For decades polls have documented a continual slide in Americans’ confidence in public institutions, but a new one also finds the confidence split along political leanings.
“Democrats and Republicans increasingly have confidence in different sets of American institutions,” Jonathan Ladd characterized the results. Ladd was the lead researcher for the poll, which YouGov conducted online in June and July 2018. They surveyed 5,400 Americans, oversampling racial minorities to get more accurate results from those groups.
The biggest confidence gaps among partisan lines were that Republicans more strongly trusted the executive branch, religion, banks, major companies, and local police, while Democrats generally lacked confidence in these institutions. Conversely, Democrats more strongly trusted universities, the press, organized labor, and Google, while Republicans lacked trust in these organizations.
People of both parties distrust Congress, political parties, courts, Facebook, state governments, and philanthropies. People of both parties tended to trust Amazon, which Democrats ranked their most-trusted institution and Republicans ranked third, and the U.S. military, which Republicans ranked first and Democrats ranked third.
Twitter denizen Mark Harrison noted the oddness of Democrats listing low trust in “major companies” while registering high trust in Google and Amazon, which are of course huge global companies. Not surprisingly, the press was the institution Republicans had the least faith in, while Democrats’ least-trusted was the executive branch.
Similar to recent results from another large poll titled “Hidden Tribes,” this one found differences in Americans’ trust in institutions were not especially divided by age, race, geographic region, education level, or other common identity politics categories, but along political lines. People who call themselves Republicans or Democrats both “evaluate the current state of America’s political system and various national institutions differently, and see the other party as a fundamental threat to the country,” says the pollsters’ report.
Trust in a particular institution did seem to relate to how controlled by the opposing party the institution seems to be. For example, Republicans rated their trust in the executive branch as higher than even their trust in religion (In Donald Trump we trust?), and cast aspersions on the FBI. Democrats are uniformly down on Congress, the executive branch, and state governments, which are all run by Republican majorities currently. Yet actually people of both parties register pretty strong disapproval of government-related institutions, except the military and local police. Republicans trust both of these and Democrats trust the military but not police.
Although the report presents them as new, these politicized divergences have been growing for some time and we’ve seen earlier hints of their existence and growth. Public trust in Congress and TV and print news has been in the gutter since at least 2006, and declining since pollsters have been tracking. Likewise, both Republican and Democratic voters have registered increasing discontent with their own parties for decades. Support for organized labor has also been pretty constantly split along party lines for obvious reasons.
What seems to be particularly new are the steep drops in Republicans’ confidence in higher education and the FBI, and Democrats’ confidence in religion and police. The FBI skepticism is easily attributable to the revelations of its politicized behavior regarding Donald Trump’s election. The police skepticism is easily attributable to the Black Lives Matter campaign and its ilk.
According to Pew Research, it was between 2015 and 2016 that Republicans’ formerly high confidence in academia suddenly flipped negative. Perhaps it was because they finally tuned into the years of studies showing that college professors are almost unanimously liberal and politically colonizing young citizens’ minds on the taxpayers’ tab, without providing hardly any tangible value to their lives or the economy.
The Democratic Party is increasingly non-religious and anti-religious, while significantly larger proportions of observant believers are Republicans. That would help account for Democrats’ growing hostility to religion, both rhetorically and in policy. (The graphs below are from Pew in 2015 and 2018). This is very, very different from the Democratic Party of the Lyndon B. Johnson or even Bill Clinton years.
It seems religious devotion is increasingly political not necessarily because preachers are stumping for Republicans but because orthodox beliefs are increasingly viewed as hostile to the progressive project. Believers are therefore increasingly chased out of the Democratic Party as it radicalizes on social issues, leaving them at the mercy of Republicans, who thus don’t have to work for believers’ votes so largely don’t respond to their priorities on moral issues such as abortion and government endorsement of homosexual relationships.
“The good news is that Americans across demographic groups are not presently moving toward an anti-democratic worldview,” the new poll’s report says. “They are not moving closer to a rejection of the concept of democracy, or of democratic norms such as regular elections and eschewing violence to settle political disputes.”
While Americans broadly still believe in living under representative government and in free and fair elections, then, we seem to disagree about whether government represents us and whether elections actually have significant effects on public institutions such as Congress, courts, law enforcement, and education. It seems that trust in institutions both relates to whether the opposing party controls it and to whether it acts impartially or partisanly, such as the police and FBI divergences. In other words, the less neutral an institution is or appears to be, the more likely a split in public trust in it.
In a Washington Post writeup of their poll, its researchers seem to not notice this particular divergence: “Scholars of democracy usually believe that one of the keystones of a strong democracy is the public’s acceptance that power will alternate between different parties or factions. That includes considering democratic institutions as legitimate, no matter which party currently occupies the particular office. That acceptance and respect has historically been the norm in American politics. The breakdown of that norm may be a blip because of the current political environment — or it may be the beginning of a long-term trend.”
Aside from all this, something else is going on, too. Two visions of life together are increasingly making themselves clear to the American people. I believe the split runs along the lines of progressivism versus constitutionalism, and therefore began more than 100 years ago with the rise of moral and legal relativism now encompassed by the left broadly and Democratic Party specifically.
We’ve begun to live in the post-Constitution culture the left has been deliberately trying to achieve for, well, just about its entire existence. That means living in a post-law culture, a progressive culture. This means living in a world in which institutions don’t respond to, uphold, and respect transcendent moral principles such as equality before the law, the freedom to live and worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience, no taxation without representation, and government by consent of the governed. Instead of reflecting and preserving natural law and the objective, created, eternal order, they respond to the manipulations of emotion, desire, and power.
In this culture parents’ tax money can be seized to fund schools that place pubescent boys in their daughters’ dressing rooms, hotels, and showers, all not only without but against their consent. People can lose their jobs for merely saying men and women are different. Elected officials can be surrounded by screaming mobs and their children’s locations posted online with the intent to at least psychologically terrorize. People of the “right” political party can break serious federal laws and still run for president. If that’s how one side uses public institutions, no wonder the other’s not exactly cheering on the Trojan horses we’re discovering inside the gates.
“America is torn increasingly between two rival constitutions, two cultures, two ways of life,” writes Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler about this very divide in this week’s issue of Imprimis. “Political scientists sometimes distinguish between normal politics and regime politics. Normal politics takes place within a political and constitutional order and concerns means, not ends. In other words, the ends or principles are agreed upon; debate is simply over means. By contrast, regime politics is about who rules and for what ends or principles. It questions the nature of the political system itself.”
Read the rest to consider where this all leads.