The Decline of Institutions

Last week, Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) Justice Clarence Thomas was interviewed at a conservative conference in Dallas. Thomas said the recent leak of a draft opinion regarding abortion may have irreparably damaged trust at the SCOTUS.“What happened at the court was tremendously bad. I wonder how long we’re going to have these institutions at the rate we’re undermining them. I wonder when they’re gone or destabilized, what we’re going to have as a country,” Thomas said. Justice Thomas described the court as a place, “where now you look over your shoulder.”

Thomas, 73, was appointed to the High Court by former President George H.W. Bush in 1991. He was just the second African-American to be nominated to the SCOTUS (Thurgood Marshall was the first). Legal experts describe Thomas’ jurisprudence as an originalist. He stresses the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution and statutes. Justice Thomas is widely held to be the most conservative member of the SCOTUS.

Three observations:

First, respect for established institutions is in decline. In a Gallup poll from 2021, only 37% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in church and religion. That’s half of what it was thirty years ago. Only 12% of Americans have a high opinion of Congress, compared to 30% twenty years ago. Only 35% of Americans have a high opinion of the SCOTUS, compared with 55% twenty years ago. Gallup polled Americans on many other institutions and that information is available online, but virtually every traditional institution (health care, organized labor, criminal justice, media) was viewed as unfavorable and down significantly vs. two decades ago.

The younger generation doesn’t view traditional institutions with the same affection as their parents.

Second, the institution of the family has changed in America. From 1970-2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids was cut in half. In 1960, only 9% of households were single-parent. In 2020, nearly 19 million children, amounting to 25% of all children under 18 in the U.S. were living in single-parent homes. In Canada, that number is 15%, China, 3%, Russia 18%. The U.S. has the highest percentage of children in single-parent homes. While Gallup doesn’t include the institution of the family in their survey, clearly the respect for that institution has declined.

Third, respect, confidence and appreciation for institutions must be restored for America to survive. Believing an institution has no merit, function or purpose will doom it. When those believers are in the institution, it’s worse. Justice Thomas implied during his remarks the leak likely came from a law clerk from one of the newer members of the court. He said that would never have happened in years past. Thomas described his relationship with late Justice Ruth Ginsberg as “an easy colleague for me.”

He said she was a nice person to deal with and while they seldom agreed, they both respected the institution. Thomas said the leak was a kind of infidelity that you can explain, but you can’t undo it.

Respect is earned. Many traditional institutions deserve the loss of respect because of misbehavior and failure to perform. But when those in the institution disrespect it, it is the height of sanctimony.

President Abraham Lincoln said, “If once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.”

Note: Steve Fair is Chairman of the Republican Party in the Fourth Congressional District of Oklahoma. Steve’s conservative commentaries appear regularly at the news website. Contact him by email at His blog is