According to the Harris organization series shown in Table 2, confidence in the leaders of American institutions declined sharply between 1966 and 1971.
The average rating for the same nine institutions analyzed in 1966 fell from 48 percent to 29 percent—a drop of 40 percent. Unfortunately, Harris did not replicate the survey between 1966 and 1971, so we cannot analyze the decline in confidence in greater detail. It is also unfortunate that Harris did not consistently ask about these nine institutions in later years. Despite a recovery to an average of 35 percent in 1973 and 31 percent in 1974, the distrust that appeared in 1971 for these nine institutions persisted in other years, and average trust never again exceeded 30 percent. In 2004, the average confidence rating for these nine institutions was 25 percent—fairly comparable to the rating seen in 1971.
Four institutions asked about by Harris had average confidence ratings above 30 percent during the entire time span of the survey: the military, medicine, colleges and universities, and the Supreme Court.
Confidence in the military leadership declined sharply with the Vietnam War, with averages remaining relatively low until the first Persian Gulf War in 1990 and reaching new highs following the events of 9/11. The coded table captures the highs with “#” for 1966 (early Vietnam), 1993 (the first Gulf War), and following 9/11 and beyond.
Unlike the military, confidence on the leadership of medicine has been in a steady decline in the Harris surveys, from 72 percent in 1966 (the coded table shows “#” ratings for three of the four years before 1974) to 30 percent in the 1990s—possibly the result of the steady growth in the cost of medicine, in conjunction with the growth of managed health care.
The coded table displays several additional patterns and issues. Organized religion and television news had relatively higher scores in the 1970s compared to other institutions. This was no longer the case in later years. Furthermore, the press went into relative decline after 1990. Also notable is the relatively high score of the White House in 1984, as well as in 2002 and 2003. We do not know what may have contributed to the increase in 1984. However, those in 2002 and 2003 probably occurred in response to the events of 9/11. Finally, we do not understand why support for law firms essentially tripled in 1994, compared to previous and subsequent years.
In Gallup’s analysis of fifteen institutions between 1973 and 1990, only two had average ratings near 60 percent: the military, and the church or organized religion. Both have mostly pluses in the coded table. It is likely religious institutions were ranked relatively high by Gallup compared to Harris because Harris only refers to “organized religion” and excludes the softener of “church.”
Four institutions had average ratings below 30 percent: the criminal justice system, big business, labor unions, and television. These have mostly minuses in the coded table.
The military, banks and financial institutions, the presidency, and Congress exhibit relatively high variability. The average rating for the military was 52 percent between 1973 and 1988. In 1990 it jumped to 68 percent, as the Gallup survey occurred a week after the first U.S. troops landed in Saudi Arabia. The military received high ratings in 1991 (85 percent) and then declined to an average of 64 percent until the events of 9/11. In 2002 the rating for the military went up to 79 percent. The variability in confidence toward banks and financial institutions most likely occurred in response to the Wall Street scandals of the early 1990s.
The variability in the presidency might be due to a data anomaly. Confidence in the February-March 1991 Gallup survey was twenty-two percentage points higher than that found only seven months later in October. A second issue with the presidency data is that this item was asked in 1975 and not again until 1991.
Congressional ratings have shown considerable movement in several years. The ratings were below 20 percent in 1978, 1993, and 1994. On the other hand, confidence exceeded 40 percent in 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1986. It is likely that the relatively high rating for Congress in the early 1970s was because of the Watergate hearings, in which Congress appeared in a positive light.