Michael Smerconish joins the podcast to discuss the record-low confidence Americans have in U.S. institutions. Is distrust an American norm? “We’re about to enter a period of the greatest stress test in my life of our most important institution,” says Smerconish.
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Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:11
For Gallup, I’m Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we continue our deliberations on record-low trust in national institutions. Joining us is Michael Smerconish. Michael is a radio host and television presenter, a lawyer by training, and a former fed himself, when he served as Housing and Urban Development agency under President Bush -- I want to ask you about that -- but Michael, welcome to the podcast!
Michael Smerconish 00:36
Mohamed, it's nice to be on your podcast because you have on multiple occasions been an excellent radio guest and CNN guest of mine. So I'm not gonna meet your bar, but it's, it's nice to be in a reverse position.
Mohamed Younis 00:50
Oh, man, the pressure is on! So, as you know, Michael, I asked you to come and talk about one of the easiest subjects to talk about -- saying that sarcastically -- which is these record-low public trust in national institutions. And as you know, Michael, it really runs the gamut from the military to big business to the three branches of government. It's pretty bad across the board. I just want to ask you, as we get started, Michael, you've studied these numbers. Did anything surprise you at all this year in the numbers?
Michael Smerconish 01:18
No. Nothing surprised me. I did look at, at all of them. I looked at the measurements for police and for court and for Congress and for corporations and so forth, and none of it surprises me. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t depress the hell out of me, but it doesn’t surprise me, because I think it’s just typical of the world in which we live, driven by such partisanship.
Mohamed Younis 01:40
I knew that was where we were gonna start. And this is why I wanted to kind of throw a curveball. Is there a place, Michael, for the argument that distrust of institutions is a fundamentally American norm? That Americans by nature are distrusting of authority, and in a free society, it's not the worst thing in the world that people don't have this fealty and trust, blind trust to these powerful institutions? Is there a place for that?
Michael Smerconish 02:07
I guess I get the argument that it's part of our nature. After all, maybe it speaks to the way and the reason for which we were founded. There's nothing wrong with questioning authority. I think that's healthy. There's nothing wrong with a citizenry demanding answers of government at all levels. But we're beyond that now, where instead, there are these aggressive efforts underway at all levels to undermine authority, and without foundational fact. And we question things that are readily able to be proven otherwise. So I get the argument that says it's, it's a good thing when we're a curious citizenry, but that's not what we're talking about now.
Mohamed Younis 02:52
I couldn't agree more. We're at, we're way beyond that point, and the data really show that. I mean, this is not a new, sudden drop. This has really been building, and it's gotten to a point now where maybe it was kind of interesting and funny in the beginning, and now really, whether you care about the subject or not, you know, it's pretty clear that a lot of the challenges our institutions face are tripping up Americans in everyday life all around us. You mentioned partisanship, and obviously, we are living in a heightened partisan era in American politics -- the data show that. Is there something more, though, to that than, than just partisanship? When you have seven in 10, eight in 10 people in the country not having confidence, can we still blame just partisanship?
Michael Smerconish 03:36
Well, I think it's a complicated picture, and I think that there are many reasons that drive the partisanship. But I think the partisanship of being so at one another in opposition is something that's transpired in the last three decades -- the same time period where I'll bet your data shows this continuing divide and undermining of trust in institutions. It's also the time period for which I've been paying close attention. I really cut my teeth and politically came of age in the 1980 presidential election, which is when I first turned 18 and was able to vote. And I've gone back and have looked at the way things were then and the way things are today, and I think that there are a number of things that have driven us apart, and they include gerrymandering; and they include closed primaries; and they include the lack of campaign finance reform and probably half a dozen other things.
Michael Smerconish 04:30
But at the top of my list, I have to say, it's the media influence and the way that the rise of a polarized media coincides with a polarized Washington or any other state capital. I don't see correlation in those numbers; I see causation. And I think that the partisan media outlets today are having undue influence over the populace. A great example that happens to be unfolding as you and I are speaking is the fact that we now know that former President Trump has received a target letter and likely will be indicted yet again by the feds. To me, that's a big story, the kind that warrants coverage on cable outlets with chyron treatment at the bottom, explaining to the audience what's just transpired. And yet in the immediate aftermath of that story breaking, one outlet in particular was instead doubling down on its Hunter Biden coverage. Well, the people who go to that outlet are just not going to be informed as to the facts of that breaking story. And it just speaks to the way in which so many of us are living today in silos and are not getting our news and information the healthy way, which I think is from a whole variety of sources.
Mohamed Younis 05:47
What is the big shift that you want to see here in the country, that you think would have the greatest impact on people regaining trust in some of these institutions? If I were to guess your answer, Michael, it sounds like the media -- it sounds like news -- is kind of a really critical piece. It’s hard for me to imagine how the public can regain trust in institutions that the news is supposed to be holding accountable, without first having trust in that overseer. Without trust in news, can we get to trust in any of these other institutions?
Michael Smerconish 06:16
Well, so my, my prescription -- which, which I, I can easily identify but how we carry it out, I'm not sure -- people need a mixed media diet. We don't even have common experience anymore. If someone, Mohamed says to you, “Hey, there's a, there's a great television program. Have you seen the Joan Is Awful episode on ‘Black Mirror’?” Well, maybe actually because of the, the, the writers’ strike, people would know what I'm talking about. But it used to be that someone would recommend a “Seinfeld” episode, and you'd be like, “Yeah, I saw it.” We don't even watch the same shows anymore -- so disparate are our interests. And, and the technology is such that you can go in a whole different set of directions. We don't have common experience is what I'm trying to say. So I am for a mixed-media diet; not going to bed until you know, not only what CNN thinks is most in your interest to be aware of, but Fox and MSNBC as well. Use that clicker and get your information from all different sources. It's the reason why my passion project is my daily newsletter, because I hand-select 20 different links from different sources. And people tell me what they most enjoy doing is scrolling my news feed in the morning just to get a nice balanced media diet.
Michael Smerconish 07:33
But the, the other part of this -- because it's not just in our media choices that we're going in different directions; it's also that we lack common experience in life. Instead, we're all living in our own little clustered world, maybe with people who look like we look, who earn what we earn, whose kids go to the same schools, for better or worse. And there is a self-sorting taking place that is alarming. It's been written about by people like Bob Putnam in Bowling Alone or Bill Bishop in The Big Sort or Charles Murray in Coming Apart. It's been, I think, exhibited in or evidenced in -- here's one illustration of what I'm talking about, and then I'll get off my horse.
Michael Smerconish 08:16
Everybody knows the problem that we face with gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the redrawing of legislative boundary lines after the census is taken every 10 years. But beyond gerrymandering, which is when the politicians tell us, you know, what our representatives will be, or those who hold the pen, we are choosing to associate and even live with the like-minded. There are roughly 3,000 counties in the United States. And if I define a “blowout county” by a county won by 20 or more points, if you go to the 1980 election, out of 3,000 -- I'm doing this from memory, but I think I'll get it right -- out of 3,000 counties in the United States, just under 400 of them were blowout counties. If you fast-forward to the 2020 election, it's like 1,700 of them are blowout counties. Well, wait a minute. We didn't redraw county boundary lines. So, like, what the hell is going on there, where now you could color-code the counties of like the whole country and figure out who's gonna carry that county. So there's a problem here. I don't know. Are we, are we moving into areas where we know the politics? Is it osmosis when you're there, and the majority rules? But the self-sorting, one facet of which is the media, is the biggest problem. And to circle back to where we began, that's where this distrust of institutions I think comes from, because you're fed one set of talking points or the other, even with regard to how you're going to look at the Supreme Court or public school education or your local police.
Mohamed Younis 09:57
And it’s fascinating, too, that you brought up Hunter Biden. And I remember being on a stage here in Washington -- I almost got kicked out of the room because I was making the point of absolutely, are there perceptions of corruption -- at the time President Trump was in office -- of people who don’t like Trump. They see his government as, his administration as corrupt. But on the other hand, you know, a lot of people look at the story, whatever, you know, the facts are proven out in court, of acts like folks on the left, like Hunter Biden and others, that also could leave somebody feeling not too great about the state of corruption or just favorable treatment of certain individuals in our society, whether it’s because of connections or their economic status. So it’s almost, if you’re, you’re in one camp or the other, it’s almost like you’re blind to the challenges that your own side is bringing to the table that triggers a lot of these feelings and sentiments. Sure, our issues, we’ll pick our issues based on our, you know, partisan divide, but it’s hard to argue that there aren’t, isn’t a lot to improve on both sides of that divide.
Michael Smerconish 11:00
I think, to your point, we're about to enter a period of the greatest stress test in my life of our most important institution, and that's our judicial system, because of these different legal matters and the indictments of the former president -- they may get to four. I mean, it, it's conceivable now that we may have an election where a major-party candidate, himself a former president, is facing four different indictments at a time when people are going to the ballot booth and casting judgment on him. And half of the political forces among us are gonna be trying to undermine each and every one of those. Like, you know, it used to be, we could have our disagreements, but at least in the court of law, the evidence was going to come out and determine what the facts were. And now I, I don't even have confidence that we'd agree, based on a trial or trials, as to what the facts were.
Mohamed Younis 11:55
We’ve been talking a lot about the national scene. I love your point about self-sorting. One of the things that always strikes me when I look at the data on this subject here in the U.S. is people are actually having a much more positive experience in their local life than when they think about national government. So everyone's down on Congress, but they like their representative. Everyone thinks schools are falling apart, but they're not actually that down on their own school. People think government is corrupt, but they don't see local government as corrupt. So much of life in America is really a local experience, and really the local realities make or break us as communities, irrespective of the national conversations -- all a segue to lead to cities.
Mohamed Younis 12:36
I know cities are something you're really passionate about -- how they work, how they're not working. You're from a famous city. One of the things that really strikes me is the notion that people who are in situations where there's poor policing want to defund the police. Our data actually, Michael, show the exact opposite. So we did a study where we basically went to high-risk cities all over the country -- low income, poor education, high crime. What we find is that people want more professional policing, not less policing. But a local issue erupts. There's this unfortunate situation in the city or, you know, police brutality occurs. Then the national discourse really completely hijacks that local situation. And our whole analysis of what happened in Ferguson, in Los Angeles is really an echo chamber of how people feel about the issue at the national level. So we come up with this like “Defund the Police” movement, and we poll people in these communities, and nobody wants to defund the police.
Mohamed Younis 13:37
How do you, as an analyst, navigate that kind of local-national cognitive dissonance? When you see a local issue erupt and real challenges emerge, how do you find solutions locally -- as a leader, as an analyst, as a reporter, even? As opposed to banking back on, well, what does the Democratic Party representative have to say about this? What does the Republican Party representative have to say about this?
Michael Smerconish 14:01
So I think we're all more closely tethered and knowledgeable of our local communities. And therefore, we form judgment based on real experience as to what we think of the local police or the local school or the local representative. And our impression of what's going on beyond that community is largely determined by those aforementioned media outlets, which put a spin on it. And all of a sudden, you know, you're scared to death of, of crime in big cities because one station is showing you, on a loop, one particular incident of smash-and-grabs, or whatever the case might be. I'm worried about what's going on locally. This is not a city comment; this is, this is frankly more of a suburban or rural comment, because of the death of newspapers. And, you know, the glue that, that held so many communities together, the commonality that I don't think can be replicated by any Facebook page, was the type of paper that you went and saw the local sports scores and the honor roll and a lot of pictures and wedding notices and obituaries, and talked about what was going on in the community. That's now missing. And I think we're going to pay a price for that, and I worry about also the oversight of, of local government.
Michael Smerconish 15:18
To your observation about “defund the police,” I, I've long said that on the left, they need a wordsmith like Frank Luntz has been on the right. You know, the kind of guy who came up with “death tax” for the vernacular for the estate tax. And the worst labeling ever for something that I think I understand conceptually is “defund the police.” If you said to me, “Are you for defunding the police?” I'd say, like, “Hell, no!” especially if I were running for office. But wasn't it supposed to be the idea that, that an armed response wasn't appropriate for every circumstance where you'd call law enforcement? Like maybe it's a mental health crisis, and the worst thing you could do would be to send somebody, a paramilitary, into a person having an emotional breakdown? Like intuitively, it made sense to me, but not the way that they, not the way that they ended up labeling it. And I think that was the death knell of that conversation.
Mohamed Younis 16:17
And it's fascinating that so much of, kind of like, let's professionalize police services, let's improve police services --
Michael Smerconish 16:21
Who could be against that?
Mohamed Younis 16:22
Who could be against it? And a lot of it is exactly what you're talking about. Are these the right resources to deploy in these fact patterns? Are there other resources in the community that are more appropriate? Michael, I want you to give us a final thought on this big question of trust in institutions. I'm an American or, or a global citizen listening to this podcast. How worried should I be about America -- that trust in institutions is this low? Are you still optimistic about this kind of turning around, or are you one of these folks that's just fundamentally concerned and thinks everybody needs to stop and focus on this?
Michael Smerconish 16:56
I'm fundamentally concerned and think that the solution to our problems, in terms of institutions and politics; this subject generally, is more common experience. It's one of the reasons why I think that a program of national service -- not necessarily military, but something that brings us together where we kind of put aside the, the differences in our lives and are united in some purpose is what we desperately need. My father, who never got near Korea but nevertheless served during the Korean conflict, instilled in me the idea of what he took away from, you know, basic training when, no matter where you came from and where you lived, everybody was reduced to the same clothing and cot and food and experience. And he therefore bonded with individuals with whom he otherwise would have thought he had nothing in common. We don't have those kind of experiences today. Think about in your day-to-day life, when are you with people, on an extended basis, who are not of similar interest to yourself and those closest to you? Probably in very limited circumstances. I'll sum it up this way: The more time we spend with people who don't look like we look and think like we think, the better off the nation is as a whole, because that'll be uniting, and I think will salve some of the problems that you're identifying about institutions.
Mohamed Younis 18:16
Resilience through shared experience. On that profound note, Michael Smerconish, thank you for being on the podcast.
Michael Smerconish 18:22
Thank you, Mohamed. I appreciate your interest.
Mohamed Younis 18:27
That’s our show. Thanks for tuning in. For more from Gallup, go to news.gallup.com, and sign up for our newsletter, Front Page, where we break down all that Gallup is learning across the globe in one weekly 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.