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There's a toxic brew of mistrust toward U.S. institutions. It's got real consequences

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2023.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

There was a palpable sense of frustration among Senate Democrats Tuesday with the Supreme Court's lack of action on ethics at the court.

"The highest court in the land shouldn't have the lowest ethical standards," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at a hearing on ethics oversight at the high court. "That reality is driving a crisis in public confidence in the Supreme Court. The status quo must change."

The hearing stems from lavish vacations and land deals not disclosed by two of the court's conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. The conservative-majority court is suffering from a historic lack of trust and confidence after unpopular decisions in the last couple of years, particularly on abortion rights.

Democrats' irritation with the "status quo," as Durbin calls it, is indicative of a larger political trend — the declining trust and confidence in U.S. institutions writ large coupled with Democrats' exasperation on a host of perceived political injustices.

Chafing under minority rule

Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. But two of the elections in which they won the popular vote were awarded to Republicans because of the Electoral College.

And it's had profound consequences.

The Iraq War likely would have never happened with a Democratic President Al Gore, and there would have certainly have been more action on climate change.

Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million votes in 2016, but won the Electoral College. He wound up being impeached twice and lies he told about the 2020 election he lost led to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump was also able to nominate three Supreme Court justices. That reshaped the court, making it the most conservative in almost a century and led to a host of changes now roiling society, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 50-year-old ruling that had guaranteed the right to an abortion in this country.

For Democrats smarting at the 2000 and 2016 elections, it's painful to think of how differently U.S. politics and society would look had they won. After all, Presidents George W. Bush and Trump appointed five Supreme Court justices between them.

That, in theory, means had Democrats won those two elections, it could be an 8-1 liberal majority on the court.

Not a joke, as the current president is fond of saying.

Now, in reality, who knows if that's how politics would have played out. Americans tend to sour on one-party rule, and without the Iraq War, arguably, there might have been no President Barack Obama. And without Trump, there might not be a President Biden.

Still, there's no denying Democrats are chafing under what they see as minoritarian rule. It's not with just presidential elections and the Supreme Court, but Republicans' extreme use of the filibuster, gerrymandering of congressional seats that that have given the GOP outsize advantages, and that they often have the majority position in polling on public policy, but continue to see conservatives routinely push hard-line policies both nationally and at the state levels.

Increased partisanship — and pugilism

Conservatives have their own view of their reasons for mistrust and disillusionment. They see corporations and the media — not just the news but Hollywood and television — lurching toward a liberalism they see as fundamentally changing the traditional fabric of the country.

Conservatives see Democrats as hen-pecking, bellyaching victims. Republican strategists say they have played by the rules, focusing on building advantages in key Electoral College states, legislatures and governors' races over two decades — and because Democrats didn't invest in down-ballot infrastructure, they're now complaining about unfairness.

Republicans have dug in. Strategically, starting under Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, the GOP policy, particularly in the House, has largely been party unity first above compromise.

Partisanship and polarization have been on the rise over the last 30 years. There are fewer competitive House districts, largely drawn by Republicans, which has meant more ideological purity in Congress and more hard-line, and, at times, ugly, in-your-face politics.

It's all mixed together to make for a toxic brew of mistrust and antipathy that shows in the potentially dangerous decline in the lack of trust in institutions.

Trust and confidence in the Supreme Court at a historic low

Sixty-two percent said they have not very much or no confidence in the Supreme Court, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. That's the lowest recorded in the five years Marist has been asking the question. The lack of confidence was driven by Democrats and most independents.

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The data is consistent with other surveys, as well. Gallup, for example, found just 25% had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the once-vaunted institution, the lowest in Gallup's 50-year trend on the question.

The drop off coincided with the death of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, and then nosedived after the Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling last year that gutted the right to an abortion.

Views of the court are now the most sharply divided they've ever been.

Americans don't like the political parties — or the people in them

Americans don't tend to like either political party very much. A December NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that the parties were viewed nearly identically and in a negative light.

Below the numbers, an intensity of dislike has grown. Over the last 30 years, members of both parties have been increasingly likely to express extremely negative views of the other political party. In 1994, only about one-fifth of Americans said they had a "very unfavorable" view of the other party.

Last year, a Pew Research Center study found majorities in each party said so.

But it's not just the parties; it's the people in them.

As we've written previously, interpolitical marriages are rare and on the decline, and the ones who are in politically mixed marriages report lower levels of family life satisfaction. What's more, 4 in 10 people in both political parties said in 2020, they would be upset if their child married someone of the opposite political party.

Those negative feelings might be explained by the growing dislike people in both parties have for each other. Americans are increasingly likely to say, for example, that members of the other party are closed-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent and lazy, according to Pew.

There's less trust in the federal government to handle problems

Congress has gotten low ratings for decades. A majority hasn't approved of the job Congress was doing since April of 2003, just after the start of the Iraq war. Recently, just 20% approved of the job Congress was doing with a whopping 78% disapproving, per a March Gallup survey.

This is the place where laws are made, but trust that the government can solve problems has dropped significantly in the past decade. Two-thirds of Americans a decade ago said they trusted the federal government to handle international problems and a majority said so about domestic ones. Both were down to 39% last year.

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That's particularly problematic for the world's most powerful and wealthy country, which is trying to maintain unity of support in staving off Russian aggression in Ukraine and, domestically, still recovering economically from a pandemic that killed more than 1 million Americans.

Trust in experts has also declined

Speaking of the pandemic, there has been a drop in trust for once highly respected public health officials, as many became political targets. Fewer Americans are saying they have confidence in a host of critical groups and institutions, including scientists and medical experts, but also school principals, the military, police, religious leaders and journalists.

News and information have become polarizing — and weaponized

The press has always been a political target, and there's supposed to be a healthy tension between the press corps and presidents in a democracy. But with a la carte news consumption and politicians labeling the press the "enemy of the people," trust has dropped to a new low.

For the first time last year, more Americans said they had no trust "at all" in the media than those who said they had a great deal, a fair amount or not very much. There's a huge partisan divide — 70% of Democrats said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, while just 14% of Republicans and 27% of independents said they did.

The problem is not limited to party. Younger Americans, those 18 to 29, trust social media nearly as much as they do traditional news outlets.

A strong news media, though, has always been an indicator of a strong democracy. Record numbers of journalists around the world have been jailed in recent years, and that's happened in some of the most authoritarian regimes. Iran, China, Myanmar, Turkey and Belarus all topped the list.

It's political leaders, too

Of course, it's not just the press. It's a two-way mirror.

Trump and Biden are the leading contenders for their respective nominations, and yet, are polarizing, have mediocre favorability ratings that are nearly exact inverses of each other, and significant percentages of voters in their parties have told pollsters at varying times that they would have a better chance if someone else ran.

It's an odd place for the world's leading power to so distrust the people leading it and the institutions that hold up its government.

And that ever-more partisan view of almost everything in American daily life was made clear again Tuesday in the ethics hearing about the Supreme Court.

Republicans reflexively accused Democrats of being politically motivated in holding a Supreme Court ethics hearing.

"This assault on Justice Thomas is well beyond ethics," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., charged. "It's about trying to delegitimize a conservative court that was appointed through the traditional process."

Graham tweeted the quote with a link to a Fox News story that mentioned it. Easy political points with the base, but if everything is made out to be political and partisan, the country is going to have an increasingly difficult time holding its leaders to true account — even simply Supreme Court justices to stricter and more consistent ethics standards.

For those who wonder where this leads, the consequences are already being felt. There are growing fears about U.S. democracy domestically and abroad. World leaders were aghast at the Jan. 6 insurrection and were left questioning the U.S.'s ability to lead.

Biden ran on trying to "unite the country," but arguably, the opposite has happened. Biden has been relentlessly lampooned in conservative media as not all there — and it's something North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister is now using to attack Biden after the U.S. and South Korea signed a nuclear agreement.

That lack of domestic political unity is also giving openings to Russia and China, who are actively seeking to sow that division.

American partisanship and pugilism aren't likely to let up any time soon. So agendas are only going to be implemented through the political means that have always prevailed — political power gotten through winning elections and expanded majorities.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.