After winning the Revolutionary War, George Washington issued some strong guidance to the liberated citizens of the nascent United States. "In his holy protection," the revered general wrote in 1783, "[God] would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government."
That advice was tough to swallow for people who had just escaped the heavy hand of the British monarchy, and feared repressive government. Similar sentiments exist today, as if George III were sitting on a throne in Washington, D.C.
The annual Gallup poll gauging trust in institutions shows alarmingly weak support for many of the pillars of American society. That doesn't mean a revolution is brewing, but it suggests a profound shift in the way elected officials will be able to govern, along with possible trouble for President Obama in this year's presidential election.
The latest numbers reflect an ongoing degradation in Americans' opinion of big institutions following the 2008 financial meltdown, the Great Recession, and a decade of declining living standards. The proportion of Americans who say they trust Congress is at 13 percent. Those who trust the presidency and the Supreme Court: 37 percent. Only 21 percent of Americans trust big business or banks. Even educators breed suspicion these days, with just 29 percent of Americans saying they trust public schools.
All of those numbers are at or near record lows. Banks have endured the worst reputational downgrade, with current trust levels 21 percentage points lower than the historical average, according to Gallup. Congress ranks 13 points below the average; public schools, 12 points below. The presidency and Supreme Court and both rank eight points below the norm. The military, as usual, ranks at the top of the list, one of the few institutions that's generating a growing sense of trust.
To some extent, Americans are expressing their widespread dissatisfaction with a stagnant economy and new difficulties getting ahead. But their growing skepticism toward government and other institutions may, ironically, make it harder for those institutions to do anything about the root problems.
A growing proportion of Americans, of course, feel government is incapable of solving big problems. That helps explain why President Obama is struggling to get traction with his re-election pitch for a "fair deal," with government as a sort of mediator between the private sector and the middle class. With unemployment at 8.2 percent and incomes down more than 7 percent since 2007, there are certainly millions of working Americans who could use a helping hand. Many of them simply don't believe it can come from government.
That's also why Obama's healthcare-reform plan is generally unpopular, with polls showing that barely 40 percent of Americans support it. That's remarkably weak for a law that's supposedly the signature achievement of Obama's first (and perhaps only) term. Americans clearly don't favor deep involvement in the healthcare system by a government they don't trust.
Obama's Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, might benefit from Obama's tone-deaf appeal to the virtues of big government, except that Americans don't find his background as a banker and business titan comforting, either. Both fields rank near the bottom in terms of institutions Americans trust. Americans do feel good about small business, which has a trust ranking of 63 percent, second only to the military. So Romney's plan to slash regulation and ease the restraints on small businesses could catch on among voters.
Still, it's hard to tell who Americans do trust to solve vexing national problems like an overextended government we can't afford at current tax levels, or the decline in middle-class living standards. Those are huge issues that will likely require a coordinated national effort to fix, which can only be led by the institutions Americans don't trust to do such things.
One welcome outcome of this degraded trust in institutions would be dialed-back dependence on governments and corporations, and more self-reliance by ordinary people. With the nation deeply in debt and big companies able to hire cheap labor just about anywhere, it's clear that the winners in this Darwinian economy will be those best able to fend for themselves. The most reliable institution may be the one you build on your own, a notion even George Washington, the hearty frontiersman, would have endorsed.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.