Trust in US institutions hits new low…and lack of civic education is partly to blame

On the heels of July 4 – a holiday that some Americans have publicly said they are not celebrating this year – Gallup released a survey stating that “Americans’ confidence in key institutions has hit a new low this year.” Distrust extends far beyond our political institutions to include the media, big tech, public schools and colleges, organized religion, and the police. Only two institutions retain the confidence of the majority of respondents: small businesses and the army. Here at Philanthropy Roundtable, where we support civic education and work to connect our members with organizations dedicated to preserving our founders’ vision of guaranteeing the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, these statistics are baffling.

According to the Gallup poll, of the three branches of the federal government, only 25% of Americans trust the Supreme Court, down 11% from last year. The presidency retains confidence at 23%, down from 15%, and Congress’s confidence level now sits at a meager 7%, down from 5%. With all branches at their lowest trust levels on record, it’s no surprise that, according to a New York Times/Siena College survey, only 13% of Americans think the country is moving in the right direction. In an article published on the investigation, an editor from The Hill commented it’s “a terrible number for Democrats, who hold slim majorities in the House and Senate.” In fact, it’s a terrible number for all of us.

Clearly – and somewhat hearteningly – some of the mistrust reported seems to stem from a lack of knowledge about our basic institutions and how they should work. Complaints that the Senate is not “democratic” because all 50 states have equal representation, regardless of population, fall into this category. So make suggestions that Supreme Court opinions should reflect the wishes of the majority of Americans. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Last spring, Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia spoke about the lack of education in schools about constitutional issues. Judge Ginsburg noted that schools no longer provide “an education that encompasses the minimum a citizen should know about how our government works, why it was structured the way it was, and what its rights and obligations are.” He went on to describe an online civics course he started with education nonprofit izzit.org as well as his interest in making the US citizenship test part of high school graduation requirements. .

But no matter how desirable increased civic literacy among American youth and adults may be, it is by no means clear that it will cure what afflicts us these days. The Constitution was written for a republic that was both national and federal. In Federalist No. 62, James Madison argued that “it is not without reason that in a republic composed of both national and federal government should be based on a mixture of the principles of proportional and equal representation”. Will understanding this crucial fact matter to those who say we should be governed by everything things by a national majority, rejecting the structure of the Senate on the grounds that it gives too much power to the less populated states?

The idea that the Supreme Court made a number of “undemocratic rulings” during its most recent term, particularly on cases involving abortion, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Second Amendment, led to dangerous attacks on the institution and individual judges. Yet the legitimacy of the Supreme Court – and any court – rests, after all, on the fact that it is not an auxiliary of the legislature, but an independent branch of government. As Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 78, “Statutory interpretation is the proper and particular jurisdiction of the courts. A constitution is in fact, and should be, regarded by judges as a fundamental law… where the will of the legislature declared in its statutes is opposed to that of the people declared in the constitution, the judges must be governed by the latter , rather than the first. Will proof that our highest court is fulfilling its constitutional responsibility as our founders intended change the perceptions of its critics?

What will it take to restore trust in our grassroots institutions? And what role could civil society play in this process? While it’s unclear whether civic education alone will be enough to build trust in the branches of our government, philanthropists and nonprofits should spend time considering this question – and what will necessary to safeguard the future of our democracy.

About Barbara Johnson

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