The three most-trusted social institutions in North Carolina are the military, the police, and small business. Make of that what you will. I made the following column.
Last month, the polling unit of High Point University presented respondents with a list of 15 institutions. Mirroring a long-running Gallup question for the nation as a whole, HPU asked whether North Carolinians had “a great deal, quite a lot, some, or very little” trust in each of the institutions.
Only the military and small business earned a high level of trust from a majority of North Carolinians. The same was true for Gallup’s latest national sample. As for the police, 48% of North Carolinians said “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” vs. 47% who said “some” or “very little.” For the nation, those shares for the police were 45% and 54% respectively.
For all other institutions on the list, a plurality or majority of both groups expressed low levels of trust. Examples from the North Carolina poll results include banks (54% “some” or “very little”), public schools (56%), the U.S. Supreme Court (58%), the presidency (63%), television news (68%), Congress (69%), big business (69%), and, alas, newspapers (66%).
If political partisans squint really hard at these results, they may see patterns they find reassuring. Democrats can point to declining levels of trust in the U.S. Supreme Court (from 36% in 2021 to 25% in 2022) and blame the court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Democrats can also cite public suspicion of big business as a justification for the Biden administration’s ramped-up antitrust investigations and tax-increase proposals.
For their part, Republicans can point out that, despite all the attention on specific cases of police misconduct, most North Carolinians don’t hold law enforcement as a whole responsible for them. “Defund the police” remains both a preposterous public policy and a disastrous electoral message. Republicans can also take comfort that the public largely agrees with their suspicion of the mainstream media.
As I pondered the survey findings, however, I found myself drawn to a different set of questions.
First, when it comes to the public institutions on the list, do people truly distinguish between trust in the institution and support for what its current occupants may be doing? I suspect the answer is no. If Democrats tend to express distrust in the presidency when a Republican is in the White House, and vice versa, that doesn’t really tell us what they think of the institution.
Second, when it comes to the media institutions, did they always have such low credibility? The answer is no. In the 2022 Gallup poll, 49% of Americans said they had very little trust in television news, while 43% said the same about newspapers. Before the turn of the century, those percentages typically stayed in the teens or 20s.
That suggests it may be possible for the news media to recover their footing. Partisan cheerleading won’t do it, however. I think there remains plenty of room in the market for straight reporting and for providing audiences with balanced diets of news, analysis, and commentary. As for outlets with a philosophical lean, I think they can build credibility, too, by being transparent about their leanings while demonstrating a willingness to call strikes against batters with whom they might normally agree.
Finally, is there anything new about the public’s evident preference for small business over big business? No — but like some of the other polling gaps, it’s gotten wider. In 1997, just 24% of Americans said they had very little trust in big business. In 2022, 40% did. During the same period, the public’s view of small business barely changed.
Now, a healthy skepticism of large institutions is entirely consistent with the preservation of freedom, order, and self-government. What troubles me is the extent to which healthy skepticism has in recent years evolved into a corrosive cynicism. Does this trouble our leaders, too? If so, actions would speak louder than words.