A majority of Americans think people in power act unethically, and with impunity

A new day. Or, not.
A new day. Or, not.
Image: Reuters/Al Drago
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It is hardly headline news that Americans have lost faith in government. But a new Pew Research Center survey shows just how little faith they have in most institutions that make up daily American life.

Half of Americans think military leaders behave unethically some, most, or all of the time. Those leaders, however, are the highest ranked group of the bunch. For Congress, it’s 81%, and tech company leaders, 77% (their popularity has plummeted since 2015).

For all that poor behavior, Americans believe people in positions of power and influence face few serious consequences, the survey shows:

Pew published a large—and fairly damning—report on trust in July, showing that for the most part, Americans think the current low level of trust in government is justified. Most respondents (75%) said that the government did not deserve any more public confidence than it gets. Things aren’t much better with the general population: More than twice as many said they’d lost confidence in each other “because people are not as reliable as they used to be” (49%) than the opposite—Americans have lost confidence in each other “even though people are as reliable as they have always been” (21%).

The latest study was meant to delve deeper into what that trust is made up of, and how it influences how people judge the performance of major civic organizations. Researchers have found that people’s confidence in each other and in institutions is bound up in judgments about competence, honesty, empathy, openness, integrity, and accountability. So rather than just ask “Do you trust Congress?” Pew also asked, “Do you think Congress cares about you, handles resources well, and admits when it makes mistakes?” (Sort of, sort of, and no.) Not surprisingly, people who say Congress acts unethically are also more likely to think it does a bad job. “Ethics and transparency sit at the center of judgments about trust, and people are not happy with what they see,” said Lee Rainie, director of internet and tech research at Pew.

It was not all misery and despair, however. In the same vein that many people think their congressperson is great, but Congress is a mess, many Americans think those in power are doing their jobs well (albeit unethically and with impunity much of the time).

“It’s a balkanized story rather than a broad dismissal of everyone,” Rainie said. Indeed, most Americans think that some in roles of power or responsibility carry out their responsibilities fairly effectively. A full 90% of respondents agreed that all, most, or some military leaders do a good job preparing military personnel to protect the country. And 83% said all or most or some tech leaders build products and services that enhance lives, while 68% said all or most or some journalists do a good job reporting important news that serves the public. 

Women trust Congress more than men, Republicans distrust the media even more than Democrats, and black Americans and Hispanics are way less trusting of the police than whites when responding to questions such as do the police “care about people like me,” “do a good job protecting people from crime,” “admit mistakes and take responsibility for them.”

Pew conducted the survey of 10,618 panelists Nov. 27 to Dec. 10, 2018.