Decades ago our editor at the time, Richard Baudouin, had a bumper sticker on his office door that read: “Journalists — Lower Than Lawyers.” It was the harbinger of a future trend in the relationship between the public and those who deliver the news. With confidence ratings for newspapers now at 24 percent and television news three points lower, no wonder the media is taking such a beating from candidates and voters on the left and the right in this election cycle.
But we’re in good company. Almost all once-respected national institutions have been sliding in public opinion surveys since Gallup first began polling them in 1973. Thank God for Congress, which at 8 percent ranks the lowest of the 15 U.S. institutions Gallup has followed since then. Others in steep decline are organized religion, banks, the U.S. Supreme Court and the presidency. Down slightly are the police, big business, organized labor, the criminal justice system and the medical system. Only small business and the military show modest gains in public confidence in Gallup’s most recent poll.
Why is our collective faith eroding in the traditional pillars of our society? As it was in 1992, it’s the economy once again, specifically economic stagnation and the anxiety it creates. Americans tend to have the greatest confidence in U.S. institutions when jobs are plentiful and incomes are growing. But this is an era of major global disruption of the economic norms of the 20th century. It’s big, complicated and scary. It’s like nothing we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution, and leaders on the left and the right have done little to prepare our country for the tectonic shift in the types of jobs that will be available for current and future generations. Americans are resentful and afraid.
At a time when we desperately need straightforward, realpolitik solutions to the complex problems we face, we find ourselves in the midst of a rancorous and divisive era that is driven by ideology and manifest in the circus that is the 2016 presidential election. There is a primal scream emanating from those Feeling the Bern and riding the Trump Train, and we need to pay attention. They are both right about some things, and the anger, fear, frustration and eroding faith among American voters is real. It is also reshaping our democracy. We in the media will be writing the first draft of this new chapter in our nation’s history. And hopefully we, along with the other institutions that are the backbone of American greatness, can help rebuild the public trust on the other side.