Introduction

Since the beginning of 2020, America has faced unprecedented challenges: impeachment hearings, COVID-19 and the ensuing shutdown of the U.S. economy in the midst of an election year, a historic surge in unemployment, and racial unrest resulting in mass protests around the world. Increasingly, there are questions about the role of public and private institutions from government and police to academia and the media. These questions are followed by calls to reform these institutions that make up the fabric of our daily lives. In the midst of such rapid change, the deluge of information and misinformation has been staggering. Americans could once rely on the accuracy of data from established sources and institutions, but now pervasive distrust undermines the authority and credibility of institutions, elected officials, and the media. Most importantly, distrust amongst communities and even neighbors creates more division, hampering the ability to collaborate to find solutions and build opportunities for all Americans.

Defining Trust

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, the key components of establishing trust in institutions and leaders are:

  • Honesty: leaders will not benefit themselves at the expense of regular people and will take responsibility for their actions
  • Fairness: leaders will have people’s best interests in mind and work for a better future for all individuals, families, and communities
  • Purpose: leaders will handle resources responsibly in efforts to solve the country’s problems
  • Vision: leaders are competent and capable of bringing about change

Why it Matters

When citizens lack trust in each other and institutions, “they are less likely to comply with laws and regulations, pay taxes, tolerate different viewpoints or ways of life, contribute to economic vitality, resist the appeals of demagogues, or support their neighbors… They are less likely to create and invent.” Citizens will be hesitant or even unwilling to cooperate freely if they do not believe others are responsible or trustworthy, or believe their rights are guaranteed and protected by society’s institutions.

Free societies are those that rely on “the basis of mutual trust and cooperation between individuals,” each of whom accepts “rules of interpersonal behaviour voluntarily.” Trust instills in individuals a sense of responsibility “to use their capacities in the best possible way to better serve society.”

Trust is also “the basis upon which the legitimacy of governments is built.” According to the Institute of Economic Affairs, the role of government “is to protect our freedom against violation by others – and to extend it to where it does not fully exist and enlarge it where it is incomplete.” Citizens’ belief that the government “will punish those who fail to respect personal property,” for example, is part of why they are willing to buy property and respect the property of others.

Governments only have this ability because they “have the consent of the governed, and are themselves governed by rules to prevent them exploiting their authority.” This goes beyond having trust in particular candidates, parties, or policies and refers to a general trust in institutions and the rule of law. The Institute of Economic Affairs outlines the importance of the rule of law in a free society in this video (2 min):

In summary, when citizens trust each other and the fundamental societal institutions, they cooperate freely and willingly for mutual benefit. Through the combination of trust, responsibility, and freedom, society prospers and people generally find meaning in their lives.

The State of Trust in America

Government

American National Election Studies (ANES) began asking about trust in the federal government in 1958, when 75% of the population demonstrated trust in government. These levels of trust eroded during the late 1960s and 1970s, reflecting the turbulence of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and economic struggles. During the 1980s and 1990s, trust in the government fluctuated, tending to correlate to good economic growth. It reached a three-decade high shortly after the 9/11 attacks, but since 2007 fewer than 30% of respondents have said they can trust the federal government “always” or “most of the time.” In particular, the 2020 Gallup Confidence in Institutions survey marked the 14th consecutive year that Congress is the lowest-ranked institution amongst Americans; only 6% of Americans say they trust Congress “a great deal,” and 46% say they have very little or no confidence in Congress.

Levels of trust in state and local governments are measurably higher than trust in the federal government. According to the January 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, 54% of Americans said they trusted their state and local governments to do what is right, while only 43% of Americans had the same trust in the federal government. See the chart from ANES below tracking Americans’ trust in the federal government over time:

America has not been alone in this respect; a 2017 global survey by Pew Research of 38 countries found a median of only 14% of people around the world say they trust their national government “a lot.” According to Gallup World Poll, between 2006 and 2017, 26 of 38 Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries saw declines in overall levels of trust in national governments, with some seeing declines of over 20%. As of 2019, only 45% of citizens trusted their government and the January 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found two-thirds of the global population does not have “confidence that our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges.”

Reasons for declining trust in national governments include:

  • “public- and private-sector corruption” 
  • “poisonous public rhetoric”
  • “governments’ inability to provide essential security and human services”
  • “breakdowns in the rule of law”
  • “rising economic inequality”
  • “perceptions that neither individual voices nor votes matter”
  • “the sense that elites and the powerful have rigged the system”
  • “volatile media and social media climate”

Trust in Law Enforcement

Trust and feelings of safety are interconnected; strong relationships and mutual trust between police and communities are necessary for maintaining public safety and helping individuals feel secure.

A December 2018 Congressional Research Service report found that overall confidence in the police declined between 2014 and 2015 after “high-profile incidents in which men of color were killed during confrontations with the police,” reaching a low of 52%. By 2017, the numbers had risen, with 57% of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, which matched a 25-year average based on Gallup polling. Additionally, in 2018, PEW Research found roughly 80% of U.S. adults said police officers care about people and handle resources responsibly some or most of the time; over 70% said police officers provide fair and accurate information to the public some or most of the time; and 65% said police officers take responsibility for their mistakes some or most of the time.

When broken down by demographic group,  trust in police differs from these overall results, as evidenced by a December 2018 Pew Research poll and data compiled by Gallup between 1993 and 2020:

 

The Center for Advancing Opportunity’s 2020 report on The State of Opportunity in America, which focused on “Americans in areas of concentrated poverty,” found similar disparities. Black (35%) and Hispanic (18%) residents are more likely than White residents (11%) to say police treat them unfairly, and Black (45%) and Hispanic (25%) residents are more likely than White residents (19%) to say the legal system treats them unfairly. At the same time, more Black (52%) and Hispanic residents (59%) than White residents (46%) say they want police to spend more time in their area. Jason Riley, WSJ editorial board member and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says national conversations about better policing must acknowledge communities with high crime rates to understand the simultaneous mistrust of police and desire for more policing.

For more, see The Policy Circle’s Understanding Law Enforcement Brief, or watch The Policy Circle’s recent Virtual Discussion on Understanding Law Enforcement and Policing in America.

Trust in the Private Sector

According to a 2020 Morning Consult poll, 55% of Americans say they trust the average American company, but 60% of U.S. adults say corruption is widespread in business. The 2020 Gallup Confidence in Institutions survey found small businesses in particular have Americans’ trust, with 75% of U.S. adults saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in small businesses. Only 19% of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in big businesses.

Almost 75% of all respondents to the January 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer believe “CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to impose it.” Cybersecurity, scandals, and disseminating misleading or inaccurate information are areas in which the public believes businesses can begin to increase confidence and trust levels.

Trust in Science & Academia

The National Science Foundation found that levels of trust in science have held stable since the 1970s, demonstrated in the chart below. Roughly 70% of Americans “have said they believe the effects of scientific research are more positive than negative for society,” and on average 40% of Americans have expressed “a great deal of confidence” in leaders of the scientific community while less than 10% have expressed “hardly any” confidence. The General Social Survey in 2018 also found 89% of Americans believe scientists work toward the public good and 88% believe scientists want to make life better. As of 2019, 86% of U.S. respondents to a PEW Research survey have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists to act in the best interest of the public.

A 2017 YouGov survey found 80% of U.S. adults said they trust scientists to provide accurate and reliable information, but over 70% said they are concerned scientific findings are influenced by sponsoring companies or organizations. There are also minor demographic differences; PEW Research found that White adults and Hispanic adults are more likely than Black adults to positively view medical doctors and research scientists, although majorities across all demographic groups still have overall positive views.

For more on trust in the healthcare system, see The Policy Circle’s brief on Health Disparities and Determinants of Health.

Trust in Media

Most Americans (84%) believe the news media is important to democracy, and focus on the media’s role to “provide accurate and fair news reports,” “ensure Americans are informed about public affairs,” and “hold leaders accountable for their actions.” At the same time, trust in the media has been falling consistently over the past two decades. This aligns with what Columbia Journalism Review calls “a profound shift in journalism,” when “ journalism began to embrace the necessity of interpretation.” This shift “places great responsibility on readers to discern for themselves the difference between what can be trusted as factual and what represents a reporter’s judgment,” says Michael Schudson  of Columbia Journalism School.

According to a 2018 Knight Foundation report, the proportion of Americans with a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media fell from 54% to 32% between 2003 and 2016, and 69% of U.S. adults reported their trust in the news media has decreased in the past decade. A full 75% of respondents cited bias and 66% cited inaccuracy as reasons for this decrease. Majorities of Americans also say their trust in the media is limited by the lack of media’s transparency in how stories are produced, where there are conflicts of interest, and where funding comes from.

For social media in particular, Americans are fairly consistent in their opinions. A 2019 WSJ poll found majorities of Americans believe social media divides society and spreads lies and rumors, as illustrated in this chart:

Over 60% of Americans believe social media has a negative effect on the country, with 28% of those respondents citing misinformation as the primary reason. Almost 70% of Americans do not trust social media companies to determine which posts on their sites should be labeled as inaccurate. Americans are split about regulations and censorship: 54% of Americans say they are unsatisfied with the extent of government regulation of social media companies, and another 55% say they would prefer the companies rather than the government make decisions about what content appears on social media sites.

Trust in Communities and Each Other

In Norway, Sweden, and Finland, over 60% of residents think most people can be trusted. Halfway around the world, less than 10% of residents in Columbia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru believe this. Overall, the Edelman Trust Barometer found people worldwide have more trust in their fellow citizens than they do in CEOs, journalists, and government leaders, as illustrated by the chart below:

In the U.S. levels of trust are not as high as global averages, with approximately 37% of Americans believing “most people can be trusted” and 62% saying people “need to be very careful” around others, according to the World Values Survey. A 2019 PEW study of Trust and Distrust in America found Americans’ trust in each other has deteriorated in the last two decades. This lack of confidence can extend into all sectors of the community, from government to schools to the environment.

“Empathy as well as generally attempting to understand and to help each other are all at disturbingly low levels…”44 year old male, PEW Research survey respondent

Impact of the Coronavirus

Government

FiveThirtyEight reported in April 2020 that about 56% of Americans were “at least somewhat confident” in the government’s ability to handle the outbreak and share accurate information, and that same month an Ipsos/USA Today poll found 41% of adults have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust specifically in Congress’s ability. Overall trust in the national government rose slightly from 43% in January to 46% in April. These polls show Americans’ trust in the government increased after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which matches global trends: the May 2020 Edelman report found worldwide increases in trust in government, making it the most-trusted institution for the first time.

These findings support the “‘rally ‘round the flag’ phenomenon in which citizens rally around their leaders during times of crisis,” but such increases in support and confidence are usually temporary. In June of 2020, Northwestern University reported the share of Americans who believed the federal government was “reacting about right” to the coronavirus pandemic had fallen from 53% in April to 44% in late May. As of August 2020, 62% of Americans said, “the U.S. response to the coronavirus outbreak has been less effective than that of other wealthy nations.”

After increasing at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, trust in local government has also slipped. The May 2020 Edelman report found trust in local and state governments rose from 54% in January to 66% in April. By August, the share of Americans who believed their state and local governments were handling the pandemic well had fallen from 70% and 69% in April to 56% and 60%, respectively.

Law Enforcement

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the death of George Floyd at the hand of police officers in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked nationwide protests against excessive use of force and racial bias in policing. In June 2020, an Axios-Ipsos poll found 77% of White respondents said they trust local police to have their best interests in mind, compared to just 36% of Black respondents. A Marist poll that same month found similar results: 70% of White respondents and 31% of Black respondents said they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in their communities’ police officers to treat Black and White people equally. For the whole population, Gallup’s 2020 Confidence in Institutions survey found confidence in the police fell to 48% in August 2020, “marking the first time in the 27 year trend that this reading is below the majority level.”

Science & Academia

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans indicated they “overwhelmingly trust the CDC” to handle the pandemic and share accurate information, with total trust for the agency around 80%. The share of Americans believing the CDC and other public health officers are doing an excellent or good job has since fallen, hitting 63% as of August 2020. At the local level, Americans’ belief that “hospitals and medical centers in their area are doing an excellent or good job in responding to the coronavirus outbreak” have held steady since May, at around 88% of Americans.

A PEW Research survey conducted in late April and early May found trust and confidence in medical scientists and scientists had increased since the outbreak. Additionally, 60% of Americans said scientists should take an active role in public policy debates on scientific issues, and 47% said they believe “scientific experts are usually better at making good policy decisions about scientific issues than other people.”

Media

Worldwide, there was an increase in trust in news sources at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite this all-time high, the media is still the least trusted institution behind government, NGOs, and businesses; according to the May 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, 67% of people “worry that there is a lot of fake news and false information being spread about the virus.”

In the U.S. specifically, Pew Research found 89% of Americans were following the media “very” or “fairly” closely in March 2020, but 62% thought the media was greatly or slightly exaggerating. An April 2020 Ipsos/USA Today poll found 46% of Americans trusted the media to report accurately on the coronavirus, and an equal 46% did not. An August 2020 Edelman report found about half of Americans (49%) are getting most of their information about the coronavirus from major news organizations, and 46% of Americans say “they will never believe information about the coronavirus” if the only place they see that information is on social media.

According to Harvard University’s NeimanLab, what the general public reads or sees in the media heavily influences their opinions about current events, from the coronavirus to protests to social movements. Since the early stages of the pandemic, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have seen growth and increases in usage as people search for information and ways to remain connected, meaning these platforms are all the more influential. Says Nathaniel Persily, Stanford law professor and co-director of the Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, “‘There is a fight on social media as to how to portray the events on the ground’,” so protests have “turned into an online battle of opposing views.”

Private Sector

Gallup’s 2020 Confidence in Institutions survey found far more Americans have confidence in small businesses (75%, up from 68% in 2019) than they do in larger businesses (19%, down from 23% in 2019), and believe big businesses should be doing more. The May 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found a majority of respondents (65%) across eleven countries including the U.S. believe CEOs “should take the lead on addressing the pandemic rather than waiting for government to impose restrictions and demands on their businesses.” An additional 78% of respondents said it is businesses’ responsibility “to ensure their employees are protected.”

In April 2020, only 46% of Americans believed businesses were “[i]mplementing safety measures to protect workers and customers.” These findings appear to have held over the summer; as of August 2020, only 50% of Americans say they trust the safety of corporate offices. Worldwide, about 70% of respondents say their employers have effectively communicated a strategy for returning to the workplace.

How to Build Trust

Trust builds when people feel they are part of a community- or society-wide enterprise that takes their concerns and voices into account.” As Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei presents, trust depends on communicating quality logic, empathy, and authenticity. These provide the foundation on which to build trust in leadership, and engage citizens to solve problems in their communities and society. Watch Professor Frei’s entire explanation on how to build and rebuild trust (15 min):

Government

The Institute of Economic Affairs reminds us, “In a free society, the government has responsibilities to us… It is there to serve the citizens – not the other way around.” The government is an entity formed by the people, and as such citizens have the responsibility not only to vote for elected officials, but also to hold those officials accountable and demand transparency once they are in office.

For more on understanding the role of government and how government functions, see The Policy Circle Briefs on the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the U.S. Constitution.

Citizens can also connect with elected officials regarding policies that are working and policies that need to be fixed or implemented by encouraging localized, public policy solutions that best serve the needs of their communities. Public policy may seem like a difficult world to step into, but elected officials are only human and need feedback from their constituents on how policies are impacting real people. Here are questions to consider asking when developing and analyzing public policy:

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This insightful video from Rohit Malhotra considers the value of local conversation and human interactions when rebuilding  trust in institutions and in each other (17min):

Law Enforcement

Dr. David J. Thomas, Ph.D., professor at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Justice Studies Program and former police officer, believes the greatest challenge facing police “is regaining the trust of those that we serve.” Misunderstandings between police and citizens, he says, have given rise to an isolated police culture in which few officers are held accountable for violations. Those who do face discipline “are often allowed to resign in lieu of termination,” so they may be hired by another agency.

As citizens, some avenues of engagement include reaching out to both police officers and constituents in your community, or supporting and volunteering with groups working to bridge gaps and rebuild trust and cooperation between communities and law enforcement personnel. Researching policing reform options, such as use-of-force training, and the facts driving them is another way to start becoming more involved and better understand the situation.

Get started with The Policy Circle’s brief on Understanding Law Enforcement.

Science & Academia

Majorities of U.S. adults indicate they are more trusting of scientific studies when the data is available to the public or has been reviewed by independent committees, and they are less trusting when they know industry funding was involved in studies. Researching and getting involved in science-focused initiatives, task forces, and commissions in your community  is a way to become a careful consumer of science. Ask questions about research and how information is disseminated.

Private Sector

According to the January 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, ethics is the most important component for companies to build trust. This finding held for Edelman’s May 2020 update, in which the public indicated businesses can maintain or increase levels of public confidence and trust. Majorities of the respondents said businesses can do so by donating or shifting production to produce needed equipment (67% and 62%, respectively) and collaborating with competitors (65%) in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Companies can also empower, trust, and support employees in taking initiative with the customers they serve, and emphasize transparency, accountability, and constructive partnerships to find solutions. Business Insider and Harvard Business Review offer ideas for evaluating the effectiveness of existing initiatives. Forums for open dialogue, such as The Policy Circle, may be helpful in building trust and understanding across different perspectives and backgrounds amongst associates.

Media

Bias, inaccuracy, and fake news are the most prevalent concerns when it comes to trusting media sources. The RAND Corporation’s Truth Decay Project takes a look at these concerns, investigating how the rise of social media and political and social polarization have contributed to “the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.”

News organizations can take the steps to explain themselves, such as being more transparent in how they gather their news, how they are funded, or why they cannot divulge a source. Another idea is labeling technologies; much like labels that “instill confidence in our food, medicine, and other consumer goods,” such labels or disclaimers could also work to “instill trust in the news, video, people, and organizations we encounter on social networks.”

It is also up to individuals to do their due diligence and be responsible consumers of information. Educating ourselves to be news literate and seeking fact checkers can help us decide which outlets to turn to for news whether or not those are trustworthy sources of information, and if there are other viewpoints to consider. TedEd provides a few more tips (5 min):

Communities and Each Other

Civic engagement means more than just voting, but starting small in your community can have a significant impact. In their new book, The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett argue Americans can come together as communities, and Americans do still believe “their neighborhoods are a key place where interpersonal trust can be rebuilt if people work together on local projects, in turn radiating trust out to other sectors of the culture.”

For more on the role of strong communities, see The Policy Circle’s Stitching the Fabric of Neighborhoods Brief.

One significant component of communities is schools, where creating “a culture of respect for students, teachers, school administrators, and community members” reflects the collaborative goal of public schools. “One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government.” Today, based on results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 23% of American 8th graders are proficient in civics and only 18% are proficient in U.S. History.

There are a number of ways the education system can prepare young Americans to be more active participants in society. The Center for Civic Education and the National Constitution Center offer resources to help teachers incorporate civics issues into classroom discussions and activities. Other options include service-oriented extracurriculars and giving students a voice in how their school operates. Outside of school, service programs like AmeriCorps allow participants of all ages to work with and in communities, advancing causes they care about and creatively responding to specific community needs. Individuals and communities can reach out to educators, school administrators, and even school boards or boards of education to understand how school districts teach civics, and what opportunities have the potential to be incorporated into curricula.

“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.” 32 year old female PEW Research survey respondent

Discussing credibility and trust often involves having difficult conversations with those who do not share the same thoughts or opinions. Most people would rather not have discussions with anyone who might disagree with them, but working across these differences to build relationships is the only way to understand why someone has a different opinion. The goal of building relationships, says Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, is to “take on the tough issues and debate them without pointing fingers or laying blame or being divisive – being thoughtful and listening.” Communication in small discussions allows people to engage directly with one another, which can open doors of understanding and collaboration and result in innovative solutions that benefit everyone involved.

For how to get started, see The Policy Circle’s Civic Engagement Brief or explore the framework for facilitating complex discussions:

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Thought Leaders & Additional Resources

Suggestions for your Next Conversation

Explore the Series

This brief is part of a series of recommended conversations designed for circle's wishing to pursue a specific focus for the year. Each series recommends "5" briefs to provide a year of conversations.