Confidence in American political institutions is at one of its lowest points in recorded history. About one out of every ten Americans expresses confidence in Congress and roughly one-third have confidence in the presidency or the Supreme Court, according to a Gallup poll from June. By contrast, nearly three-quarters of Americans have confidence in the military; a small majority trust the police. On the latter, there’s increasing partisan polarization driven by race that does not bode well for the prospects of police reform.
One of the few issues on which Americans agree on is that very few have confidence in Congress. An analysis of the June 2015 Gallup poll (the last year the full data were available, but with very similar overall results to the 2016 poll) shows that only 11 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats expressed confidence in the legislative body, a rare feat of bipartisan agreement. Confidence in the presidency (33 percent in 2015) varies wildly by partisanship: 14 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats have confidence in the presidency. Low confidence in the Supreme Court is also a bipartisan affair as 28 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of Democrats.
While confidence in our most prominent political institutions stands at one of its lowest points in recorded history, the institutions’ representatives of law and order enjoy some of its highest levels of approval recorded. Nearly three-quarters of Americans have confidence in the military, highest among all the institutions polled. A majority (56 percent) express confidence in the police.
Americans’ confidence in its military is not surprising. Though the institution usually ranks high in Americans’ esteem, it has enjoyed consistently high marks since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started at the beginning of this century. With ISIL now a constant presence in the news and fear of terrorism high among Americans’ concerns, people are looking at the military as an institution that can protect them.
Protection is also key to understanding Americans’ confidence in the police. The 2015 poll shows that a majority (52 percent) expresses confidence in the police. The major difference between confidence in the military and confidence in the police is that while the former enjoys widespread approval of Americans regardless of race or partisan affiliation, confidence in the police has major partisan gaps that are driven by race.
The vast majority of Republicans (70 percent) have confidence in the police. Only 41 percent of Democrats express confidence in the police. White Democrats are divided (48 percent have confidence, 51 percent do not). People of color who identify as Democrats, who account for 44 percent of self-identified Democrats, have the least confidence in the police - just 35 percent have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police.
The partisan split on confidence in the police suggests that the chances of enacting reforms to address the deaths of people of color at the hands of the police and police brutality will fall on deaf ears among Republican leaders. Moreover, as Republican constituencies continue to be driven by the politics of nostalgia, it seems likely that the high levels of confidence in the police are also fueled by a fear of losing control in an era where the visibility of people of color is growing.
Fear of a future where whites are no longer a majority has unleashed the right’s gun rights absolutism in the name of self-defense and support for draconian immigration proposals, to mention some examples. People of color are demanding recognition of their humanity and citizenship. With a paralyzed political system, the specter of authoritarian responses to their claims becomes more certain. And a major segment of the population seems to have no problem with that.