Back in June, Gallup released a survey that got a fair bit of attention for its finding: Only 10 percent of Americans trust Congress as an institution. Think about it. If you walk into a cafe this morning and there are nine other people in there reading the paper or staring into their laptops, only one of you in the room has faith that the body charged with making our nation's laws can do its job right.
What didn't get quite as much coverage was the fact that Congress was just one of 16 institutions whose public standing Gallup measured. Atop the list in Americans' confidence was the military, followed by small business and the police. Then came organized religion, which about half of Americans trust.
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The bad news in the poll arrived after that. The fifth most-trusted institution is the presidency -- but it enjoyed the confidence of only 36 percent of poll respondents. The Supreme Court stood at 34 percent, down three points from last year. Add Congress into the mix, and these are deeply unsettling numbers.
What lies behind Americans' doubts and cynicism about the three major branches of the federal government -- with the exception of the military -- is undoubtedly a mix of factors. But I suspect it rests most heavily on a broad perception of dysfunction and a deep distaste for the extreme polarization and politicization these institutions have displayed.
We've always looked on the Supreme Court as standing above politics, for instance. Most noticeably starting with its Bush v. Gore decision in the wake of the 2000 elections, however, the court has come to be seen as divided into political factions, with each trying to advance its own agenda. It is now perceived less as an institution of law and more as a political institution.
Congress and the presidency, of course, are political institutions. But the current tenor of American politics works against them. Campaigns are as much or more about attacking the other candidate as they are about debating substantive issues. Every move that members of Congress make -- and that many Republicans believe the president makes -- appears to be about "playing to the base" or putting the other side in an uncomfortable spot. Resolving problems because they need to be resolved -- especially the ones that Americans consider most important, like jobs and the economy -- doesn't seem to be on the agenda.
Americans' lack of confidence in their governing institutions makes correcting most any political or policy problem more difficult. The voters are less open to policy-making or reform, since they don't trust that government can actually solve the issue in front of it. Politicians tend to back away from bold initiatives and become less willing to speak out or to act, because they anticipate the dubious stance with which their proposals will be received.
Much-needed reforms -- to repair the tax system, for instance, or to reshape government institutions -- will be met with skepticism if not indifference. The result is that only very modest efforts can be expected, reaffirming voters' belief that government can't be trusted to work, and fueling political tensions that rise when problems remain unresolved.
Government relies on policy direction and resources allotted by policy makers to do its job. But it relies equally strongly on trust. It may be trite to say that "trust is the coin of the realm," but it's no less true for that. Without it, our institutions simply cannot be effective.
I don't expect this recent poll to be seen as a wake-up call in Washington. The city seems too embroiled in its own machinations to be worried about such matters as "trust." Yet it is also true that if members of Congress, the White House and even Supreme Court justices want Americans to take them seriously, they won't treat our declining confidence in them lightly. They have to invigorate their efforts to renew Americans' trust. Because unless they can do that, it will get harder and harder for them to do their jobs.
• Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.