America's Weakened Institutions: A Call for Ethical Action

Criticism of Donald Trump for charging that the upcoming election is "rigged" rightly focuses on the threat his comments pose to the perceived legitimacy of our political system. Yet his statements are not the start but just one result of a half-century decline in respect for many of our major institutions.

In 1964, 76 percent of Americans said they "trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing" "most of the time or just about always". That figure is now 19 percent. Those who report "a great deal or a lot of confidence" in the presidency dropped from 72 percent in 1991 to 36 percent today. For Congress, the figure went from 42 percent is 1973 to 6 percent now. Even the Supreme Court has suffered - from 56 percent in 1985 to 36 percent today.

But it's not only national governmental institutions on which Americans have soured. The declines in confidence in the church (63 to 41 percent), banks (60 to 27 percent), big business (34 to 18 percent), and TV news (46 to 21 percent) over recent decades have also been marked.

While we don't know exactly what has caused these changes, we have clues.

For the federal government, the twin ravages of Vietnam and Watergate heralded over a forty percent drop in trust between 1964 and 1976. Decades of political infighting in Congress, politicians constantly running against Washington, major government leadership failures, and politicization in Supreme Court nominations have taken their toll.

For business, major scandals, from the collapse of Enron to the damage done by the tobacco industry, auto safety defects, price gouging by big pharma, and the BP oil spill, to cite just some examples, leave the impression that bad behavior is rewarded with big executive payouts and that fines for getting caught are treated as just a cost of doing business.

In banking, the Great Recession owed much to speculation and loose standards among financial institutions, in which the gains were privatized and the astounding costs of failure passed on to taxpayers. Recent practices, such as Wells Fargo's opening of customer accounts without their knowledge, have continued to feed public anger.

In the church, sexual abuse by priests and the immersion of evangelical ministries in partisan political activity has led many to wonder whether attending to spiritual needs is any longer the central aim of organized religion.

In the media, success in uncovering the truth about Vietnam and Watergate spawned generations of reporters almost singularly focused on uncovering the errors of major institutions. While needed, the impression given is that all large institutions are suspect and that finding examples of institutional success is not doing your job. Further, the blurring of the distinction between factual reporting and analysis has led the public to confuse objective truth with opinion. The growth of talk radio and politicized cable channels have also damaged respect for reporting and reporters.

As there is no single cause of declining trust, there is no easy remedy.

Laws can help restore trust in our institutions. Nonpartisan redistricting to make Congressional races more competitive and compromise more rewarded; the criminalization of some forms of corporate misdeeds so that the result is jail not a golden parachute; Constitutional restrictions on the power of money to warp both campaigning and governing - are just a few examples. But laws will never be enough. The chief corrective we need is in our values.

In the private sector, the pursuit of higher stock prices, profit, and executive compensation have too often been all-consuming, unbalanced by the values of attending to product safety, job creation, and preservation of the environment. Market values have not only taken precedence over the public good, they have acted as if the two are the same.

In the public sector, the values of fundraising and winning have too often been treated as permanent ends rather than temporary means. The values of civility, compromise and courage required to put public needs (not wants) above partisan gain are viewed as admirable yet naive.

Ethics must be the driving force for the re-prioritization of values. We are a society consumed by the question: is it legal? When that is the test of acceptable behavior, it reduces the need for a serious, personal investment in moral decision making. The higher standard is to ask: is it ethical? Yet ethical behavior is too seldom the subject of substantial educational time in schools, colleges, and the professions, and in the operation of business and government. Ethical sanctions are seldom applied. We settle for ignoring unethical behavior, except for an occasional public flogging in a Congressional hearing. Rewards are too infrequently given for ethical conduct, which is seldom deemed worthy of national news coverage. The result is a lack of moral exemplars in private and public institutions, while moral failures are daily thrown at us. A society which treats ethics as a largely irrelevant subject in institutional life is one whose major institutions will never earn the trust that comes only from right action.

Perfect institutions cannot be expected from inherently imperfect people. But our major, national institutions can be better. Strengthening them must begin with action to restore the primacy of moral values and ethical behavior in institutional life.