WASHINGTON — It's a bad time to be a venerable institution.
In recent months some of the pillars of American society Â- be they religious, business, or charitable and sports institutions Â- have seen their reputations battered by allegations of incompetence, fraud, and/or attempted coverups.
The trend began last year, when the American Red Cross was caught withholding donations meant for the victims of Sept. 11. Then Enron, one of the largest and fasted-growing companies in America, collapsed amid allegations of financial shenanigans.
Since then Arthur Anderson has been tainted by Enron's problems. The Roman Catholic Church has been roiled by accusations of laxity concerning pedophile priests. Even the Olympic judging in Salt Lake City turned out to be soft as spring ice.
These multiple failures have helped make Americans more skeptical and less trusting, say some pollsters. It is a "jarring blow" to the American psyche that so many of its gold-standard institutions are failing them, says pollster Peter Hart, who investigated these issues in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
"Each of these institutions that really represented the pinnacle of what we thought were our standards are suddenly being eroded," says Mr. Hart.
But others who study American opinion and behavior for a living see something at work that is far more profound than collective hand-wringing. Through all the failures, they say, runs the common thread of a need for accountability. They point to two trends that, along with rebuilding these pillars, could aid progress.
One is the federal government's makeover as it tries to adapt to the fight against terrorism Â- seen in everything from a new military command for North America to the restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The other is the possible post-Sept. 11 re-engagement of the individual in society Â- Americans are at least professing a greater interest in civic life.
Could this then, be a sort of shape-up decade for America Â- a responsibility era?
"Absolutely," answers historian Kevin Starr, librarian for the state of California. He calls the demand for accountability "the flattening out of big-shot-ism." Reaching back to the revolutionary rejection of the British monarchy for an illustration, Mr. Starr says: "We know, whether he's called 'senator' or 'your eminence', no one is beyond the possibility of sudden collapse."
The upshot, he says, is that these crises "might actually intensify participation" of individuals in society. He cites the Roman Catholic Church as an example. On everything from child abuse to church finances to Catholic schools, "lay people in the pews will demand a higher level of accountability from the bishops," Starr says.
Richard Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, says today's institutional failures are triggering a "recalibration" of values in American society in the direction of more accountability. "I don't hear people wallowing in despair, like we did with '90s politics," Mr. Harwood says. "Now people are saying: 'We can do better, and we have to act individually and collectively.' "
It could well be that the nation is entering a period of reform, says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
"There are always problems," comments Ms. Bowman. "But one thing democracy has an extraordinary record on is being able to fix those problems."
Of course, plenty of social and political scientists disagree.
"I'm skeptical of the degree of overhaul that might be undertaken," says Thomas Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
The Catholic Church moves slowly, he points out, and while lawmakers may be looking at business reforms in the wake of Enron, they may not be the most effective ones, he says.
Still others reject the very premise that America is undergoing a crisis in confidence.
"The fact that two institutions, or three or four failed us" doesn't make a trend, argues Amitai Etzioni, editor of "The Responsive Community." He believes whatever crisis there is, is limited to the institutions involved.
But Hart's own data seem to indicate otherwise, at least as far as corporate America is concerned. Nearly 30 percent of Americans, for instance, believe Enron is representative of "most" or "many" companies. And within one month, trust in the accounting profession Â- not just Arthur Anderson Â- plummeted to that of faith in a used-car salesman.
When it comes down to it, says Ms. Bowman, the interpretation of "confidence" data Â- and the answers to those polls Â- simply depends on whether one is an optimist or pessimist.
Pollsters may perpetuate negativity by the kinds of questions they ask. Generally speaking, she says, questions posed in the '30s, '40s, and '50s elicited more positive public responses than those posed after 1960 Â- when public trust in private and public institutions began a broad, 40-year decline. The explanation, she suggests, can't lie in more or weightier institutional crash and burns today than in the first half of the 20th century. In the business sector, for instance, can Enron, the S&L crisis, and the junk-bond scams of the '80s really compare with the Great Depression? Rather, Bowman suggests, the culprits are the public's tendency toward nostalgia (everything was better in the old days) Â- and a pollster culture that, like the media, increasingly focuses on the negative.
One of the questions that Hart used in the NBC/WSJ poll did just that Â- it assumed failing public confidence when it asked: "There have been a number of stories in the news lately that have caused people to lose confidence in institutions that Americans used to have great faith in. Which one or two of these stories have most undermined your confidence in the institution involved?"
The Catholic Church (38 percent) and Enron (33 percent) topped the list of responses, with Olympic judges (7 percent) at the bottom.
Hart says his question was based partly on statistical evidence and partly on educated guess.