A Vote of No Confidence
More than half of Americans56 percentsay they're not proud of the country's leaders. Two thirds and more say the country is in a leadership crisis. Nearly three quarters say the nation will decline without better leadership.
Those are some pretty scathing numbers, according to the second annual poll on leadership conducted for U.S. News and Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership. And they don't just reflect Americans' disgust with politicians this election season or a knee-jerk reaction to an event. In fact, fewer Americans have confidence in leadership now than they did last year immediately following Hurricane Katrina.
Disillusionment. There is a deep-seated skepticism, a distrust of leaders-whether boardroom chief, university head, or media watchdog. In each of 11 different fields, no more than 40 percent of Americans said they had a great deal of confidence in leaders; the military-despite questions about the war in Iraq-fared best, while the media suffered most. What prompts such apprehension?
Americans seem to have the highest opinion of occupations defined by clear missions, fields in which leaders are charged with completing a specific task-fighting a battle, devising a cure-and cognizant of overstepping their bounds. Andrew Bacevich, an expert on the military at Boston University, says Americans are most fond of the military because they believe it is a highly efficient institution. "If you really scrutinized the military"-something Americans don't do enough, he says, because of national guilt about Vietnam and a lack of media scrutiny-"it's really not all that it's cracked up to be."
Still, where the military fares well, the press, Wall Street, and the presidency are most reviled-perhaps because they lack such clear missions. Frederick Starr, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, says those fields are associated with specific personalities and big egos instead of clear missions.
If that's so, then it could explain why Americans have more faith in local governments than in Congress and the executive branch. According to the poll, Americans' confidence in their federal politicians dropped in the past year, but they have the same faith in their local representatives. Eighty-three percent of Americans say corporate leaders are more concerned with the bottom line than with running their companies well, 93 percent say political leaders spend too much time attacking their opponents, and only 39 percent say leaders have high ethical standards. "No-nonsense qualities are revered," says Starr, "and self-indulgent ones despised."
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.