Americans’ faith in institutions has been sliding for years. The chaos in Congress isn’t helping

Oct 21, 2023, 5:06 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — For many Americans, the Republican dysfunction that has ground business in the U.S. House to a halt as two wars rage abroad and a budget crisis looms at home is feeding into a longer-term pessimism about the country’s core institutions.

The lack of faith extends beyond Congress, with recent polling conducted both before and after the leadership meltdown finding a mistrust in everything from the courts to organized religion. The GOP internal bickering that for nearly three weeks has left open the speaker’s position — second in line to the presidency — is widely seen as the latest indication of deep problems with the nation’s bedrock institutions.

“They’re holding up the people’s business because they’re so dysfunctional,” said Christopher Lauff, 57, of Fargo, North Dakota.

Part of that business, he said, is approving money for Ukraine to continue its fight against Russia’s invasion, something he says ultimately helps the U.S. — a point President Joe Biden stressed Thursday during an Oval Office address.

“We’re usually the knight in shining armor, but we can’t be that now,” said Lauff, a Democrat.

The disdain for Congress is just one area where Americans say they are losing faith. Various polls say the negative feelings include a loss of confidence or interest in institutions such as organized religion, policing, the Supreme Court, even banking.

“Trust in institutions has deteriorated substantially,” said Kay Schlozman, professor of political science at Boston College. Schlozman said she believes in government and the things it provides, such as national defense and access to health care, but “I also can very much understand why the American people can be cynical about government.”

The turmoil in the House and the federal case against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is facing charges for bribery, show that both major parties are contributing to the dour outlook.

The House has been without a permanent leader since early October after a small cadre of right-wing Republicans pushed out a member of their own party, then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Subsequent attempts to replace him have failed.

“That is an example of exactly the kind of thing that I would say can’t foster trust of government among the American people — the multiple votes, the fractiousness within parties, of people being personally ambitious and not being willing to compromise” Schlozman said.

About half of adults (53%) say they have “hardly any confidence at all” in the people running Congress, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that was conducted in October. That’s in line with 49% who said that in March. Just 3% have a great deal of confidence in Congress, virtually unchanged from March.

About 4 in 10 adults (39%) have hardly any confidence in the executive branch of the federal government, compared with 44% in March. Most Republicans (56%) have low levels of confidence in the executive branch — which is overseen by a member of the opposing party, Democrat Joe Biden — compared with just 20% of Democrats.

About a third of adults (36%) say they have hardly any confidence in the conservative-majority Supreme Court, a figure that has remained steady in recent months. The polling reinforces that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say their confidence in the Supreme Court is low. Black Americans are more likely than Americans overall, as well as more likely than white or Hispanic adults, to have hardly any confidence in the nation’s highest court.

One-third of U.S. adults (33%) continue to have low levels of confidence in the Justice Department, with Republicans having less confidence than Democrats. This comes as former President Donald Trump rails against the department after being charged with mishandling classified documents and attempts to overturn the 2020 election results.

Rick Cartelli, 63, a health care worker in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, who identifies as an independent, said he is happy with his local and state government but the current environment, especially the chaos on Capitol Hill, has wiped out what little confidence he had in that institution.

“What is happening now is not good for the country at all,” he said.

Cartelli also said he has little confidence in the executive branch, citing what he says are “mental lapses” by Biden that “are only probably going to become more and more pronounced.”

Multiple AP-NORC polls from earlier this year find that the dearth of confidence is pervasive, spreading to organized religion, the government’s intelligence gathering and diplomatic agencies, as well as financial institutions. Slightly fewer than half (45%) in a study from AP-NORC and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights said they have little or no confidence that the news media is reporting news fully, accurately and fairly.

Views on the military were best, with just 17% saying they have hardly any confidence in it.

Kathleen Kersey, a 32-year-old health care worker in Brunswick, Georgia, who is a Republican, said she has little confidence in any of the federal entities, including Congress, but has more for the institutions closer to home. She also is a fan of Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who she said is a moral man.

“There’s only so much one person can do, and just with all the evil, it’s hard to have confidence in anything really, even the churches because everything works together as one,” she said.

Confidence in the country’s foundational institutions has ebbed and flowed historically, though there’s been a long-term downward trend since at least the 1970s. Trust in government waned in the era of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers before making a slight recovery during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s — despite Reagan’s famous declaration that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

David Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University, said the tea party movement during former President Barack Obama’s term was the beginning of a steadier decline in confidence, as noted in Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, despite dozens of courts rejecting his claims and multiple audits and reviews in the swing states where he disputed his loss.

“The biggest threat to trust in institutions was the Trump campaign’s refusal to concede the election and insistence that they had won,” along with a large segment of the Republicans in Congress going along with the claim in the certification process, Bateman said.

“That validated the idea that the whole institutional system is rigged, which it isn’t,” he said.

He said an example of the fallout is the Republican attack on the Justice Department, including the FBI. The “weaponization” of the FBI has been a battle cry for Republicans who maintain it has targeted conservatives and who are incensed at the various investigations of Trump. Candidates vying against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination have said they would fire FBI Director Chris Wray.

Distrust of the FBI had long been the purview of Democrats, especially those aware of civil rights-era monitoring.

“If you told me in 2000 that Republicans are going to be saying you can’t trust the FBI, I would have been shocked,” Bateman said. “Going after the FBI has been a real ratcheting up of distrust.”


The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Americans’ faith in institutions has been sliding for years. The chaos in Congress isn’t helping