The confidence of ordinary citizens in leaders, governing bodies, and long-standing institutions is crumbling. Could we have seen this coming?
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In ancient Greece, birthplace of democracy, the philosopher Democritus is reputed to have said, “Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.”
Trust, or confidence in another’s integrity—foundational to all relationships and necessary, to some measure, for a civil society to function—has been under assault in modern democratic nations, particularly the United States. As 2012 draws to a close, the cracks are beginning to show.
Just weeks before the United States’ November elections, a Gallup poll revealed grim but unsurprising statistics. The polling organization has tracked Americans’ trust in the three branches of federal government for decades. An initial poll in May 1972 showed that 66 percent had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the judicial branch, which is led by the Supreme Court. Seventy-one percent reported the same view of the legislative branch (the Senate and House of Representatives), and 73 percent felt the same about the executive branch, led by the president.
The same poll conducted in early September 2012 found that 67 percent had a great deal or fair amount of trust for the federal judiciary. Having fluctuated from a low of 63 percent in 1976 to a high of 80 percent in 1999, that figure has returned to near its 1972 baseline.
But the 2012 figures for the other two branches were very different. The executive branch garnered only 56 percent, while Congress fared even worse at 34 percent!
Let that sink in: two-thirds of Americans do not trust the group that authors the laws of the land, by which they must live. Almost half do not have confidence in its “CEO” (the president), who is entrusted with oversight of the ongoing American Experiment, not to mention holding the most powerful single office in the world. And these are the men and women they and their fellow Americans chose to put into office!
Further, the branch they trust most is headed by nine people who are nominated and confirmed by the executive and legislative.
But is this just an American phenomenon?
The picture is scarcely better in Europe. A March 2011 Guardian article stated, “The results of the unique Guardian ICM poll of Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Poland show common trends and some distinctive differences between countries…The main message from all five is that European citizens do not trust their governments or the honesty of their politicians…”
“Only 6% of people across Europe say they have a great deal of trust in their government, 46% say they have not very much and 32% none at all. Only 9% of Europeans think their politicians—in opposition or in power—act with honesty and integrity.”
“…[Few] Europeans think their politicians are honest. In Poland, only 3% of those questioned agree; in Spain 8%; in Germany 10%; in France 11%; in Britain 12%. Overall, the percentage of those who think politicians are not at all, or not very, honest outweighs those who disagree by a massive 89 percentage points.”
Yet this view is not reserved solely for politicians.
Another part of society increasingly viewed with suspicion is the world of business, finance and banking. Distaste or open hostility toward these groups was a mainstay of the Occupy movement, which became a global phenomenon in 2011.
In the U.S., discontent has been simmering since 2008, when the first large banks collapsed due to massive exposure to high-risk loans. Since then, growing numbers have come to believe there is too much disparity between the wealth of what they call the “one percent” (the richest top percentile of the population) and the “ninety-nine percent” (everyone else).
This resentment is stoked by headlines such as, “Corporate Profits Reach Record High, While Workers Struggle.” The article stated, “Corporate profits reached a record high in the third quarter , according to a Commerce Department report…And the financial sector is doing particularly well. Financial companies accounted for all of the net growth in domestic corporate profits during the third quarter…”
“Meanwhile, workers are struggling. Average hourly pay, when adjusted for inflation, has fallen 0.7 percent over the past year, according to the Labor Department. And the unemployment rate in October was 7.9 percent—it was at a low of 4.4 percent in May 2007 before the recession” (The Huffington Post). The article is accompanied for good measure by a photo slideshow titled “CEOs Who Look like Villains.”
How has this dynamic affected the upcoming generation—the “youth vote” now carefully courted in election campaigns? According to an opinion poll of high school students commissioned by the University of Arizona’s Take Charge America Institute for Consumer Financial Education and Research, “…it appears that young people’s opinions about the financial system have been shaped by the constant drumbeat of negative stereotypes and criticisms so dominant in the public discourse during and since the [global economic] crash. The result? A healthy skepticism about financial institutions has soured into cynicism, where teenagers almost expect to be victimized by financial firms. The poll…shows that the majority strongly distrusted financial institutions even while expressing great confidence in other things like their likelihood to find employment and to achieve financial security. Many of them failed to disagree with even the most extreme negative characterizations of the financial services industry.
“For example, 60 percent of students polled firmly believe that credit card companies often entice people into taking on more debt that they can handle, while 70 percent believe that businesses try to ‘trick’ young people into spending more than they should. Only 25 percent of students disagreed with the statement, ‘the stock market is rigged mostly to benefit greedy Wall Street bankers,’ and only 17 percent disagreed with the statement, ‘banks are mostly interested in getting my money through hidden fees’” (American Banker).
While these views are not unreasonable in light of recent events, younger Americans’ ignorance also plays a part: “Sixty-eight percent did not know that owning stocks is a riskier form of investment than owning government bonds…When asked about credit scores, more than half didn’t know that a high credit score is better than a low score” (ibid.).
British banking confidence took a similar massive hit in summer 2012, with revelations that large banks had colluded to manipulate the Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate), which affects loan interest rates around the globe.
The Independent captured the public response: “Nearly two-thirds of banking customers no longer trust their lender to look after their money, a poll has revealed.
“As public outrage over the unfolding banking crisis grows, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Sunday Times showed 60% of people losing faith in their bank.
“Some 49% believe the high-street banks to be dishonest while 45% think of them as incompetent, the poll revealed.
“And just 1% of respondents believe that senior executives of the biggest banks have improved their behavior since the financial crisis began.”
The article went on to quote a consumer advocate who stated, “…revelations about widespread interest rate fixing have obliterated any remaining consumer trust in the big banks.”
With confidence in those who govern, employ and provide financing to them fading, where do citizens turn next?
How do other institutions of society fare in citizens’ eyes? A number of recent polls are as eye-opening as the one tracking trust in government (all quotes below from Gallup):
Gallup’s list goes on: among the following institutions, these were the proportions of poll respondents who professed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in them: the police—56 percent; the medical system—41 percent; the criminal justice system—29 percent; organized labor—21 percent; big business—21 percent; health maintenance organizations (HMOs, a type of insurance provider)—19 percent. The military tops the list with 75 percent, with, again, Congress in the basement at 13 percent.
Why cannot modern men and women trust in their institutions—which, after all, are comprised of other men and women?
Author George F. Will once opined that those who hold to some ideologies accept a delusion—the belief that “they can make something straight from the crooked timber of humanity.”
Similarly, President Abraham Lincoln, in an 1860 speech delivered in New York City, stated, “Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.”
In essence, both these quotes acknowledge human nature as an insoluble problem.
The most popular, widely owned book in history, the Bible, most likely informed Lincoln’s belief. It confirms that his view is correct—under current circumstances. The apostle Peter described “the corruption that is in the world through lust” (II Pet. 1:4). His counterpart John stated that “the whole world lies in wickedness” (I John 5:19). So it is no surprise that elsewhere in the same Book we find, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man…” (Psa. 146:3).
But for those who believe the Bible, is the situation hopeless?
Ultimately, only God is truly trustworthy. There is a solution, however, for mankind. A lesson from the world of business illustrates it.
In 1920, just ahead of a market crash and flash depression, prominent statistician Roger Babson warned business executives and bankers they were about to enter the most severe economic depression of their lifetime. “I advise you all to set your houses in order,” he said (Herbert W. Armstrong – His Life in Proper Perspective).
“Mr. Babson explained that he was able to know a depression was coming by looking at the way people lived—how they dealt with one another as a whole.
“He said, ‘I looked to the source which determines future conditions. I have found that the source may be defined in terms of “righteousness.” When 51 percent or more of the whole people are reasonably “righteous” in their dealings with one another, we are heading into increasing prosperity. When 51 percent of the people become “unrighteous” in their business dealings with their fellows, then we are headed for bad times economically!’” (ibid.)
While the term “righteous” can conjure many images in the mind, there is a simple definition: “…all [God’s] commandments are righteousness” (Psa. 119:172). The laws of God, which many in this age dismiss as harsh, arbitrary “thou shalt nots,” are based on love for God, as well as love—outflowing concern—for neighbor. It follows that if one is habitually acting out of love for others in his business dealings—being “righteous”—he will become known as generally trustworthy, on the human level.
So “righteousness,” far from being a sanctimonious notion that belongs only to Sunday morning preachers, is actually the solution to all the trust problems that pollsters uncover.
Would you like to become more trustworthy yourself—and to get on the path to overcoming human nature? Take the next step of learning exactly what it is—read the free booklet Did God Create Human Nature?