The biggest challenge, he wrote, “is what I have called the gross misalignment between the institutions we have and the ones we need to address most of these problems.”
The framers of the Constitution wrote:
understood human weaknesses and passions. But they thought they had designed a set of institutions that could weather the storms. They also assumed a nation in which families, schools, or religious congregations had instilled civic virtue in people. Over the next year, those assumptions will be severely tested.
The difficulties of institutions in prevailing under such concerted coercion are increasingly evident.
Greg ContiPrinceton political scientist, in an essay published in December in Compact magazine, “The rise of the sectarian university”, describes the erosion of national support for the mediating role of key institutions:
The real danger to elite higher education, then, is not that these places will become financially ruined, nor that hostile conservatives will effectively interfere in their internal operations. Instead, its position in American society will come to resemble that of the New York Times or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is, they will continue to be rich and powerful, and they will continue to have many brilliant and competent people working within their purview. And yet its authority will become more fragile and its appeal more sectarian.
If universities continue to function as they have been doing, their fate will be similar. From being de facto national institutions, a valuable part of our shared heritage, pursuing one of the essential purposes of a great modern society, they are becoming seen as instruments of a cult. Public respect for higher education He was falling across the ideological spectrum even before the events of this fall. Without a course correction, the silent majority of Americans will be just as likely to give importance to an Ivy League professor’s research as they are to receive the next booster, even if Ivy League credentials receive great deference within an increasingly introspective part. of our privileged classes.
Steven Pinkerprofessor of psychology at Harvard and author of “Enlightenment now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” was the most optimistic (or, perhaps, the least pessimistic) of those I contacted for this essay. He responded by email to my query:
You can always think that we are in an unprecedented crisis by listing the worst things that happened in the country at that time. But this is a nonrandom sample, and selecting the worst events in a given year will always make it seem like a catastrophe is imminent. It is good to remember the seemingly existential crises of decades that you and I lived through, among them:
The 1960s, with the assassination of three of the country’s most beloved figures, including the president; urban riots in which dozens of people died and neighborhoods burned in a single night; an unpopular war that killed 10 times as many Americans as in Iraq and Afghanistan; fears of annihilation in all-out nuclear war; a generation that rejected the prevailing social and sexual mores, many of whom called for a violent communist or anarchist revolution; a third-party segregationist candidate who won five states.
The 70s, with five terrorist attacks a day in many yearsthe resignations of both the vice president and the president, double-digit inflation and unemployment, two energy crises that were thought could end industrial civilization, the United States held hostage in Iran, a sitting president almost overthrown by his own party, etc. .
The 1980s, with violent crime and homelessness reaching historic highs, new fears of nuclear escalation and a crack cocaine crisis.
The 2000s, with fears of weekly attacks on the scale of 9/11 or worse attacks with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; plans for surveillance of the entire US population; widespread ridicule and hatred towards a president who led the country into two disastrous wars.
Pinker has repeatedly made his case in recent days on the X platform, posting “177 ways the world got better in 2023“January 2”David Byrne’s Reasons to Be Cheerful“the same day and”No, 2023 wasn’t all bad and here are 23 reasons why not”on January 4th.
Pinker, however, is an outlier.
Larry Kramerwho just retired as president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and will serve as president of the London School of Economics, wrote in an email that several important contemporary trends are negative, including:
(1) media fragmentation, coupled with the loss of standards, disappearance of local media and degradation of journalistic standards; (2) weakening of parties through well-intentioned but misguided regulations (e.g., campaign finance) that transferred control from professionals to wealthy, private ideologues; (3) political regimes that greatly exacerbated wealth inequality and left overwhelming numbers of Americans feeling worse off, reducing life expectancy, and preventing the government from addressing people’s needs; (4) a shift on the left and right toward identity politics that reduces people to their race, gender, and political ideology, sharpening the sense of differences by minimizing what we share with each other and thus turning into a shared political community with disagreements in a war enemy camps.
Several of the people I contacted cited inequality and downward mobility as key factors undermining faith in democratic governance.
Allen MatusowRice historian and author of “The collapse of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s,” he wrote via email, belonging “to the school that believes our democracy has not been in such danger since the Civil War, and the easy explanation is Trump. But the real question is why such a despicable demagogue has the support of so many people.”
Matusow cited “income inequality and” the cultural resentments of those left behind.
Trump’s contribution “to those left behind,” Matusow wrote,
it is license to focus your resentments on minorities and make expressions of prejudice acceptable. Since World War II, we have had two other notable populist demagogues. Both took advantage of a moment to attack the elites, although neither was a threat to winning the presidency. Joe McCarthy was careful not to arouse prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities and, for all his flaws, George Wallace was not a serial liar. Trump is one of a kind from him.
Bruce Cain, a Stanford political scientist, shares Matusow’s concerns about the detrimental impact of inequality. Cain emailed me to say:
Recent growing dissatisfaction with democracy is a reminder that people judge the fairness of their political system by their performance in it. Downward mobility and loss of political and social status lead to alienation from democratic norms and distrust in government. We believe that democracy is a better form of government because it will produce better policies by being accountable to the people. But when it doesn’t work well, democratic legitimacy is eroded across the political spectrum.
These factors, Cain continued, work in conjunction with
social and political instability due to globalization, automation and social networks. Much has changed in recent decades, including the country’s more diverse racial and ethnic makeup, job opportunities more defined along educational lines, and expanded gender roles. MAGA anger and anxiety over replacement arise from the simultaneous loss of social status, economic opportunity, and political power due to these important economic, social, and demographic trends.
Cain argued that dissension between Democrats and Republicans fuels a vicious cycle:
The progressive left wants change to happen more quickly, which only fuels the fears and fervor of the right. The cycle of political tension continues to increase. Trump stirs the pot, but tensions have been building for decades.
In the short term, Cain is not optimistic:
We can’t have effective government until we have enough consensus, and we can’t have consensus unless people in government seek effective policies rather than notoriety and a media career. Unless one party runs the table and gains control of the trifecta, we will sink into a polarized and divided government for another term or two. That’s the design of the Madisonian system: stay neutral until we know where we want to go.
Perhaps the most scathing comment I received was from Theda Skocpolprofessor of government and sociology at Harvard, who responded to my question at the height of the controversy over former Harvard president Claudine Gay:
For some time I have thought that the United States was suffering multiple institutional collapses driven by elites across the board, opening the door to a national and global maelstrom. But now I feel so overwhelmingly distressed by all of this, including the collapse of core values at my own university, that I cannot write coherently about it.