With America’s economy still struggling to recover from deep problems that the current administration inherited and has not been able to fix with a quick “Presto! Chang-o!”, the populace has turned pickle-faced. A majority of us have little trust in any of the nation’s major institutions.

A new poll from the Associated Press and National Constitution Center (pdf available here) shows that confidence in institutions is waning fast: none of the 18 institutions named in the survey had a majority of respondents indicate that they were either “confident” or “extremely confident” in them. For those two values, the military led the list at 43 percent, with small and local businesses next at 39 percent, and the scientific community at 30 percent. That seems dismal enough, but confidence in other major institutions is appallingly low: just 18 percent expressed real confidence in organized religion, and 16 percent in the Supreme Court. The federal government (10 percent), the U.S. Congress (7 percent) and banks and financial institutions (6 percent) were at the bottom of the list. The media didn’t fare much better, with both print and broadcast media at 13 percent, online media at 11 percent, and “citizen” media such as blogs at 8 percent.

All is not lost, however: from 42 to 62 percent of respondents said they were “somewhat confident” in every institution named. So, for example, if “somewhat confident” votes are added, confidence in organized religion rises to 62 percent, the federal government gets to 58 percent, and even our polarized Congress breaks the 50-percent mark, at 51 percent.

Here’s a non-scientific observation: I’ve noticed, as I’m sure you have, that responses to polls such as this go up and down with the state of the economy and how confident people feel about their own lives. If the recession was retreating more rapidly and jobs were abundant, I’m extremely confident that the measure of confidence in every category would go up. The bottom line is, we’re currently pickles because we’re fickle: our attitude toward institutions depends largely on our mood, and our mood grows from how well we happen to be doing at any given moment.

Here’s a question worth pondering: instead of polling folks to ask “Who do you trust?”, let’s consider asking “Who trusts you?” How many people have strong confidence in you — not the bank or the government or the church or the institution you might represent, but you as a person?

Trust is a crucial building block in any successful, civilized society, and it has to be built one brick at a time. Let’s be sure that the bricks bearing our names can be trusted to bear the load.

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