An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Institutions are critical to our personal and societal well-being. They develop and disseminate knowledge, enforce the law, keep us healthy, shape labor relations, and uphold social and religious norms. But institutions and the people who lead them cannot fulfill their missions if they have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people they are meant to serve.

Americans’ distrust of Congress is long-standing. What is less well-documented is how partisan polarization now aligns with the growing distrust of institutions once thought of as nonpolitical. Refusals to follow public health guidance about COVID-19, calls to defund the police, the rejection of election results, and disbelief of the press highlight the growing polarization of trust. But can these relationships be broken? And how does the polarization of trust affect institutions’ ability to confront shared problems, like climate change, epidemics, and economic collapse?

This Dædalus issue is made possible, in part, by a generous gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which supports a more effective democracy in America by investing in journalism, community, arts, and research in the areas of media and democracy.

A woman lays down a rose at a memorial for Black victims of police violence, San Francisco, California, July 4, 2020. Photo by Daniel Arauz. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
A woman lays down a rose at a memorial for Black victims of police violence, San Francisco, California, July 4, 2020. Photo by Daniel Arauz. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

The Discontents of Truth & Trust in 21st Century America

Credible fact-making for policy demands the same legitimating moves as are required for credible politics. Experts, like politicians, must represent the world in ways that respect diverse standpoints, aggregate disparate opinions to produce a semblance of objectivity, and find persuasive ways to bridge gaps between available and ideal states of knowledge. Every society, moreover, commands its own culturally recognized approaches to producing and testing public knowledge, and expert practices must conform to these to be broadly accepted. Insisting on the superior authority of science without attending to the politics of reason and persuasion will not restore trust in either knowledge or power. Instead, trust can be regained with more inclusive processes for framing policy questions, greater attentiveness to dissenting voices and minority views, and more humility in admitting where science falls short and policy decisions must rest on prudence and concern for the vulnerable.

Fifty Years of Declining Confidence & Increasing Polarization in Trust in American Institutions

Except for the military and science, confidence in most American political and nonpolitical institutions has fallen precipitously over the past fifty years. Declines in trust are partly the result of dissatisfaction with governmental and institutional accountability and concomitant skepticism about the competency and responsiveness of institutions. Declines are also the result of a polarization in trust in institutions, as Republicans trust business, the police, religion, and the military much more than Democrats, whose confidence in these institutions, except the military, has fallen. In turn, Democrats trust labor, the press, science, higher education, and public schools much more than Republicans, whose confidence in these institutions has fallen. Declines and polarization in confidence may be traceable to political polarization stemming from increasing income inequality and segregation in America. With polarization and decreasing trust in institutions, it becomes more difficult to fight epidemics, maintain faith in policing, and deal with problems such as climate change.

Trust in Medicine, the Health System & Public Health

This essay reviews more than forty years of public opinion polling to look at trust in medicine, the health system, and public health. We use polling data to explore the reasons for the decline and current level of public trust in leaders of medicine and public health, including underlying forces such as the decline in trust in other institutions. Except for the military, none of the efforts to improve public trust in various institutions have been very successful to date. Given the uncertainty about how to restore trust, this essay makes a number of recommendations that might improve public trust in medicine and public health in the future.

American Trust in Science & Institutions in the Time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many discussions about how people’s trust in science shaped our ability to address the crisis. Early in the pandemic, our research team set out to understand how trust in science relates to support for public health guidelines, and to identify some trusted sources of science. In this essay, we share our findings and offer ideas about what might be done to strengthen the public’s trust in science. Notably, our research shows a stark partisan divide: Republicans had lower support for public health guidelines, and their trust in science and institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health eroded over time. Meanwhile, Democrats’ trust in science has remained high throughout the pandemic. In the context of this divide, we explore how trust in various information sources, from governmental institutions to the media, relates to trust in science, and suggest that the best avenue for rebuilding trust might be through empowering local institutions and leaders to help manage future crises.

From Anti-Government to Anti-Science: Why Conservatives Have Turned Against Science

Empirical data do not support the conclusion of a crisis of public trust in science. They do support the conclusion of a crisis of conservative trust in science: polls show that American attitudes toward science are highly polarized along political lines. In this essay, we argue that conservative hostility toward science is rooted in conservative hostility toward government regulation of the marketplace, which has morphed in recent decades into conservative hostility to government, tout court. This distrust was cultivated by conservative business leaders for nearly a century, but took strong hold during the Reagan administration, largely in response to scientific evidence of environmental crises that invited governmental response. Thus, science—particularly environmental and public health science—became the target of conservative anti-regulatory attitudes. We argue that contemporary distrust of science is mostly collateral damage, a spillover from carefully orchestrated conservative distrust of government.

Networked Trust & the Future of Media

Americans believe the civic information ecosystem is collapsing. Trust in journalism has declined in the past generation, and news media now draw polarized audiences. Public confidence in social media as a news and information source has never been strong, and people today say social media firms cannot be trusted to be objective or impartial information curators of political discourse or stewards of their users’ personal data. This adds up to public despair about disinformation and misinformation that impinges on the way expert knowledge is evaluated and deeply affects public life. A reckoning for both the news media and social media is at hand: For journalists, the existential challenge centers on the viability of their underlying business model. For social media firms, “techlash” might force them to change their structures and practices. Under the circumstances, networked individuals will determine the contours of trust in media.

Author Lee Rainie

What Does “Trust in the Media” Mean?

Is public trust in the news media in decline? So polls seem to indicate. But the decline goes back to the early 1970s, and it may be that “trust” in the media at that point was too high for the good of a journalism trying to serve democracy. And “the ­media” is a very recent (1970s) notion popularized by some because it sounded more abstract and distant than a familiar term like “the press.” It may even be that people answering a pollster are not trying to report accurately their level of trust but are acting politically to align themselves with their favored party’s perceived critique of the media. This essay tries to reach a deeper understanding of what gives rise to faith or skepticism in various cultural authorities, including journalism.

Trust & Models of Policing

The notion of trust has become central to the discussion of policing and its transformation over the last decade. Scholars, policy-makers, and the agents who purport to carry out public safety projects on behalf of the public now commonly point to trust as one of the central goals of the relationship between policing agencies and members of the public they serve, in contrast to the more common and familiar notion of crime reduction. This essay highlights three common mechanisms agencies and the individuals they comprise use to attempt to improve the public’s trust in police: changing policy, training of police, and citizen oversight boards. Focusing on the conceptual framework that the social psychology of procedural justice offers, the essay then turns to a less common target for change: the very laws police enforce. Changing the police will require not only transforming how its members carry out the job but also the laws they are sworn to uphold.

Race & Political Trust: Justice as a Unifying Influence on Political Trust

Americans’ trust in government is lower than ever. However, while all groups have seen a decline in trust since the 1960s, the gap in trust between racial and ethnic minorities and Whites in this period has varied not only in size but also in direction. At times, racial and ethnic minorities have actually had higher rates of trust than Whites, contradicting the broad assumptions in research about race and political trust. Explanations of the causes of trust in government that emphasize institutional experience and early socialization would not predict this outcome. We propose that an underutilized component in the study of race and political trust is perceived justice. On one hand, racial and ethnic minorities’ sensitivity to institutional injustice often leads to lower rates of trust. On the other hand, when racial and ethnic minorities perceive there are greater opportunities for racial progress, which signal that widespread harm can be repaired, their political trust tends to increase, sometimes to levels that exceed those for Whites. The interplay between political realities that shape perceived justice as well as political hope for racial progress likely creates the variable longitudinal patterns of racial and ethnic differences in trust.

Religion, Democracy & the Task of Restoring Trust

There is a palpable sense of betrayal when religious leaders participate in moral malfeasance: when they engage in illicit sexual affairs, commit or condone child abuse, or deal in fraudulent financial transactions. Betrayals like these prompt doubts that religious leaders can be trusted and pose questions about the organizations they represent. But what can be learned from these episodes? I discuss the dramatic erosion of confidence in religious organizations that has taken place in recent years, framing it in terms of arguments about moral decline and institutional changes in religion. I show how betrayals of trust become symbolic representations of larger societal problems that are deemed to necessitate remediation. How the betrayals are interpreted becomes the basis for several mechanisms through which attempts are made to restore trust: confessions, investigations, and litigation. Their limitations notwithstanding, they cast light on the major challenges we face as a nation in seeking to restore trust in our basic institutions and our faith in American democracy.

Trustworthy Government: The Obligations of Government & the Responsibilities of the Governed

Establishing trustworthy government is a major problem for contemporary democracies. Without public confidence, government faces considerable noncompliance with its policies, as has been the case with the reaction of some subpopulations to COVID safety requirements. The pressures on government today are numerous. The challenges are complex and the polity diverse. Creating confidence and thus willing compliance requires a demonstrated government competence. It also requires political leadership committed to the collective good and to forging a common identity among multiple subgroups while recognizing their distinctive differences and needs. Citizens are also crucial actors. It is incumbent upon a democratic citizenry that it recognizes its responsibilities to and interdependence with others in the polity as members of an expanded community of fate.

Author Margaret Levi

Trust in Elections

The sometimes violent movement to reject the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election draws our attention to the topic of trust in the institution of American election administration. An examination of this topic must make an important distinction between trust in elections (a psychological construct) and the trustworthiness of election results (a legal construct). The history of election administration in the United States is full of examples of efforts to increase the trustworthiness of elections to ensure that results are based on fair and competent administration. The resilience of these efforts was on display following the 2020 election, as formal institutions rejected claims that the election was fraudulent. Still, the past two decades have seen a decline in trust in American elections that has primarily been driven by a slow but steady decline in trust among Republicans. Surprisingly, the increased polarization in trust most recently has been due more to Democrats suddenly becoming more trusting. Election officials must continue to try to overcome attacks on trust in the system, but it is unclear how long they can sustain the legal system guaranteeing free and fair elections without broad-based public trust in how we administer elections.

Specific Sources of Trust in Generals: Individual-Level Trust in the U.S. Military

This essay explores the individual-level determinants of trust in the U.S. military. Prior research has identified five possible drivers of societal trust in the military: performance, professionalism, persuasion, personal connection, and partisanship. Using data from the American National Election Studies and the General Social Survey, we emphasize the importance of understanding trust at an individual level, as perceptions of military performance and professionalism are not objective but mediated by individual-level factors. Our findings reinforce mixed support for trust being linked to assessments of military success on or off the battlefield, and undermine arguments that relate high trust to a widening gap between the military and civilian society. We also present new evidence for generational and ideational sources of military trust consistent with recent speculation that trust in the military is declining. Overall, we show that individual-level trust may be difficult to change, but that public trust in the military has consequences for a variety of defense-oriented policies.

Authors Max Margulies and Jessica Blankshain