Crisis in Confidence: America loses faith in its institutions

We’ve heard a lot about the drop in confidence in the US Supreme Court since it overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, and our own research bears that out. But, the problem is much bigger than that. America’s confidence in its institutions is declining across the board.

In a recent survey that we conducted with a nationally representative sample of over 1,000 Americans (see “About the Survey” at the end of this blog post), we found that America’s confidence has declined for all institutions since we took our last measurement in 2018.

First, we see a significant decline in confidence in the courts in general. While the biggest decline is seen for the U.S. Supreme Court, confidence has dropped considerably for other federal courts, state and local courts, the judiciary, and even the jury system.

Aside from the court system, consumer confidence has also declined for all other institutions we asked about, including government, law enforcement and education.

Confidence is lowest among young people
The decline in confidence in our institutions is particularly acute among younger people. Gen Z (18–25-year-olds) has little faith in most of our institutions, including our court system, our political system, law enforcement, and even higher ed.

Besides the confidence gap, young people feel less in control over their lives in general and are less likely to feel that their votes will make a difference in the current state of affairs.

What happens when an entire generation loses faith in a nation’s institutions? What does that mean for the legitimacy and very survival of these institutions? And, what does that mean for governing in the future?

Another data point in the survey suggest that the consequences could be significant.

In both 2018 and 2022, survey participants were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement “If the United States government passes a law, we should all obey it, even if we feel it is wrong.”

Overall, the percent who agree with this statement dropped six points, from 55% in 2018 to 49% in 2022. However, among Gen Z – the drop was particularly dramatic, with just 25% of Gen Z agreeing with this statement, down from 42% four years ago.

In other words, only one-quarter of Gen Z (25%) feel compelled to obey laws that they don’t agree with. By contrast, six in ten boomers (62%) say that we should obey laws even if we don’t agree with them.

But, more Americans trust science
While Americans may be losing faith in our institutions, most still believe in science.

One bright spot in our recent survey is a slight uptick in confidence in scientific evidence. In 2022, 74% of Americans agreed with the statement “I find scientific evidence and information to be generally trustworthy,” up from 69% in 2018.

This trust in science has improved particularly for Gen Z, which rose from 62% in 2018 to 73% in 2022.

Given all of the controversy around Covid vaccines and public health measures, it is unclear how and why science has held its own in the face of declining faith in our institutions. And, not surprisingly, Republicans have less faith in science than Democrats.

However, the fact that science is holding its own suggests that Americans still have the capacity to believe in something. In our next blog post we’ll take a look at the national mood and how that is likely to impact the upcoming midterm elections.

About the Survey
Unless otherwise noted, data in this report come from our recent “Willow Poll,” which explored confidence in institutions, the national mood, and other social and political issues. The study, conducted in August and September 2022, is based on online interviews with a nationally representative sample of over 1,000 Americans age 18 and over. Demographic quotas were established based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

Interviewing was conducted online by Prodege, an innovative global survey sample provider.

This is the first of many blog posts from Willow Poll that will be published in the coming months. Sign up for our blog to receive future posts.


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