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Americans Are Losing Faith in … Themselves

Rick Newman
The Exchange

Who are “the American people?”

If you ask politicians (on the record), they’ll tell you the American people are the greatest font of collective wisdom in the history of wisdom. Yet even Americans have growing doubts about their own sensibilities.

A recent Gallup poll found that Americans’ trust in “the American people” has fallen to a record low. Just 61% of respondents said they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust and confidence in their fellow Americans when it comes to making judgments about important issues facing the country. That number peaked at 86% in 1976. In 2005 it was 78%. Even during the 2007 – 2009 recession, the number stayed in the 70s. It began to plunge in 2010.

That was the year, of course, that Congress passed the highly divisive Affordable Care Act, which has been rolling out slowly and is now about to launch the state-by-state exchanges where Americans can purchase health insurance. This three-year ramp-up has left plenty of time for the American people to sort themselves into two crabbier-than-thou factions that each regard the other as the enemy.

The crabby two

Conservatives believe President Obama’s health-reform law will allow an out-of-control nanny state to mushroom beyond control, ruining western civilization. Liberals feel Congressional Republicans should be passing new taxes to fund said nanny state instead of obsessing over Obamacare and trying to repeal it. In short, a growing number of Americans feel people who disagree with them are completely nuts.

That doesn’t mean individual Americans doubt their own judgment. There’s a lot of psychological research showing that it’s human nature to have more faith in your own abilities than in those of others, even if it’s necessary to deceive yourself about your own competence. So Americans seem to be saying to each other, “You’re nuts and I’m not.”

There’s a predictable party divide in these views, based on who happens to be president. When Republican George W. Bush was the chief executive, Republicans were more optimistic about the prudent judgment of the American people than Democrats were, since voters had sent their man to the White house. Today, with Barack Obama in the fifth year of his presidency, Democrats have more confidence in their countryfolk than Republicans. But the gap between members of the two parties is the widest on record, which reflects the growing partisan divide in the nation as a whole.

Those beleaguered politicians

Everybody, of course, has declining confidence in politicians. Confidence in Congress is at a pitiful 10%, the lowest level in the 40 years Gallup has been asking the question. Confidence in the presidency has dropped from a middling 51% in 2009, when Obama took office, to 36% today (though it was slightly lower from 2006 to 2008).

In fact, confidence in most institutions has been falling, as the economy stagnates and living standards fall for many Americans. People clearly feel something is wrong in America, and without knowing exactly what it is, they blame government, business, the media , the education system, the wealthy and even organized religion.

If you’re hoping maybe this is a low point for optimism, with better days ahead, think again. Chronic budget standoffs in Washington have been one big reason for soured public opinion, and we’re now in standoff season all over again. Beyond a looming government shutdown, there will be another high-pucker moment in mid-October as Republicans threaten a default on U.S. debt as a way of protesting … does anybody even care anymore?

We saw the same B movie in the summer of 2011, which at the time led to a new low in the American public’s approval rating of itself. Since then, the American people have basically sent the same cast of characters back to Washington, to basically do the same thing all over again, in a looping cycle of self-loathing.

Apparently we have met the enemy. You know how it ends.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.