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As Our Institutions Fail, Will Americans Get Angry or Apathetic?
Last week, I wrote about how American meritocracy has failed, based on the thesis of Chris Hayes in his book, “Twilight of the Elites: American after Meritocracy, that meritocracy has failed in the sense of producing elites who seem incapable of leading our society in healthy and productive ways. Instead, the decidedly destructive behavior of our aristocracy has gone unchecked, causing the American public to sour on elites of all types, even those who ostensibly have done nothing wrong. But, as much as the notion as having elites seems antithetical to the American ethos of honoring the common man, every society needs what Thomas Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy” of people with wisdom and talents to lead the many institutions necessary for a society to function. It is important to note that Jefferson also described these elites as being particularly virtuous. It would be exceptionally difficult to examine the elite in the United States today and endow them with this characteristic. It is hard to argue that particularly well-positioned elites haven’t significantly contributed to the demise of the American Dream for everyday Americans. Our elites have led the rest of society astray because they are completely out of touch with everyone else, in large part because of the inherit flaws in our meritocracy as I described in last week’s column. They have done corrupt things like game the financial system, buy the political system, and profit handsomely from the labor of underpaid workers or the wars they perpetrate.
One of the central arguments Hayes makes is that as a consequence of the calamitous failures perpetrated by elites, the American public has become disillusioned with authorities and institutions. Whether its teachers, government leaders, lawyers, bankers, or scientists, each represents an institution that, while foundational to society, is now facing historically high levels of mistrust. For example, a Gallup poll just found that confidence in public schools is at a new low among Americans, as is confidence in television news. Never an exceptionally popular institution anyway, Congress continues to earn historically low ratings as experts identify them as the “worst Congress ever“, and faith in the Supreme Court is justifiably falling. For good reason, confidence in banks is also at rock bottom. But we really do need to believe in at least the potential competence of these and other institutions if we are to have a functioning society. Conventional wisdom says that when people lose faith in secular institutions, they turn to religious institutions. However, even these are under attack as public confidence in organized religion has reached new lows, probably owing to scandals like the Catholic Church’s failure to handle the widespread sexual abuse by priests of children.
The disillusionment with institutions in all forms is easily observed, as “documentary” films like Zeitgeist gain some degree of popular appeal. In Zeitgeist, religion, government, the military, and banking are portrayed as intertwined in an elaborate series of conspiracies designed to fool common people and undermine their well-being in service of small groups of elites. While the “documentary” is steeped in manipulative imagery, spurious associations, and faulty conclusions, its underlying message that elites are out to get everyday people is emotionally satisfying and certainly jibes with the reality that power is concentrated with the very few who seem to have lost all interest in the general welfare of society.
Unfortunately, an undiscerning public lashes out indiscriminately in response to the inequality and dysfunction they witness, in many ways completely missing the actual sources of their misery in favor of simply attacking anyone associated with elitism, such as academics or experts. These conditions make it so that a sizeable portion of the public is unable to hear distinguished, non-partisan experts like Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, representing think tanks from both the left and right of the political spectrum, declare that this horrible Congress is not the result of “the troublesomeness of both Republicans and Democrats,” but instead that extremism on the Right is crippling the institution. Their book, It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, has been largely ignored by the mainstream media and so has failed to properly alarm the American public. My guess is that even if it did get a lot of media attention, Americans would still not get fired up about its conclusions.
The danger in all of this rejection of the basic institutions of society is that it breeds pervasive and indiscriminate cynicism, which in turn leads to disengagement. Just when the most desperately needed outcome for this country is for people to rise up in unison and challenge the current status quo through collective action and demands for accountability from our elites, we are plagued by pessimism that institutions can ever be made to function on our behalf. It certainly doesn’t help that, as half of our public, conservatives persistently turn a blind eye to the elements of today’s America that are most caustic for a healthy society.
Even if we embrace the pessimism, and declare that we are being overtaken by corrupt elites, transnational corporations, and plutocratic political forces, there has to be something besides acquiescence that Americans can do. Annie Leonard, creator of the documentary, “The Story of Change,” argues part of our problem is that we have forgotten how to be citizens and lost ourselves in the role of consumer.
In a fiery essay, Chris Hedges argues that part of being alive should include at least the act of trying to resist the forces that rot our institutions, undermine the common good, and dismantle democracy. He points to how Native Americans faced a juggernaut when Europeans began to invade their lands, and as a result, they had two possible responses: accommodation or resistance. Neither strategy worked for them. Hedges concludes:
“Yet to resist is to say something about us as human beings. It keeps alive the possibility of hope, even as all empirical evidence points to inevitable destruction. It makes victory, however remote, possible. And it makes life a little more difficult for the ruling class, which satisfies the very human emotion of vengeance.”
Hedges is venomous in his critiques of Obama, equating him with corrupt elites. While I understand his frustrations, I think Hedges represents yet another person lashing out and missing the real targets. Obama is not a part of this corrosive element; he just makes the mistake of being too accommodating to them. He needs to have the American people give him the power to use confrontation against them.
In her novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker concludes that the secret of joy is (spoiler alert) resistance. In contrast, to see American anger about the loss of their institutions turn to apathy or compliance is disheartening. I hope that win or lose, we can reclaim the struggle. I hear a lot of liberals saying they plan to sit out the next election. This isn’t resistance. This is retreat.