Reason for public’s lack of faith? Just turn on the TV

Republican leaders, from left, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., arrive for a health care reform meeting with President Obama on Thursday at the Blair House in Washington.

? To understand why people don’t trust institutions — and why America is so disgruntled — look no further than these doings in the nation’s capital.

At historic Blair House, President Barack Obama, Democrats and Republicans fought about a health care overhaul they’ve debated for a year. They broke no new ground and the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington — and infuriated the public — was on full display.

On Capitol Hill, Toyota executives apologized for safety recalls but said their gas-pedal fix may “not totally” solve spontaneous acceleration problems. They also got subpoenas seeking answers to these familiar, chilling questions: What did they know and when did they know it?

Residue from the recession piled as deep as the snow. Lawmakers talked and talked about creating jobs, but companies continued to slice them. And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, “There’s no silver bullet here.”

All this happened in just the past week. All on TV. On the Internet. Everywhere.

No wonder people are angry. From their vantage point, both the public sector and the private sector have let them down.

But what now?

People could mobilize and try to force politicians and companies to change their ways. The Internet certainly makes social action and civic engagement easier these days.

But the flip side seems more likely, distrust breeding cynicism. People could refuse to vote, refuse to get involved in politics or in their own communities.

You may feel there’s not much point when you can’t trust your elected leaders to improve the health care system after a year of trying, when you can’t trust your car company to provide safe vehicles, when you can’t trust the economy to bounce back after you’ve gone two years without a job.

What does it mean if people have lost faith in the government to solve the most pressing issues, lost faith in companies to deliver workable products — and lost faith in the belief that either will take responsibility for failure?

Short term, the public’s distrust doesn’t bode well for any politician up for election this fall, particularly Democrats who control Congress, because a bitter electorate typically punishes those in power.

Long term, such a lack of confidence in the nation’s biggest institutions could turn society’s skepticism to debilitating cynicism. It could spread animosity throughout society, crimping America’s historic optimism, fueling incivility — if not paranoia — among the people and encouraging disrespect of authorities of all types, at all levels.

Half the people surveyed by Gallup in January had a negative image of the federal government and big businesses.

There may be a simple explanation.

“When the economy is doing well, people trust government, they trust Congress and they trust a bunch of other institutions,” said Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied the issue. “When the economy’s doing badly, people’s faith tends to drop.”

But America’s trust in institutions started dropping long before this recession.

Analysts point to the 1960s and 1970s — with the counterculture, Vietnam, Watergate and the rise of the conservative movement — as the beginning of a several-decade slide. TV was in its heyday at the time, with nightly newscasts showing the imperfections of institutions, particularly government, more than ever before.

“Hand in hand, the rise of television also accompanied the rise in mistrust of institutions. That isn’t to say one caused the other, but they’re very much in a symbiotic relationship,” said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television.