I’m going to riff on something here that is outside my pay-grade. I’m not going to tell you how all the things must be fixed. It’s my own personal blog, though, so I can do what I want.
We elected Donald Trump. I’m not going to get into who he is or stuff like that because I’ve already done that. People are still trying to figure out how and why that happened. We could just listen to The President/Donald for the reason: He’s the Best! He’s going to MAGA (which I always say in my head like it’s the “cawcaw!” of a crow)! He’s going to Drain the Swamp!
That last bit is what I’m interested in, though. The sentiment that Washington is a swamp that must be drained of all corruption. There’s good reason to believe this, of course. Lobbyists have far too much influence, I think (uncontroversial opinion alert). Long-term politicians (left and right) work the system to advance their careers instead of getting things done for the country. Party pragmatism trumps (ahem) progress for the country. It’s not hard to see the swamp imagery, or the need to see it drained.
But there is a pervasive sickness that is growing stronger and stronger in America and throughout the West. Data says that Americans don’t distrust only Congress or The-Swamp-That-Is-DC. Americans increasingly distrust all institutions. Financial. Journalistic. Religious. Anywhere that power and expertise has traditionally been warehoused and supervised, Americans are more and more turning their noses up. At least according to Gallup’s polling. Those confidence numbers are very low.
Anecdotally, I would back up the data with numerous conversations I’ve had with people, both online and in person. My go-to example is that of journalism. Maybe it’s because journalism has a special place in my heart that I think should be true for everyone. I worked on a very good high school newspaper that won awards and stuff. I really enjoyed working on that paper and believed what my teachers taught me about the power and the necessity of the Press. Increasingly, though, more and more people just flatly reject major sources of journalism as actual news sources. The New York Times? A joke. Completely untrustworthy. Gimme dat Breitbart. Wall Street Journal? Conservative toilet paper. Hello, HuffPo opinion piece! People have (usually rightly) detected the biases of the NYT or Washington Post or WSJ or whatever and then said, “That means they’re basically blogs.”
But newspapers and even cable news networks are not blogs. They have actual editorial processes and procedures. There are actual laws they can be held to regarding libel and slander. They’re supposed to run corrections when they’re wrong. They employ people who are professional journalists. Blogs are… blogs. They’re not equal sources of news. They’re just not.
Now, is there bias in the news? Of course! Bias is inescapable. To be human is to be biased. And the New York Times and others have enormous blind spots and tendencies to favor candidates and all of that. That’s all true. But we are in the place, culturally, where we so distrust institutions that we are willing to throw big journalistic names away as being in the same category and possibly less trustworthy than garbage factories like infowars.com.
I think this kind of ethic has put us in a very dangerous place. I think we are running around and setting our institutions on fire. In so doing, I think we’re burning down the house around us. I think we’re killing culture.
Institutions have a valuable function in society. I think we are all aware of the dark side of institutions, the lust for power that is primarily concerned with self-preservation. Let me grant all of that. But I want to say that institutions do serve culture, they don’t just hold it back. Institutions, the Elites, when functioning properly, bring expertise to bear on their various realms of influence. At the heart of our distrust of institutions is, I think, an individualistic self-confidence that allows us to dismiss the necessity of experts. This very medium, a blog, which will most likely be accessed through social media links, teaches us all to think that there’s basically no difference in my opinion and some man or woman on this or that major platform. The only difference between me and them is the size of the audience.
When we are in a place where we believe this, though, we dangerously skip the valuable processes implicit in institutional power. Theoretically, institutions throw up barriers to membership in the halls of power. While this can be racist, exclusionary, snobbish, etc., it also serves as a screen for stupidity and inexperience and thoughtlessness. You have to actually power through the process to be a part. Mediating institutions can erase the pretenders, the charismatically vacuous.
There has always been an anti-institutional strain to being an American. We value individual effort, individual governance. The stuffiness of British culture is something we mock and moved away from on purpose. And there’s a lot of good in that instinct. But we are, I think, experiencing the very dark shadow side of that gift. We see an increasing willingness to believe nonsense just because we like it better. We distrust everyone, no matter their expertise, that we perceive as being part of The Swamp, which, obviously, must be fundamentally opposed to my interests.
And, again, I know there have been plenty of reasons to distrust institutions. The Financial markets acted against consumer interests in the financial collapse of 2007/2008. Governing officials lined their pockets and looked the other way. Journalistic outlets pick sides and under/overreport things that they shouldn’t. Churches have literally raped children and hidden it. The evidence list needed to fuel anti-institutionalism is long. I get that.
My suggestion would be that we should be very careful with what we’re doing. I don’t think we should be kicking the pillars of society down because they’re doing a bad job. I think we should rehabilitate them. My suggestions, very broad and probably not very helpful, would be the following:
–Consciously examine the power of confirmation bias. We are hardwired to believe the things that agree with us. But ask yourself: “Do I believe Breitbart because they are better at news gathering, or because liberals annoy me?” “Do I believe Salon on matters of theology because evangelicals are stupid?” Ask yourself these kinds of questions in every area of institutional mistrust: Political. Medical. Journalistic. Financial. Religious. Are you rejecting the report from the Other because it’s a poor argument, or did you decide to reject it long ago because of your predetermined conclusions?
–Consider the virtues of institutions. It is worth re-training yourself to consider what positive power there might be in institutions. What good is there in these processes? Are there processes? Is this purely inherited power with no basis in merit? My point here is that anti-institutionalism is in the air of our culture, both on the right and on the left. It is a worthwhile thought experiment to question the prevailing narrative.
–Demand that institutions become trustworthy, not that they burn down. This would be my sincere hope in all of this. That trust would be given to these mediating institutions. If we are living as perpetually paranoid people who only live in echo chambers and only distrust those in power, who only see The Swamp, we will actively tear down the markers of civilization. We will be better off if we see institutions not as hopelessly corrupt, but as worthwhile cultural artifacts that need rehabilitation. What might a rebuilding of trust look like in our towns? Our states? And eventually our country? These are games of the imagination that are not inconsequential flights of fancy. They are vital to our future.
Like I said at the top, these matters are over my head. I don’t have solutions. I have concerns and suggestions. But I think we had better get busy thinking about these things for the sake of the common good. If we are to flourish as a society, we will need good institutions that will check and hone power, rather than just hoard and self-propagate.
Now stop reading my blog and go read a bunch of books about this. There’s actual experts out there. I’m not one of them.
I knew I wasn’t the only one talking about this kind of stuff. Here is someone who is more of an actual expert talking about this kind of stuff. I didn’t read this until a few minutes after I posted the above. So… more proof that I’m not an actual expert!