Trust in American Institutions Hits New Low … and Lack of Civics Education is Partly to Blame

On the heels of the Fourth of July – a holiday which some Americans publicly professed themselves conflicted about celebrating this year – Gallup released a poll indicating Americans’ “trust in key institutions has hit a new low this year.” The mistrust extends well beyond our political institutions to include media, big tech, public schools and colleges, organized religion and the police. Only two institutions keep the confidence of a majority of those polled: small business and the military. Here at Philanthropy Roundtable, where we support civics education and work to connect our members with organizations dedicated to preserving our founders’ vision guaranteeing the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, these statistics are disconcerting. 

According to the Gallup poll, of the three branches of the federal government, the Supreme Court is trusted by a mere 25% of Americans, a drop of 11% from last year. The presidency retains the trust of 23%, a drop of 15%, and the trust level of Congress now stands at a paltry 7%, a drop of 5%. With all branches at their lowest levels of trust ever recorded, it is not surprising that, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll, only 13% of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction. In an article published about the survey, a staff writer at The Hill commented this is “a terrible number for Democrats, who hold slim majorities in the House and Senate.” In fact, it’s a terrible number for all of us.

It is clear – and somewhat comforting – that some of the mistrust reported seems to stem from lack of knowledge of our core institutions and how they should operate. Complaints that the Senate is not “democratic” because all 50 states have equal representation regardless of population fall into this category. So do suggestions that Supreme Court opinions should consider the wishes of the majority of Americans. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia this past spring about the lack of education in schools around constitutional matters. Judge Ginsburg noted that schools no longer provide “an education that encompasses the minimum that a citizen should know about how our government works, why it was structured the way it was and what their rights and obligations are.” He then described an online civics course he had launched with education nonprofit as well as his interest in making the U.S. citizenship test part of high school graduation requirements. 

But no matter how desirable increased civics knowledge among young and adult Americans alike may be, it’s not at all clear it will cure what ails us these days. The Constitution was written for a republic both national and federal. In Federalist No. 62, James Madison argued that “it does not appear to be without some reason, that in a compound republic partaking both of the national and federal character, the government ought to be founded on a mixture of the principles of proportional and equal representation.” Will understanding this critical fact matter to those who say we should be governed in all things by a nationwide majority, rejecting the structure of the Senate on the grounds it gives too much power to less populous states? 

The notion that the Supreme Court rendered a number of “undemocratic decisions” in its most recent term, particularly on cases involving abortion, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Second Amendment,  led to dangerous attacks on the institution and individual justices. Yet the legitimacy of the Supreme Court — and of any court — rests, after all, on the fact that it is not an adjunct to the legislature, but an independent branch of government. As Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 78, “The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is in fact, and must be, regarded by the judges as a fundamental law … where the will of the legislature declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the people declared in the constitution, the judges ought to be governed by the latter, rather than the former.” Will evidence that our highest court is fulfilling its constitutional responsibility as our founders intended change the perceptions of its critics?

What will it take to restore trust in our core institutions? And what role might civil society play in this process? While it is unclear whether civics education alone will be enough to bolster confidence in the branches of our government, philanthropists and nonprofits should spend time considering this question – and what else will be required to safeguard the future of our democracy.

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