One gets a sense that we are losing our North Star, navigating by guesswork. Maybe it is generational – but it is discomfiting. For generations, Americans have held institutions of government, leaders in the military, private sector, education and journalism – in high regard. Through peaks and valleys, trust has stood. No more.
A Pew Research poll, released September 19, suggests overall confidence in America’s leading institutions – and leaders – is low. We are disoriented. The picture is troubling. The question is what it means, and how trust might be restored.
Key facts are arresting. We have moved to a point in America’s evolution where most Americans think key institutional leaders behave unethically, are unaccountable, often incompetent.
Topping the list is Congress. Today, 81 percent of Americans believe Congress behaves unethically “all, most or some” of the time. Next in line journalists, 66 percent of the time.
In terms of which professional leaders are most unethical, next come leaders in technology, religion, police, military, local officials, and K-12 principals. Even the most trusted – school principals – are viewed as unethical “all, most or some” of the time by 52 percent of Americans.
The big “take away” is that America has an “ethics deficit.” Behind the deficit is another source of unease – lack of personal accountability. Generally, Americans seem to think our leaders get away with unethical behavior, or are not held accountable, much or most of the time.
In rank order, 71 percent of Americans think Congress never or seldom “faces serious consequences” for unethical behavior. Technology leaders escape accountability much or most of the time according to 58 percent of the public. Beyond that lie journalists, religious leaders, local elected officials, police, military and principals – in that order.
If admitting mistakes is part of integrity – and it is – more than half the public think leaders in Congress, local elected officials, tech leaders and journalists do not “admit their mistakes.” Leading the duck-and-run gang is Congress – with 79 percent of Americans thinking they do not take responsibility for their errors.
Finally, when it comes to competence, 90 percent think military leaders do their jobs well – while only 48 percent think Congress does. Journalists are between the two, at 68 percent.
With respect to journalists, the most telling data emerges when you slice for political affiliation. As Pew reports: “Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party are less likely than Democrats and Democratic-leaners” to believe journalists perform well.
Only 3-in-10 Republicans “believe journalists fairly cover all sides of an issue at least some of the time,” while “about three-quarters of Democrats” think so. On the numbers, there is a 43-percent difference.
All this raises important questions. How did we get so far off in trusting our leaders? Or how did they get so far off? How do we get back? Is any of this news good for our democracy?
A few thoughts. First, Americans are not stupid. They see a lack of ethics, accountability, competence – and they say so. Are they wrong? Probably not. Is it correctable? Yes.
Behind our unease with current leadership are several factors. A major motivation for leading was always other-regarding service. Historically, many were drawn to leadership to make the world better, fulfill a moral duty, and serve others. That was a big part of stepping up.
A sense of duty came from individual, family, community and national faith, which taught humility, selflessness, and moral obligation. Today, members of Congress, journalism, business, education and other sectors are too often driven by undisguised self-adulation, personal aggrandizement, a quest for celebrity. Celebrity is an empty vessel; it serves only itself.
Somehow, the motivations of duty, selfless service, fidelity to the public trust – have shifted. The likes of congressional actors like AOC, Tlaib, Omar, and self-promotors in both parties, suggests that humility, selflessness and moral obligation are no longer touchstones.
The same can be said for big names in media, business and even on college campuses. Attention, money and controversy are today’s gods. The notion of service, and leading by pursuit of truth, reference to moral compass, are old fashioned.
This raises two last sources of mistrust. Members of Congress – and other leaders – are often disconnected from faith and “first principles.” They are also disconnected from progenitors, from the past. They are ignorant of American history – and of world history.
We witness members of Congress making nonsensical statements about America’s past, no understanding of early texts or debates, philosophical underpinnings, national or personal motivations, sacrifices, hardships, risks and resilience. They have no idea the crucible of history through which America came – nor its importance.
Modern members of Congress, journalists, and tech giants sally to a microphone and blather, sure what they don’t know doesn’t matter. Only it does. Missing is our Founders’ perspective, command of languages, learning, and reflection. Missing is ballast offered by Lincoln, TR, FDR, Truman, Ike, Reagan and others. With such that compass, modern leaders often fly blind.
Last, we watch leaders hemorrhage trust by going parochial not national, becoming small-minded, losing the “big picture.” They default to one issue, unable to comprehend complexity –debt projections or megatonnage, layered geopolitical relationships or “present discounted value,” how tax policy works, tautological nature of an inverted yield curve, how solar flares and carbon absorption effect global temperatures.
They fail to recognize any need for unity – or the meaning in citizenship, sovereignty, and national identity. We live in a dangerous world, where national unity is survival – not of a party, but of our democracy, preserving what flows from “one nation.” Lincoln said: “United we stand, divided we fall.” We remembered after 9-11 but have forgotten.
Our flag is not just cloth, but the surrogate for our nation. Disrespecting it, misunderstanding what it represents, those who died under it – leads to terrible misjudgments. The 50 stars and 13 stripes are us, “We, The People.” If we willingly dishonor our flag, we disrespect the unity that defines us. We cannot continue that – nor can American leaders.
So, where lies hope? In knowledge that our history is rich, character resilient, patriotism strong. Hope rests on good leaders – rooted in commitment to others, not to self; faith and not nonsense; returning to one nation. The North Star does not vanish because we look away. It is still there. To navigate by it, we must look for it. Finding it, we must have the courage to follow it.