Americans Losing Trust in Each Other and Institutions

Richard Morin and Dan Balz, 28 Jan 1996, Washington Post

Part 2 \ Part 3 \ Part 4 \ Part 5 \ Part 6 \ Comment
First in a series

Janie Drake is a 48-year-old Detroit mother of three who trusts almost nobody. She doesn't trust the neighborhood teenager with his low-riding pants "slopping over his behind, you know how." Not big corporations, not labor unions, not local store owners, nobody except family or longtime friends.

And like a majority of Americans, Drake said she "certainly does not" trust the government. Why should she? "If we can't trust each other, how can we trust the federal government?"

Lori Miller, 18, of Madison, Wis., agrees that you can't be too careful these days. "There's too many people trying to hurt you financially, emotionally or physically. You never know who's the next Jeffrey Dahmer," she said. Miller too is apprehensive about the government. As she put it, "It's made up of people, isn't it?"

America is becoming a nation of suspicious strangers, and this mistrust of each other is a major reason Americans have lost confidence in the federal government and virtually every other major national institution. Every generation that has come of age since the 1950s has been more mistrusting of human nature, a transformation in the national outlook that has deeply corroded the nation's social and political life.

The relationship between how Americans view each other and how they view the government is one of the major findings of a new national survey by The Washington Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey was supplemented by two focus groups, interviews and conversations with Americans around the country, as well as with political scientists and other experts.

In the past 10 years, anger at government and disgust with politicians have increased, causing voters to veer in different directions in 1992 and 1994. At the same time, political leaders, pundits and academics have issued a flurry of prescriptions to restore trust in government: Replace the current crop of politicians, return civility to the political debate in Washington, transfer power to the states or perhaps even balance the federal budget.

But the survey suggests that the sources of distrust that affect attitudes toward government—and therefore the solutions—are not so simple or nicely self-contained.

"If this were simply a matter of trust in government, then politicians could figure out what people don't like about government and political leaders and change it," said Eric Uslaner, a University of Maryland political scientist who was one of the first to identify the relationship between declining trust in human nature and attitudes toward politics and government. "But that's not the problem. The reason our politics is behaving badly is because the whole country is behaving badly."

Today, nearly two in three Americans believe that most people can't be trusted; three decades ago a majority of Americans believed that most people could be trusted. Half say most people would cheat others if they had the chance, and an equal proportion agree that "most people are looking out for themselves," the survey found.

The decline in trust in government has echoed the fall in personal trust. In 1964, three in four Americans trusted the federal government all or most of the time, a view shared by one in four persons today, according to the Post/Harvard/Kaiser survey.

This collapse of trust in human nature has fueled the erosion of trust in government and virtually every other institution, the survey found. Mistrustful Americans repeatedly expressed far less confidence in the federal government, the military, the Supreme Court, Congress and the Clinton administration than the dwindling numbers of Americans who were more upbeat about human nature.

Government also suffers from a lack of public confidence because of other national discontents brought about by the perceived failure of government to deal with the country's biggest problems, the survey found. Fear of crime, economic insecurity and pessimism about the lives of future generations all have separately added to the belief that government either is making things worse or is incapable of making them better.

Each of these forces also has contributed to the declining levels of participation in everything from the ballot box to the PTA to bowling leagues, giving rise to a metaphor coined by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who described this new world of civic indifference as "Bowling Alone."

The new survey, one in an ongoing series examining how knowledge affects public attitudes on a broad range of subjects, also measured how much Americans know about government and politics. Here too a gloomy picture emerged.

The less people know, the less likely they are to participate: They are less likely to register to vote, and if registered less likely to cast a ballot on Election Day.

And there is much Americans don't know about politics or current affairs. The overwhelming majority of those surveyed don't know the names of their elected representatives, don't know that Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) is the Senate majority leader, don't know that the country spends far more on Medicare than it does on foreign aid. A third of all Americans, the survey found, think Congress has already passed health care reform, or aren't sure; four in 10 don't know that the Republicans control Congress; and half either think the Democratic Party is more conservative politically than the GOP or don't feel they know enough to offer a guess.

But for politicians and others looking to repair the system, the other side of the coin is perhaps even more troubling: The more people know, the less confidence they had in government. Among those with high levels of knowledge about current issues or politics, 77 percent expressed only some confidence in the federal government, a view shared by 67 percent less-informed respondents. Better, but not by much.

Even those who express kind words for government have low expectations. "If they do the right thing 25 percent of the time, it's good," said Charles Merrell, a 66-year-old computer program from Cliffside, N.J., who has a generally positive view of government. "This is a good result."

"Mistrust of government is part of a larger problem," said John Brehm, a Duke University political scientist. "How does a president or the Congress boost people's trust in each other, or how helpful we think other people are or how trustworthy we think other people are? It's very difficult to imagine how a leader bridges those distances. That's a very pessimistic interpretation of things, I'm afraid."

Over the next week, The Washington Post will examine factors that explain why discontent with government in Washington has become so widespread: the knowledge gap; the insecurities fostered by a changing economy; the partisan impact of current attitudes to the problems of governing in an age of mistrust, and the decline of trust over recent generations. But at its heart, the survey suggests that the problem begins with people themselves.

Trusting Each Other

Scholars like Putnam describe the generation that came of age after World War II as the last, great civic generation. Since then, every generation has been more mistrustful of human nature than the last, according to The Post/Harvard/Kaiser survey.

Today, a clear majority of respondents in their early 20s said they do not trust their fellow Americans, a view they share with one in four Americans over the age of 60. "It's like living in the cave man age," said Michael Callecoat, 29, a self-employed contractor living in New Jersey with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. "Nobody cares anymore. Nobody cares. They will no sooner run you down and run away than to spit in your face."

Lesvia Hernandez, 23, the manager of a retail store in Windsor, Conn., said, "I can't trust anyone. We aren't willing to trust other people, even people who live next door to us." Hernandez said she had good reason. A few years ago a mugger stole her mother's purse. "The one who stole the purse lived next door to us," she said. "How can you trust people?"

If trust were a trait slowly acquired over a lifetime, this generation-to-generation erosion might not present such a problem for democracy. Trust, however, is acquired in early childhood, and is far more likely to diminish than to increase with age, said Wendy Rahn, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota who has done pioneering research into the causes and consequences of personal mistrust.

"If the young [people] are not growing up with a sense of generalized trust, there's really not any hope that they will really develop it," Rahn said. "Trust in individuals might erode due to events or circumstances, but if you don't have trust, you don't acquire it."

Trust in the essential goodness of others translates into what Rahn calls "a rosy glow" about America and its institutions. Mistrust of one another breeds suspicion toward government, and sometimes outright fear.

For example: The Post/Harvard/Kaiser survey asked people whether government actions usually end up hurting more people than they help. Two-thirds of Americans who mistrusted each other agreed with that; but the view was shared by only 29 percent of Americans who trust one another. Mistrustful Americans also were more likely to see government as a major threat to their rights and freedoms as trusting Americans.

An environment in which a majority of Americans believe that most people can't be trusted breeds attitudes that hold all politicians as corrupt, venal and self-serving, and government action as doomed to failure.

More than half of all mistrustful Americans—53 percent—strongly agree that public officials don't care "what people like me think." But only a quarter—26 percent—of trusting Americans strongly agree with that statement. Four out of 10 mistrustful Americans believe that "people like me don't have any say about what the government does," but only 16 percent of trusting Americans say that.

"Politicians call themselves public servants," said Marvin Lucas, 59, a custodial supervisor at a college in Milledgeville, Ga. "I compare politicians with used car salesmen: say one thing, do another . . . just like most other people."

Rahn said Americans who mistrust each other believe that "the motives of people who propose solutions are always viewed as malignant and that these solutions are likely to fail or not likely to further the common good." These views sour mistrustful Americans on the political process and on politicians, and mean that virtually any attempt by political leaders or government to address national problems will be viewed with deep suspicion.

The survey found that those who mistrust other people were significantly less likely to be registered to vote or to have voted in the last two national elections. Just one-third of mistrusting Americans said they voted in 1994, compared to six in 10 of those who have confidence in human nature.

Why don't people trust each other? There is no single answer. But the survey suggests that experience with crime contributes significantly to growing suspicion about the trustworthiness of others, which in turn spills over into mistrust of government.

"There was a time I would take walks at night and feel perfectly happy and enjoy myself," said Irv Sandroff, 63, a retiree from the New York Board of Education who participated in one of two focus groups conducted by Washington Post reporters in Teaneck, N.J. "But I wouldn't do it anymore. I'm afraid. Literally afraid of having someone jump me. I think people are very frightened of crime and violence. And with all the other pressures on people, this makes it even worse."

The poll found that victims of violent crime were more mistrustful of other people. These crime victims also expressed less confidence in government to solve problems. "Crime has sort of a double whammy," Rahn said. "It erodes belief about human nature, which affects people's attitudes toward government. Then there is a direct effect because people hold the state responsible for maintaining public order."

"Government is seen as failing to solve the problems that touch people's lives," said Robert J. Blendon, a Harvard professor at the Kennedy School of Government and an adviser on the survey project. "At the same time, the size of government has increased as well as the taxes they pay."

He said a succession of scandals and policy failures, from Vietnam to Watergate to Whitewater, also may have contributed to diminished trust in people as well as government, giving "people less reason to trust government and more reason to mistrust each other."

Economic Insecurity

Sharon Seal, 42, considers herself "an optimist by nature," but these days she sees "a sense of hopelessness and frustration" in people around her. Much of that, she said, comes from a sluggish and increasingly impersonal economy.

Wages have stagnated, workers change jobs frequently and downsizing corporations offer little protection even to the most loyal of employees. Many workers are doing well in the new economy, but Seal said there is a price for the changes. "There's no longer the security that comes with the job," said Seal, who works part-time for a management consulting firm in Baltimore.

Seal's observations about the public are hardly illusory, and one consequence is the erosion of confidence in the federal government. The Post/Harvard/Kaiser poll found that more than a third of all Americans fall into what could be called the "economically anxious" category, people who see the economy worsening, their own financial future deteriorating and who doubt their children will fare better than they have.

Dislocations in the economy, such as the recent announcement by AT&T that it would lay off 40,000 workers as part of a corporate restructuring plan, send ripples of anxiety through the labor force. More than a quarter of all those surveyed who work full or part-time said they are "very" or "somewhat" worried they will lose their jobs within the next two years.

Not surprisingly, these economically anxious Americans have less trust in other people. Almost half of those with a pessimistic outlook about the economy distrust others, compared to less than a quarter of those who are more optimistic about the economy.

Maryland's Uslaner draws a straight line between economic well-being and trust in others. "When things look bright, as they did in the 1960s, people will trust others," he said. "When people worry about the future, fewer will trust others."

Many Americans say everything from the increased pressure to make ends meet to family breakups to concerns for personal safety robs them of the opportunity to get to know their neighbors the way earlier generations did.

"I just think people are too busy," said Kelly Gray, 30, an office manager and single mother who lives in Lodi, N.J. "I come home from work and either I go to a second job or I'm running here or I'm running there. I'm going to the store. I'm cooking dinner, doing laundry. I'm taking care of my daughter. I don't have time to sit and talk in the backyard to my neighbors because my things aren't going to get done."

"I go to school like four nights a week," said Jay McCracken, 34, a technical adviser who lives in Hackensack, N.J. "So I go from work [at] 4:30 p.m. right to school until 10:30 p.m. every night. The only time I see my kids is on weekends. So it's really tough. I don't talk to the neighbors, you know."

"If you work and you have a family, there's no time," said Angela Jacobs, of Teaneck, who is married and has two children. "So when you get in, the door is locked."

Americans who feel most pessimistic about the economy also are more likely to see the government as a threat. Almost half of them, a fifth of all Americans, say the government threatens personal freedoms. Three in five say government threatens their economic well being, and a majority of these anxious Americans say government is a major threat.

But distrust of government extends far beyond that portion of the population that is most pessimistic about the economy. That lack of confidence grows out of the perception that either government has not done enough to improve the economy or that it has actually made things worse.

An overwhelming percentage of Americans see the government as wasteful and inefficient—80 percent—and as spending tax dollars on the wrong things, 79 percent. Three in five Americans say government has not done enough to help people in need, while almost that many—55 percent—say federal taxes are too high.

"Our government is trying to take care of too much stuff that they don't know what they're doing," said Alice Blaha, 62, of Farmington, Minn. "Things broke down in not dealing with the economy."

"I think what the federal government asks of us is disproportionate to what it's willing to give back to us," said Gaymelle Dorsey, 44, a placement counselor for a computer school who lives in Hackensack.

A majority of Americans blame Washington for allowing U.S. jobs to go overseas and for failing to create more jobs here at home.

"I think one place where the government has made a mistake is this idea of unlimited free trade," said Merrell, of Cliffside Park, N.J. "We've exported a lot of our jobs, especially jobs at the low end of the scale. . . . I don't say we should make ourselves a fortress, build a wall and then shut the door, but we may have gone too far."

The discontent over the economy adds to public fears about the future and to the belief that prosperity will be even more difficult to achieve for future generations. More than half of those surveyed said they are not at all confident their children will do better than they have done, a belief that also diminishes their trust in government.

Many Americans see children growing up without as many anchors in their lives, facing greater dangers to their personal security—from drugs to AIDS to street violence—and with diminished economic prospects.

Ed Hildebrandt, 55, who lives in Carlstadt, N.J., and is retired from the U.S. Postal Service, said young people now entering the work force will not be able to buy homes or educate their children unless wages increase. "I think it's scary," he said. "When I was a kid, I went in the service, came out, got a job, wasn't afraid of working and there was enough work out there."

In the face of these challenges, government stands as a symbol of ineffectiveness. Government, said Sharon Seal, is "this big dinosaur that's mired in so many things that, even if this dinosaur might have good intentions, it's swamped by so many things and it makes it hard to move. There's this tremendous pressure for government to help people, but there are also people who are furious with government for what they see as waste and greed and inefficiencies."

Washington Post assistant director of polling Mario A. Brossard contributed to this report. NEXT: Don't know, don't care


Copyright Washington Post
Page assembled by jnr, February 14, 1996
rev: February 14, 1996