March 15, 2019
In January, I commented on the failure of leadership in contemporary American politics, and skipped over the contribution by the people to that sad state. Before addressing the latter issue, let’s try an intermediate analysis: does the problem lie with our political or social structures?
Historian Page Smith, in his book Redeeming the Time, said this: “I believe that the tendency of history, of all human institutions is downward, toward complacency, decadence, obtuseness, and coldness of heart, and that we are saved only by the often obscure but heroic efforts of men and women whose passion it has been to redeem the world.” The statement that we are saved by individual effort might suggest that the lack of individual leadership was the original problem. However, it could be that institutions, as structures, have an inherent tendency toward obsolescence and failure.
The Roman Empire, The Holy Roman Empire and the various European colonial systems provide examples, as does the medieval Catholic Church, of institutional senility and collapse. The United States began with a built-in trigger for dissolution; the conflict between free and slave states. The Constitution, brilliant achievement that it was, fudged on the issue of slavery. The two regions competed for control of new territories and states, and eventually went to war. The South, in seceding, chose one institution over another, adhering to slavery and declaring the Union to be obsolete.
In the aftermath of the war, the Constitution was repaired and improved, and later additions, including votes for women, came peacefully. However, it is showing its age again in the distortions of the electoral college.
Capitalism is an institution which works well for society, but only under the right conditions. The rise of organized labor and establishment of its rights, and the imposition of reasonable regulations created a better system, but both of those controls have weakened and capitalism is another institution in an unhealthy condition.
Now return to the role of the people. The increased tribalism of American society turns differences of view into conflicts. There are troublesome attitudes on the left, but the more disruptive ones come from the other side. The attitude of the right toward government, ranging from Ronald Reagan’s disdain (“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help”) to Grover Norquist’s fantasy (“reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”) makes a search for consensus solutions next to impossible. The outer fringe, such as militias and “patriot” groups threaten violence. Even those with some sheen of respectability join in. Here’s Joseph diGenova, former U.S. Attorney: “We are in a civil war. The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over. . . . It’s going to be total war.” His advice: “I vote, and I buy guns. And that’s what you should do.”
One survey after another reveals that Americans know little about the world, current affairs or science. There is an indifference or hostility on the part of many to such “elitist” pursuits as reading newspapers or heeding experts. Part of the blame again is institutional, as schools and even colleges seem not to teach such basics as U.S. history and civics, and mainstream media sometimes fail to educate, for example as to the extent and effects of climate change. Any natural tendency toward misinformation is greatly exacerbated by the internet. In effect, we have created an entity which, while it could have developed better citizens through greater dissemination of facts, threatens to destroy other institutions through rumor, propaganda, fantasy and falsehood. The Russians used the web to influence the election, but we’re doing rather well at self-destruction without help. Fear and resentment of others is built into most of us but, again, those tendencies can be minimized or exacerbated by leaders and institutions.
Allowing for all of that, the people are part of the problem. Trump’s 90% approval rating among Republicans is proof enough. Even one who receives political information from Fox or the dregs of the internet would have to close his eyes and cover his ears in order not to be aware that we are led by a buffoon and a liar. Ignorance may be excusable; wilful ignorance is not.
All of this anti-government sentiment implicates another systemic weakness: “Our political institutions were not built to handle a highly polarized situation in which one side is hostile to the system itself.”
So: Are the American people at fault for the present situation, or are we confronted by institutional failure? Yes to both, but the real question is where do we go from here, which returns us to the need for, and present lack of, constructive leadership. Perhaps 2020 will bring some improvement. We’d better hope so.
29. A People's History of the United States, vol. 8 (1987), p. 1140
30. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/in-america-talk-turns-to-something-unspoken-for-150-years -civil-war/2019/02/28/b3733af8-3ae4-11e9-a2cd-307b06d0257b_ story.html?utm_term=.c87d3f657d86
31. Hacker and Pierson, American Amnesia, p. 320