September 3, 2020

Americans have a long history for of supporting their institutions, even in times of crisis. When people trust their institutions, they’re better able to solve common problems. But beginning in the 1970’s, confidence in American institutions started to evaporate.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.” Jimmy Carter, July 1979.

This was the era of Watergate and the final days of the Vietnam War. In 1975, after 10 years and thousands of American soldiers’ lives lost, America abandoned the South Vietnamese people. And Americans no longer trusted their own government.

In this post, I’m going to track Americans’ confidence in their institutions from 1974 through 2018, from education to the military via partisan differences.

Education has long been a path for advancement and success for the average American family. This is often referred to as the “American Dream,” the belief that education leads to individual success. Recent studies indicate that this dream is fading for many families.

In 1974, 49% of American voters had a “great deal” confidence American education. In 2018, this response dropped to 25%, nearly half of what it was in 1974. As you might guess the decline among Republicans was eight percent greater than Democrats.

Discipline is often cited as a major concern for public schools, as well as drug abuse and crime and a belief that schools no longer prepare the next generation for the future. The aging of America increased these perceptions, where the baby-boomer generation defined by what they thought how a real education should look like.

This evaporation of trust is not limited to education alone, but other institutions as well. In this post, I’m going show that many of these institutions are losing public confidence. The data for the following charts I have created are from the General Social Surveys (GSS) that specializes in cultural and political trends over time. In this case, survey responses are from time-series survey conducted from 1974 through 2018.

A hallmark of the United States has always been its’ free press. But confidence in America in the press has declined since 1974, as shown below.

As expected, Republicans lack of confidence in the press has outpaced that of Democrats, especially in recent years. In 2018, the gap between Republicans and Democrats had grown to 43%, as the mantra of “fake news” often permeates the White House news conferences.

One subject that both Democrats and Republicans do agree on is their lack of confidence in medicine. This data predates the pandemic, so voters’ confidence in medicine has likely changed.

As the chart shows, a great deal of confidence in medicine has declined by 42%, with all three partisan groups over the past quarter century. Why this decline is unknown, but most likely the cost of prescription drugs and health care are good candidates. This inter-party agreement does not apply, however, to organized religion, as shown below.

Interestingly, both parties agreed on this institution until 2000, when Democrats started to become more negative. That year, George W. Bush won 68% of the evangelical vote against Al Gore. By 2016, Donald Trump carried 81% of that group and the difference between the two party’s on organized religion increased to 21%. And the gap appears to be widening as the partisan divide expands.

When some evangelicals weaponized religion for political purposes, many Democrats and Independents began to lose confidence in organized religion. That doesn’t mean they reject religion. On the contrary, some 50% of liberal Democrats attend religious services at least once a week and 60% of conservative Democrats say they attend religious services once a week as well.

One of the most important institutions in the US is the military. Americans’ generally revere their men and women in uniform (except during the Vietnam war). So you would expect both party’s to have similar confidence levels. And that was the case until 2001.

After the Vietnam War, partisan confidence in the armed forces tracked each other until 2003. That was when the Bush administration began a military campaign against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. At that point, Republican confidence increased but Democrats initially lagged behind, but soon followed suit, but still significantly lower than Republicans.

Today, 50% of Democratic rank and file members say they have a “great deal of confidence” in the military and almost 80% of Republicans say that as well. In 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War, that level of confidence in the Military was less than 40% among all Americans. That war is most likely forgotten for non Vietnam veterans. Americans have never liked loosing.

This partisan loss in confidence for American institutions follows the growing divide between Republican and Democrats. Many of these changes can be directly related to the political polarization of American politics. As party differences increase, so does the confidence in our institutions.

And so does the stress people feel even when just thinking about politics today. In the July, 2020, ANES survey of voters, they asked how stressful it was for them when thinking about politics. As the table below shows, 80% of strong Republicans and 88% of strong Democrats say that it is stressful for them.

1. Strong Republican7. Strong Democrat
How stressful do you find thinking about politics?1. Extremely stressful %1717
 2. Very stressful %1223
 3. Moderately stressful %2630
 4. A little stressful %2518
 TOTAL %8088

I can’t tell you if this is unusual or not, since this question has only been asked once. In conjunction with my recent post ( on how often Democrats want to slap Republicans (and vice-versa, table below), it indicates that this polarization has taken on an ugly turn.

How often do you feel like Democrats just deserve to be slapped?”

1. Never122621
2. Some of the time183022
3. About half of the time131315
4. Most of the time281826
5. Always29815

When 52% of Republicans feel that Democrats deserve to be slapped always, it shows that the partisan division is now as deep as the Grand Canyon. The motto “United we stand, divided we fall” as Patrick Henry proclaimed, doesn’t resonate as it once did. But when both partisan groups feel this way about each other, communication and respect for different ideas dies as well. Be safe, and don’t slap anyone, even if they deserve it…

By Jim Kane

Jim Kane is a pollster and media advisor, and was for fifteen years an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Kane is founder of the polling firm USAPoll and served as the Director of the Florida Voter Poll. His political clients have included both Republican and Democratic candidates, including the Republican Party of Florida, and both the Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel newspapers. At the University of Florida, Professor Kane taught graduate level courses in political science on Survey Research, Lobbying and Special Interest Groups in America, Political Campaigning, and Political Behavior. In addition to his professional and academic career, Jim Kane has been actively involved in local and state policy decisions. He was elected to the Broward County Soil and Water Conservation Board (1978-1982) and the Port Everglades Authority (1988-1994). Kane also served as an appointed member of the Broward County Planning Council (1995-2003), Broward County Management Review Committee (Chair, 1990-1991), Broward County Consumer Protection Board (1976-1982), and the Broward County School Board Consultants Review Committee (1986-1990).

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