to 27%, which is the worst that we've found. So when you talk about Trump, he certainly didn't do anything to restore confidence, but a lot of this stuff predated him. I don't think he made it worse necessarily; it's not really a Trump phenomenon. In fact, if you look at his last year in office, 2020, we saw average confidence go up. I don't know that he had much to do with that. It was really COVID related, because we saw big increases in confidence in the public schools, small businesses and the medical system -- you know, institutions that were really affected by the pandemic. So a lot of those institutions went up in 2020, came back down last year.

Jeff Jones 04:30
So to me, the bigger factor in the drop in confidence that we've seen this year in particular, but also past years, is just the economy. When the economy isn't good, people aren't in a good mood, I think it kind of reflects on, you know, their belief that institutions can fix some of the problems that we're facing. So I think that's why confidence is down this year. We saw a similar drop in the early '90s during a recession and also during the Great Recession and, you know, even coming out of that. So I think that's, you know, probably a bigger factor.

Mohamed Younis 05:06
Do you see any overall trends or similarities in the institutions that have actually done the worst? And I ask you this, Jeff, because one thing I've thought about noticed is the more the specific institutions on that list are brought into the national political conversation, the worse their confidence numbers seem to get. Is that a fair observation?

Jeff Jones 05:30
I think there's a lot of truth to that. I don't think it's necessarily, you know, you know, definitely something that has to happen that way, but it kind of has. So just to start, like the worst institution that we rate is Congress. And everybody has a low opinion of Congress. So that doesn't really, you know, that hasn't really come, become politicized because everybody just have, has a low opinion of Congress. But some of the ones that we've seen, what we've seen happen is it's become politicized. One group is kind of for the institution -- one political group, Republicans or Democrats, for it -- the other one kind of against it. Theoretically, you know, when we see that kind of split, one group could increase their confidence in the institution, the other group could go down. But typically what we see is one group going down and the other group kind of staying where it was. So that's pretty much what we saw with the Supreme Court this year, where Republicans could have been very happy about overturning Roe and some of the other decisions -- well, the decisions kind of came after that, but, you know, knowing that role was probably going to be overturned, could have been very happy with that, happy with a 6-3 conservative majority. But they're not really any more confident in the Supreme Court than they were. But we saw big declines among democrats and independents.

Jeff Jones 06:49
We also did a story recently on public schools; that's one that's become politicized. There, we see Confidence down among Republicans but not really changed among Democrats or independents. So, you know, because we're seeing one group go down, the other group staying the same, we see a decline overall. The presidency is kind of, it's become a lot more politicized, in terms of how confident people are in the institution as a whole. Like we talked about before, it's really tied to approval of the job the president is doing, but also what party the president is. So people who support the party, the opposition party, have very little confidence in the president. But, you know, supporters could have higher, but right now, you know, confidence is down across the board among all party groups in the presidency.

Mohamed Younis 07:42
It's amazing how some of the institutions are sort of very far removed from the average American's daily life, like the, you know, the Congress, the presidency. And others are really intimately tied to just community life, like police and the criminal justice system. How is the criminal justice system doing these days. Has it rebounded at all from the really bad summer the police and the criminal justice system had after the George Floyd murder? Where do they stand?

Jeff Jones 08:11
Well, the police, we've seen more movement on that. So after the George Floyd, it went down a lot; recovered some last year, but went down again this year. It's now at a low point -- confidence in police, historical low point. Criminal justice system, people have generally been pretty negative about that. So we haven't seen, you know, as much movement about that. It's kind of down almost where Congress is; is one of the lowest-rated institutions there. So that's one of these institutions that pretty much everybody has an issue with, and just, don't see much confidence, you know, from, from any subgroup in, in the criminal justice system these days.

Mohamed Younis 08:49
And again, it's just fascinating to think about the criminal justice system and its role in the public narrative, like when, when is the criminal justice system in the news? Usually there's a problem, something's wrong. And it is fascinating how some of these institutions just like kind of carry on, despite a really, really low perception of how they're doing from the public. Let me ask you, besides party ID, were there any sort of demographic differences, age differences, when it came to confidence in institutions overall? Like are young people more or less confident? Can we say that definitively?

Jeff Jones 09:30
On party, just, you know, it was kind of an important point; I don't know that we discussed it that much, but confidence in institutions -- if you're looking at all institutions overall, like an average across all the institutions -- it's down pretty much equally among all party groups. So, Republicans, down 4; Democrats, down 5; independents, down 6. So there could be a little variation in terms of, you know, bigger drops in confidence in some institutions than others. But if you look overall, it's pretty equal. So it's not just like Republicans are upset because Biden's in office and kind of taking it out; it's really across the board. Democrats are just as frustrated as Republicans are right now.

Jeff Jones 10:11
Age is one. If you look at age, you don't really see big differences by age group. I thought there was one where we might see some differences, and we have in the past. So what we're seeing there is that older Americans tended to have more confidence in institutions historically, and younger people -- especially, you know, 18- to 29-year-olds -- had less. So confidence among the younger people isn't changing that much, because they were already pretty low. But we're seeing the other age groups come down and getting closer to the younger people, so kind of the net result of that is we don't really see big age differences in confidence right now.

Mohamed Younis 10:51
Let's end by talking about those institutions that are doing pretty well, relatively speaking, to the list of 15 or 16 that we ask usually. What are the institutions at the top of the list? How are they doing? But more importantly, how have they been doing? In other words, are they holding their own, or are they just higher on a scale that's all kind of moving in the negative direction?

Jeff Jones 11:13
Yeah, the two that really stand out -- they're the only two that have majority confidence -- small business and the military. So 68% are confident in small business, 64% in the military. Both of them, though, have gone down a little bit in the past couple of years. So this year we saw a slight decline in ratings of the military. And we also saw a slight decline from 2020 to 2021. So it's down eight points now from where it was two years ago, the military. And then similarly, small business, I mentioned that there was a surge in confidence in small business in 2020. Most of that subsided last year, but, you know, there's a not-significant two-point decline this year in ratings of small business, so that too is down seven points from where it was a couple of years, years ago, which was the high point for that. So those two really stand out.

Jeff Jones 12:11
The military is kind of an interesting trend. When we started asking about confidence in institutions and added the military, it wasn't always one of the highest ones. Religion was one of the highest, and now religion has really come down as, you know, society has become less religious and obviously there's been some scandals as well involving, you know, the Catholic church and other religious institutions. So that used to be one of the higher ones; now, it's kind of middle of the pack. Military wasn't that high, but, you know, after 9/11, it became a lot more positive. And it's kind of stayed up there, not quite as high as it was after 9/11, but, you know, it's routinely one of the top institutions, along with small business.

Jeff Jones 12:55
Small business is not one that we've asked, you know, way back to the '70s, but when we've asked it, it's, you know, it's scored really well. And that contrasts with big business, which is another institution that we ask about. And that one -- maybe not surprisingly -- is usually near the bottom of the list. I guess, you know, people just have a much more positive opinion about small business; kind of probably think about it as, you know, people, you know, running a store in a local community, serving others, whereas big business, kind of maybe think about large corporations and profit motives and that sort of thing. So always a big gap between ratings of small versus big business.

Mohamed Younis 13:34
One thing that continues to kind of gnaw at my brain at night when I think about these numbers is, is it good or bad that they're so low? On the one hand, obviously it's not great that Americans don't have confidence in a lot of these institutions. On the other hand, to some degree, this is an indication that Americans are sort of identifying challenges with a lot of these institutions and expressing their discomfort with their performance. I don't know, how do you, how do you think about that, Jeff?

Jeff Jones 14:05
Well, I probably come down as it being more of a negative than a positive. If you think about the way, you know, our democracy works in society, institutions are, you know, part of the glue that kind of keeps society together. And it's important for people to have confidence in their elected officials. It's important for them to have confidence in the police and the criminal justice system. You know, it's such an important part of society to respect the rule of law and to know that, you know, if you're charged with a crime, if you're guilty, you'll serve time; if you're not guilty, you'll be exonerated. So I think that's important, definitely. And, you know, if there's a lack of it, you know, we kind of see it manifesting itself a little bit in federal elections too, where there's kind of been like, almost a seesawing between having one party in power, then not being happy with how they are performing. The other party gets in power, you know, for 2-4 years, then it switched again. We've seen so many changes in control of Congress in the last, going back to '94, whereas the prior, you know, 40 years, Democrats, you know, had the majority the whole time, and there wasn't, you know, these big swings in policy or membership that we see today.

Jeff Jones 15:20
And certainly we've had, you know, Donald Trump was a one-term president; you know, at this point, Joe Biden doesn't look like a very strong bet for a second term. So, you know, kind of back to where we were in the late '70s, where there was a lot of turnover, you know, in the presidency. And, you know, because back in the '70s, Democrats still had the majority, maybe policy, there's a little more continuity in policy, you know, than we're seeing now, where, you know, not only does the presidency change, but so does Congress. So, you know, there can be a lot of movement that way. So I definitely think that it would be better if people had more confidence in institutions than they do. It's understandable why they don't, but, you know, I think definitely, everything else being equal, we'd want people to be more confident.

Mohamed Younis 16:10
A healthier society is one that has higher confidence in institutions. On that note, Jeff Jones, senior editor at Gallup, thanks for being with us, Jeff.

Jeff Jones 16:19
Sure, no problem.

Mohamed Younis 16:20
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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