Trends in Public Opinion: A Compendium of Survey Data

By Richard G. Niemi; John Mueller et al. | Go to book overview

4
Confidence in Institutions

Great social and political institutions rest ultimately not upon their legal powers, their bureaucratic structure, or their internal resources, but on the goodwill of the people. To function effectively institutions must have the faith and trust or confidence of those whom they serve. Governmental bodies need the support and loyalty of the citizenry, businesses the loyalty of their customers, and labor unions and voluntary associations the loyalty of their members. Without popular confidence institutions lose their ability to function effectively--governments topple, businesses go bankrupt, and organizations lose members and dwindle away.

Measures of confidence in institutions are middle-range indicators of support. They do not tap underlying confidence in the sociopolitical system, such as in our democratic form of government or our free enterprise system; nor do they focus on the day-to-day job performance of specific incumbents as presidential popularity measures do. Instead they strike somewhere between these two extremes, focusing on the actual functioning of major institutions without emphasizing particular actors. While these items have been subjected to certain methodological criticisms ( Turner and Kraus, 1978), extensive methodological review and experimentation have shown them to be reliable and valid measures ( Smith, 1981; Lipset and Schneider, 1983; Smith and Peterson, 1985). The items do appear to undergo some sharp, short-term fluctuations, but these shifts seem to be closely related to historical events and objective conditions, rather than being measurement artifacts or random noise.

Overall, the early 1970s were a bear market for public confidence in most American institutions. In the political and economic realms, as well as some other areas, confidence generally declined. Then in the late 1970s or early 1980s confidence in most institutions bottomed out and usually a

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