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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer. katherine molé mfa ... art director
Friday, December 27, 2019
As Institutions COLLAPSE, Americans Need to Renew Faith in Each Other
Shutterstock Ben Domenech
The most important story of our soon-to-end decade is a radical decline in trust in once-trusted institutions in the United States — a social trend half a century in the making.
The church, the Supreme Court, small businesses and the police fared OK, though only the American military maintains high levels of trust and confidence. But according to Gallup, trust in most other major institutions matched or hit historic lows in 2019.
Only 8% of Americans trust television news; big business and the criminal justice system are at 10%; newspapers, 12%; banks, 13%; public schools, 13%; and the health care system, 15%. Probably to no one’s surprise, Congress fared the worst, managing a mere 4%.
Some of these institutions made catastrophic mistakes in the recent past. Think, for example, of investment banks’ failure to foresee the looming threat posed by their securitized gambling in the run-up to the Great Recession. Or consider the mainstream media’s serial blunders in response to the Trump phenomenon, most of them a product of an ideological determination to undo the results of 2016.
There is also a deeper, pervasive crisis of institutional collapse going back to Vietnam and Watergate that has to do with the failures of government — in war, in intelligence, in deficits, in health care websites, in disaster response.
But there is something still more going on here, something consistent with a nation that in the digital era is increasingly atomized, where our citizens live at a remove from each other.
A nation where citizens spend hours yelling at strangers on the internet but don’t know the names of their neighbors to invite for Christmas Eve is a sad one, indeed.
It isn’t just that government has failed us. We have failed to instill and reinforce faith in each other through bedrock civil-society institutions: church, family, local community.
Unlike other nations, where there is only the mob and the leader — a crowd of powerless people appealing to the powerful for salvation — the United States has sustained itself time and again thanks to the spirit that drives us to link arms with our neighbors and solve problems for ourselves.These institutions allow us to live as Americans. Without them, we are forced to appeal to larger forces, particularly government, to solve problems traditionally addressed in the church, the community or the family.
If the idea of America is to survive for generations to come, we can’t respond to betrayals by institutions, at whatever level of community, by throwing up our hands. We can’t give up on our churches just because the pews are filled with sinners; on sports leagues filled with cheaters; or the government filled with idiots.
Our response must be one of firm dedication to renewing these institutions ourselves, starting with our families, our neighborhoods and towns.
As Yuval Levin wrote in his 2016 book, “The Fractured Republic”: “Our highly individualist, liberationist idea of liberty is possible only because we presuppose the existence of a human being and citizen capable of handling a remarkably high degree of freedom and responsibility. We do not often enough reflect on how extraordinary it is that our society contains such people.”
The incredible thing about America is that it does contain such people. Time and again, the people prove themselves better than those they elect and choose to lead them. You won’t find the greatness of America in halls filled with bureaucrats or in Wall Street C-suites. You’ll find it in the long lines of trucks hauling boats in the Cajun Navy.
In his refreshing remarks during the utterly pointless congressional impeachment charade, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas adapted William F. Buckley Jr.’s well-known quip by suggesting that the country would be better off if the entirety of the Congress were replaced with the first 435 names in the phonebook.
It’s those 435 people we ought to concentrate on bettering. Institutions can die. The Americans who must renew their purpose will come from within our communities. They might be your neighbors. They might be you.