Here's Just How Little Confidence Americans Have In Political Institutions | KERA News

Here's Just How Little Confidence Americans Have In Political Institutions

Jan 17, 2018
Originally published on January 18, 2018 2:58 pm

Trust in the institutions that have been the pillars of U.S. politics and capitalism is crumbling.

That is one finding from the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, which shows that Americans have limited confidence in its public schools, courts, organized labor and banks — and even less confidence in big business, the presidency, the political parties and the media.

The only institution that Americans have overwhelming faith in is the military — 87 percent say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military. That is a striking change from the 1970s during and after the Vietnam War.

In 1977, according to Gallup, 57 percent had that level of confidence in the military, 30 points lower. There have been some big changes in the last 40 years, including the draft being abolished and fewer and fewer Americans knowing someone serving in the military.

The American public has the least confidence in Congress, the body tasked with making laws that can affect every person in the country. Just 8 percent of people have a great deal of confidence in the institution. Almost two-thirds of Republicans expressed little confidence in Congress — and their party runs it.

Not far behind Congress is the Republican Party, not a good sign for the GOP in an election year with an unpopular president. Just 29 percent of Americans said they have quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in the party, compared with 68 percent who said they don't have very much or none at all in the party.

Democrats, though, should temper their glee. They fare better, but not by much. Just 36 percent expressed confidence in the Democratic Party versus 62 percent who did not.

And the media looks just about as bad as the GOP, with 68 percent not having much confidence or none at all in the press.

Particularly worrisome for the media is that a majority of Republicans, a 53 percent, have no confidence in them at all. Combined with those who said not very much confidence, 90 percent of Republicans expressed a lack of confidence in the media.

Forty-two percent of Democrats felt the same, as did three-quarters of independents. Fairness and objectivity are tenets and pillars of a free press, but those have been eroded in the eyes of many Americans.

At the same time, however, a solid majority said they trust their favorite news source more than President Trump by a 29-point margin, 58 percent to 29 percent. That included 85 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents. However, 63 percent of Republicans still trust the president more.

Trump has taken on the media, calling it "fake news" and even attacked the conservative media juggernaut Fox News Channel.

Editor's note: This poll was conducted Jan. 8-10 and surveyed 1,350 adults with a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points. There were 1,092 registered voters surveyed with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


The investigation that's being led by special counsel Robert Mueller has been under a lot of partisan scrutiny, and fewer than half of Americans think it's being conducted fairly. That is according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. We also found a lot of doubt about government and private institutions. NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro is with us now to talk through the findings. Hello.


MCEVERS: So just shy of a majority of people think Mueller's investigation is fair. What else did this poll find about how the public views the Russia investigation?

MONTANARO: Well, Americans really are divided on the investigation, you know, especially by party. And we see that throughout almost everything that we survey on. But almost three quarters of Democrats think it's been fair. But a majority of Republicans - guess what - do not.


MONTANARO: Overall, 68 percent say Mueller should be allowed, though, to finish the investigation. But personally, he's pretty vulnerable. More than 4 in 10 don't know who he is, or they have no opinion of him. And of those who do, they're pretty split. Just 29 percent have a favorable impression of Mueller. An equal 29 percent have an unfavorable impression of him - and again, pretty hotly partisan.


MONTANARO: So what's all this mean - that the conservative campaign against Mueller that's been waged in conservative media has been working. Our pollster said if he were a candidate, now would be the time to start putting up those ads to define himself because right now, he's only being defined by his opponents. He of course, though - he's notably not a candidate. He's kind of the opposite of somebody who would go on a campaign for himself - very private guy and conducting this investigation behind the scenes. And there's also a campaign against the integrity of the FBI, including from the president. But our poll shows that 57 percent actually have quite a bit of confidence or a great deal of confidence in that law enforcement agency.

MCEVERS: This poll asked more broadly about institutions beyond the FBI, meaning other parts of government - schools, banks, the military. You wrote today on that trust is crumbling in our institutions. I mean, how bad is it?

MONTANARO: Well, it's really not great at all for especially American political institutions.


MONTANARO: Just 8 percent have a great deal of confidence in Congress. Overwhelming numbers of people have little confidence in both major political parties. A solid majority have not much or no confidence in the presidency, and that's something that has happened, you know, back to Barack Obama where the presidency has become pretty polarized. The only institution that holds up very well at all is the military - whopping 87 percent of Americans have at least quite a lot of confidence in the military. And that's a huge change from a generation ago in the '70s. After and during the Vietnam War, far fewer people had that kind of confidence in the military - lot's changed in 40 years - no longer have the draft. Fewer and fewer Americans know someone who's served.

MCEVERS: 2018 of course is an election year. What should politicians be mindful of in these findings?

MONTANARO: People are skeptical of them, you know, and that...


MONTANARO: ...They don't have a lot of rope with the public. Again, of all the institutions we polled, Americans have the least amount of confidence in Congress and Republicans. That's a pretty bad sign for the party in power in an election year. But Democrats really should not start celebrating because they don't fare much better. And everyone in an elective office, frankly, has got to watch their back.

MCEVERS: And quickly, the media is an institution that of course has been a constant target of President Trump. What do people think about us?

MONTANARO: Yeah, well, they don't have a ton of confidence in the media, suffice it to say.


MONTANARO: Just 30 percent say they do; 68 percent don't. Trump has talked a lot about fake news. We heard Jeff Flake today talk about how the free press is the enemy of despots. Well, it looks like Trump's attacks may be working because 53 percent of Republicans say they have no confidence in the media at all, and that's pretty bad when the truth and fairness, objectivity are the pillars of a free press.

MCEVERS: NPR's Domenico Montanaro with findings from the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. We'll have more tomorrow on Morning Edition. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.