The final months of 2020 are gloomy ones in the United States. Coronavirus cases are rising, economic stress is intensifying, a reckoning over racial inequity is continuing, and the prospect of a contested presidential election is real.
But even before these historic challenges, Americans saw the building blocks of their society and their political culture in deep distress. Surveys by Pew Research Center have chronicled this erosion of public confidence on several fronts.
Trust in the federal government is near a historic low and has been for decades. During the last three presidencies, fewer than 30% of Americans have said they trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” Today, amid the pandemic, only 20% hold that view.
Americans also strike a pessimistic note when it comes to the broader functioning of their democracy. The public generally agrees on the importance of 23 democratic ideals we asked about in a 2018 survey – such as ensuring that the government is open and transparent and that the rights of all people are respected – but most see the U.S. falling well short of those ideals.
At the same time, a growing share question their fellow citizens’ ability to make political decisions: 59% of adults said in 2019 that they have little or no confidence in the wisdom of the people in this regard, up from 42% as recently as 2007.
There are other signs of fraying interpersonal trust, too. In a survey earlier this year, only 29% ofAmericans subscribed to the core elements of social trust: that people can generally be trusted, that they would try to be fair rather than take advantage of others, and that they would try to help others rather than just look out for themselves. In 2019, seven in 10 said this lack of personal trust makes it harder to solve the nation’s problems.
The harmful effects of misinformation are bound up in much of this distrust in institutions and other people. About half of Americans say made-up material has a major effect on our confidence in each other, while about two-thirds say it has a big impact on public confidence in government. And around three-quarters say Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on the basic facts – an obvious precondition to solving problems.
As one respondent in our surveys put it, “As a democracy founded on the principle of E Pluribus Unum, the fact that we are divided and can’t trust sound facts means we have lost our confidence in each other.”
Yet amid these bleak assessments, there is some hope. More than eight in 10 adults believe the level of confidence that Americans have in the federal government and in each other can be improved, and three in four say the same about confidence in the news media. More than half of the public takes the view that “we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want,” rather than the opposite view that “this country can’t solve many of its important problems.”
How would citizens go about repairing things? Of course, they have divergent and often polarized views about policy priorities and choices, political values and the role of government. But at a different level, they have some consistent views about changes they would like to see in the culture and democratic processes.
First, they see community activity as restorative. Asked how they would improve trust in each other, many urge changes in interpersonal behavior, arguing that if people were less tribal and more open to others, it would have a positive effect. Some believe their neighborhoods and local civic groups such as churches, libraries and schools are key places where interpersonal trust can be rebuilt as people work side by side on local projects. They feel these local efforts could radiate upward to national activities.
A 32-year-old female survey participant put it this way: “Get to know your local community. Take small steps towards improving daily life, even if it’s just a trash pick-up. If people feel engaged with their environment and with each other, and they can work together even in a small way, I think that builds a foundation for working together on more weighty issues.”
A sizeable share of Americans also say the news and information ecosystem could be changed in several ways to serve the common good. They recommend that fellow citizens have a more balanced news diet that focuses less on insult-ridden talk shows and sensationalist stories about conflict – and more on the ways people cooperate, persevere and achieve. They see local media as a starting place for this change, too.
“The news should show more good stories of people working together for a common goal, instead of all gloom and doom, so people are fearful of each other,” one respondent said. “There are plenty of good things happening, but it doesn't make the news.”
Many also hope people’s attention will move away from social media, which they believe stokes division, propagates misinformation and distracts from more worthy efforts to engage with neighbors. “Teach civility and hold social media executives accountable for creating a civil war by allowing irresponsible and untruthful propaganda to flow freely,” one of our respondents told us.
A majority of Americans also see the need for reform in democratic processes. Asked to name the biggest problem with government today, many cite Congress, politics or a sense of corruption or undue outside influence, and they back changes to mute the effects of money and special interests. “We are not represented properly,” a 63-year-old male survey participant said. “Special interest groups and corporations run the government.” Of course, once specific ideas to restructure the government are on the table, people’s partisan preferences kick in. But their clear emotional yearning is for a better-performing, less money-saturated and more accountable government.
Many recognize that the climb back to a better-functioning society will be a long one – and that it starts with acts of kindness and cooperation at the individual level. In short, Americans seem to know that the path to rebuilding begins with them.