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America The Faithless

Analysis: A week to explain public's lack of faith

2/27/2010, 8:52 a.m. EST


The Associated Press


(AP) — WASHINGTON - To understand why people don't trust institutions-and why America is so disgruntled-look no further than these doings in the nation's capital.

At historic Blair House, President Barack Obama, Democrats and Republicans fought about a health care overhaul they've debated for a year. They broke no new ground and the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington-and infuriated the public-was on full display.

On Capitol Hill, Toyota executives apologized for safety recalls but said their gas-pedal fix may "not totally" solve spontaneous acceleration problems. They also got subpoenas seeking answers to these familiar, chilling questions: What did they know and when did they know it?


Residue from the recession piled as deep as the snow. Lawmakers talked and talked about creating jobs, but companies continued to slice them. And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, "There's no silver bullet here."

All this happened in just the past week. All on TV. On the Internet. Everywhere.

No wonder people are angry. From their vantage point, both the public sector and the private sector have let them down.

But what now?

People could mobilize and try to force politicians and companies to change their ways. The Internet certainly makes social action and civic engagement easier these days.

But the flip side seems more likely, distrust breeding cynicism. People could refuse to vote, refuse to get involved in politics or in their own communities.

You may feel there's not much point when you can't trust your elected leaders to improve the health care system after a year of trying, when you can't trust your car company to provide safe vehicles, when you can't trust the economy to bounce back after you've gone two years without a job.

What does it mean if people have lost faith in the government to solve the most pressing issues, lost faith in companies to deliver workable products-and lost faith in the belief that either will take responsibility for failure?

Short term, the public's distrust doesn't bode well for any politician up for election this fall, particularly Democrats who control Congress, because a bitter electorate typically punishes those in power. It may not bode well for companies such as Toyota that are seeking to restore credibility; consumers are only loyal to a point.

Long term, such a lack of confidence in the nation's biggest institutions could turn society's skepticism to debilitating cynicism. It could spread animosity throughout society, crimping America's historic optimism, fueling incivility-if not paranoia-among the people and encouraging disrespect of authorities of all types, at all levels.


Half the people surveyed by Gallup in January had a negative image of the federal government and big businesses. Confidence is low in Congress, corporations, organized labor, health care organizations and television news.

There may be a simple explanation.

"When the economy is doing well, people trust government, they trust Congress and they trust a bunch of other institutions," said Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied the issue. "When the economy's doing badly, people's faith tends to drop."

But America's trust in institutions started dropping long before this recession.

Analysts point to the 1960s and 1970s-with the counterculture, Vietnam, Watergate and the rise of the conservative movement-as the beginning of a several-decade slide. TV was in its heyday at the time, with nightly newscasts showing the imperfections of institutions, particularly government, more than ever before.

"Hand in hand, the rise of television also accompanied the rise in mistrust of institutions. That isn't to say one caused the other, but they're very much in a symbiotic relationship," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television who studies popular culture.

The spotlight has only shown more brightly since the arrival of all-day, everyday cable news and instantaneous Internet coverage.

Obama's White House health care summit. Toyota President Akio Toyoda's congressional testimony. And economic assessments by Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. All played out last week on TV and the Web. Images of failure-of Congress, of the president, of corporations, of Wall Street-brought to you by the 24/7 news cycle.

"Institutions have always been filled with flaws, but now those flaws have become part of the daily entertainment regimens of most Americans," said Thompson.

Can institutions under such scrutiny hold up to our ideals of how much they should-and can-deliver? Or does society need to adjust its expectations?

There's no sign of the klieg lights dimming.


EDITOR'S NOTE-Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.

An AP News Analysis

© 2010 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.


cheekyredhead cheekyredhead 6 years 12 weeks
Americans frustrated and looking for answers. Unfortunately they are so frustrated that they are looking for short-cuts and short-cuts are never the answer. Here in California Meg Whitman (former ebay exec) has tossed her cap into the ring for the governor race as the republican ticket. While her campagn commercials are promising and seem to be backed with common sense that we crave--many are also looking at her main contributors...BIG money and most from out of state. I fear that many who felt Obama would become a savior--they are now disillusioned or still fawning over false hopes and either way the future is a looming disaster. Finger-pointing has become a new hobby but is not productive. There is no easy answer. Someone is going to have to be the bad guy and make some really unpopular decisions.
Grandpa Grandpa 6 years 12 weeks
What does not bode well is that now government employees (virtually all unionized), now outnumber private industry employees, and they are better paid, and have guaranteed pensions, indexed to inflation, and total job security. They throw billions of dollars into political campaigns to elect the same guys that decide their wages and working conditions. Young people today will look around them and see that Government employment is the quickest and surest way to secure their future with more paid holidays, more vacation, better wages and, shorter hours then they can hope to find outside of the government. Yet these same government employees are paid by the taxes of private industry. Look at France, Italy, Greece, to see what our future holds in trying to bring those same government employees to be answerable just as private employees are. Expect strikes, slowdowns and walk outs as we try to get our deficit under control.
cheekyredhead cheekyredhead 6 years 12 weeks
The power of prayer should of course be a factor. I believe people are praying for many things...least of which is the support of our president or his views. Somehow I suspect we are a nation who pray for that job we need and proper education for our children. I imagine millions like myself that pray that we will not be smashed by the looming debt on the horizon--that the checkbook will be taken away from those who have abused it and continue to do so. ---That will require much more than faith.