Poll: Utahns trust their cops and teachers but not Congress or media

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Donald Trump is surrounded by Utah representatives at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, as he signs two presidential proclamations to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Washington • Utahns have a great deal of trust in police officers and schoolteachers to act in the best interest of the public.

Congress? The president? The news media? Not so much.

A Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows Utahns are more likely to trust institutions closest to them as well as religious clergy but not a far-away government or faceless entities.

Only 6 percent of Utahns, for example, say they have a “great deal” of trust in Congress. Some 17 percent of Utahns have a lot of trust in the Utah Legislature. And only 11 percent put a “great deal” of trust in the news media.

People have some trust in their government, the poll shows, but politics often drives divisions and sews doubt. The inability in Washington to solve some of the nation’s biggest problems – and the constant blame game of who’s at fault – underscores the lack of confidence.

“Every time I hear about Congress’ low poll numbers, I always want to know who the 6 percent are that have a great deal of confidence in Congress,” said Jim Bennett, one of the original members of the United Utah Party, who ran for Congress against the two-party system. “Who says, ‘Let’s look at the mess,' and says, 'Yes, that’s exactly what I want'?"

The Tribune-Hinckley Institute poll shows higher credibility for Utahns’ local mayors (33 percent say they have a great deal of trust), their governor (35 percent) and especially for religious leaders (51 percent).

But teachers and police officers top the trust scale at 61 percent and 60 percent, respectively, enjoying a “great deal” of confidence.

Some 28 percent have great trust in the court system.

It’s not a ringing endorsement to find most Utahns don’t have much confidence in their government institutions, a fact that Bennett pins on the acrimony of the modern day but also the system that exists now where party and personal ambition trump doing what’s right.

The system is designed to make sure that you have no confidence, which is the kind of paradox that leaves us all deeply frustrated with the way things are,” says. “Because that kind of doubt and cynicism is baked into the mix.”

It’s not a new problem.

While government institutions have enjoyed higher trust with the public in the past, America’s Founding Fathers set up a federal government with three branches to provide checks on each other, essentially indicating a lack of trust that any one branch will do the right thing on its own.

“When you think about the beginning of the country, it was all about throwing off the shackles of the English monarchy,” Vanderbilt University political science professor Marc Hetherington, who wrote the book Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism, told National Public Radio in 2010 as hostility toward Washington heightened.

“We set up institutions that were designed to cut down on people imposing their will on ordinary folks,” Hetherington added. “Given those circumstances, it’s not surprising that we’ve had a legacy of distrust or mistrust of government ever since the beginning.”

If there’s a silver lining in the poll, it’s that most institutions can claim the trust of a majority of Utahns when the “great deal” and “some” trust categories are added together.

Even the news media manages a 54 percent rating under that formula, compared to 42 percent who answered “none” in response to a question about their level of trust. (A majority of Republicans said they had no confidence in the news media.) Congress cobbled together a 69 percent rating; the state Legislature, 79 percent; the courts, 86 percent; the governor, 85 percent; and the president, 64 percent.

They are left in the dust by police officers, with a 94 percent “great deal” and “some” trust rating, and schoolteachers, 92 percent.

Brent Jex, the president of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, says those numbers speak volumes about how police are doing the right thing considering that most of their interactions with the public are under inherently unpleasant circumstances: traffic stops, accidents, family disputes and the like.

It’s one of those things that shows we’re hopefully doing a good job and making a positive impact because if you think about the kind of situations where we come in contact with the public, it’s not generally on everyone’s best day,” Jex said. “So the fact we can have that high of support, despite those contacts, I hope we’re going into that with the right attitudes and we’re solving the problems.”

The poll, conducted by the Hinckley Institute from June 11-18, interviewed 654 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.