US Supreme Court Justices of the Roberts Court
The Roberts Court (since October 2020), front row (L to R): Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Back row (L to R): Brett Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett. Credit: Fred Schilling via / Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States
Jonathan L. Wharton

Gallup polled Americans at the beginning of this month and discovered only 25% have confidence in our United States Supreme Court – and this was before its gun control, abortion, religious and free speech decisions.

Most surprising is that this is the lowest favorable rating for the highest court in the land and ratings were 36% last year and 40% the year before. Interestingly, Americans favored the Court more so than Congress (11%-20%) especially since the beginning of the century. President Biden’s approval numbers have also remained at 40%, similar to former President Donald Trump. In other words, we’ve lost faith in our federal government and increasingly so with the one judicial institution that tends to be less partisan but still ideological.

I often, but reluctantly, teach a class called “Introduction to U.S. Government” and students have indicated their interest and faith in the Supreme Court over our national executive and legislative institutions. Similar to many Americans, they’ve had little interest in Congress while the White House remains a toss-up in addressing national policy issues. Instead, students find that judges, and in particular Supreme Court justices, are likely not so hyper-partisan, petty, and political. Case law and precedent appear to be on the judicial branch’s side as opposed to partisanship and special interests’ pressures.

But considering the Court’s recent decisions (with more to come this week and their next session beginning in October), Americans’ faith in our judiciary is being challenged even if polls have little impact on Court decisions. For Generations Y and Z in particular (or those 15 to 40 years old), what’s the point of being engaged in national issues when our federal institutions face logjams and ideological struggles? Many of my students have either been turned off or have little interest in politics and I can’t blame them considering our current era.

I have to confess that I also have little resolve to confront and get into our national matters. Working for Congress 20 years ago, I was scarred from being in Washington’s political bubble, or perhaps from “Beltway Syndrome.” Partisanship and special interests have only worsened since I left our nation’s capital. I’ve been in a political malaise ever since.

Our national government is pretty much useless and Gallup polls only reinforce the fact that we have lost faith in our political institutions.

Or have we?

Thankfully, we’re in New England and various political institutions here not only have proactive representative government but also direct democracy attributes unlike the constitutional republicanism in Washington. We can actually participate in state government hearings and workshops. In some municipalities, we can openly speak during public comment before legislative council sessions. Some areas also have representative town meetings and annual town meetings where public participation is expected. Voters also have referendum and initiative measures to decide policies and budgetary matters. New England is therefore unique for direct democracy and political scientists like Frank Bryan, have reinforced this point.

But over the years I have seen fewer residents attending public forums and we tend to forget about voting on local initiatives. Many of us also fail to pay attention to state and local media. Forget about losing faith in our national government, I’m slowly losing faith in our region’s direct engagement.

Political engagement at the state and especially local levels requires turnout. As a New Englander, I am constantly hoping for a regional renaissance about political issues especially since many of us have lost faith in our federal government. Maybe then our distrust for our national government could somehow spark a political turnaround for our region, state, and municipalities.

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.