Loss of confidence

This fascinating post by David Weakliem documents declining confidence in political institutions:

and the news media:

and some other institutions:

As Weakliem writes:

So far, confidence in everything has declined. You could offer specific explanations for each one, but the fact that it’s so widespread suggests that the declines reflect a general mood of dissatisfaction. I think the decline for public schools is particularly telling, since if you go by the numbers academic performance has improved since the 1970s.

But then there’s this:

Wow. For the military, one can come up with a story regarding the post-Vietnam War period, but it’s not so obvious why confidence in the police and criminal justice systems should be so stable, in the context of the steady decline in confidence in all those other institutions.

All data come from the Gallup Poll question, “I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one—a great deal, quite a lot, some, or very little?” More information is at Weakliem’s post.

P.S. Weakliem has an update here with another year of data and some discussion.

13 thoughts on “Loss of confidence

  1. How paranoid is it to think this combination of observations bodes very ill for American civil society?

    I do note that since the original post, we’ve made it through a full 370 days without a coup! Although on second thought perhaps a coup would be beside the point.

  2. Speculations:

    1. Maybe the declines in all the non-militaristic institutions are being driven by changing attitudes among working class whites (whose attitudes toward police and the military tends to be reverent.)
    2. Stability of police and military is explained by the fact that approving of the military and police (somewhat lumped together as occupations involving risking one’s life for our general safety) is part of American civic religion. (And yeah, the increase in military approval is probably because the data starts post-Vietnam.) Criminal justice stability is explained by it already having hit its floor.
    3. Polarization might be driving the general decline. (sub-speculation: Polarization makes people more negative about institutions associated with the other side than positive about institutions associated with their own side, with the exception of police.)

  3. The decline in confidence in medicine from 1970 to 1990 is strange. There were tremoundous advances in treatments of lots of ills during that time. Joint replacements, coronary artery procedures, CT scanning, MRI scans, curing testicular cancer and many lymphomas became routine, etc, etc. I’m puzzled.

    • Actually, you can’t really tell from the graph when the decline of confidence in medicine began. We have points at 1975 and 1980, with the latter being a bit lower, but perhaps just representing noise or a temporary minor dip. There is no further data until 1995: the straight line joining 1980 to 1995 may well be misleading. It is entirely possible that confidence remained high even until 1990 and then plummeted. We just don’t know when, between 1980 and 1995, decline began.

    • There are doubtless multiple reasons but I don’t find this puzzling. This time corresponds to a marked increase in patient responsibility for medical bills, and the accompanying need to navigate the workings of a complex system that wasn’t designed for patients to see. It’s a horrifying experience that makes one aware of profit as a driving force behind the medical establishment.

  4. Do we know how “confidence” is being understood by respondents? If it is understood as “how well are these institutions at doing their jobs,” then it is no surprise that confidence in the military is pretty high – no one thinks that the US military is likely to lose any given battle. Re police, crime is way down over the last 30 years, so respondents might well assume that police are performing their jobs adequately.

    On the other hand, if “confidence”is understood differently, or in different ways re different institutions, or if it is understood in different ways now than in the past, then this data lead to other inferences. Does Gallup tell respondents what it means by “confidence”? According to the methodology link here, at least, they don’t: http://news.gallup.com/poll/219143/confidence-public-schools-rallies.aspx

    • Thank you for this important point. In addition, there could be changing generational norms regarding the appropriate amount of confidence. If people alive today consider it naive (rather than praiseworthy) to express confidence in government, the economy, etc., then they might lower their mean.

  5. Maybe the police have gotten more professionalized over the decades? They certainly get compensated well these days when you include pensions.

    My general impression is that cops are better trained today than when I was a kid.

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