One of the most important trends in American public opinion over the last generation is the avalanche of distrust burying major political and cultural institutions. From the media to the courts to Congress, polls consistently show a steady decline in confidence since the 1990s. A Gallup report released today hammers the point home: “Americans’ trust in their political leaders and in the American people themselves to make political decisions continues to decline. The percentages trusting the American people (56%) and political leaders (42%) are down roughly 20 percentage points since 2004 and are currently at new lows in Gallup’s trends.”
There is one political institution, however, that is weathering this trust implosion better than most: Local government. As the Gallup chart below shows, Americans’ confidence in their local government has held steady, or even ticked up slightly, over the last 40 years.
The overall data on institutional legitimacy are grim. Figuring out how to re-tool our government so that the decline in trust can be arrested or even reversed will be the major task of the next generation (indeed, it is one of the major projects of this blog).
In the meantime, however, it’s worth noting that there is one piece of America’s democratic governing architecture that still earns high marks from the public—that even as Americans lose confidence in Congress and federal bureaucracies and the national media, they are about as confident as ever in their school boards and city halls. This finding lends further credence to Yuval Levin’s argument in The Fractured Republic that it would be productive for American government to move toward a greater level of subsidiarity.
Local governments have significant and underrated power to influence many of the most important policy problems America faces, from education to crime to housing. And they might even have the legitimacy to start solving them.