At a recent conference in Seattle, author Malcolm Gladwell pointed out a fascinating paradox of modern American life. Trust in American institutions, according to recent polling data, is at an all-time low, particularly among millennials. Among ten institutions—including Congress, the presidency, and church—millennials trust just two: the military and science.
Yet this same demographic has been the driving force behind the massive growth of such “sharing economy” phenomena like Airbnb, Uber, and even eBay, which rely on social trust as a prerequisite for their proper functioning. What’s going on here?
One explanation for this seeming contradiction is the profound gulf between the American society young people aspire to and the American society they have inherited. The growth of trust-based, independent, entrepreneurial ventures such as Uber, where every man and woman is both entrepreneur and independent economic agent, constitutes a rebellion of sorts, one of the only rebellions this generation has available to them.
It is a revolt against both the hyper-regulated, state-granted conception of human freedom the Left favors and the free-market fundamentalism the Right favors that fails to acknowledge concerns about privatization and concentration of profits, socializing private risks, and ever-new ways to extract rents and tolls from those struggling to get by for the exclusive benefit of an ever-more detached financial and social elite.
Our politics and public discourse have become inadequate to address the social, economic, and moral challenges of our times, and the disenchantment of young people with our core institutions reflects that fact. The social trust essential to functioning democracy must be restored if we are to maintain our free society and restore the American Dream: the core belief that a free and dignified life is attainable for every American who works hard, plays by the rules, and seeks fulfillment for self and family.
Our Republic Needs a Little More Democracy
This will require a wrenching reorientation of our public discourse and of the antiquated and clichéd policy priorities of both parties. One central problem has been the glaring disconnect between the reining ideology of influence peddling and raw self-interest on the part of self-identified “inside the Beltway” operatives who control the policy agenda in Washington and the normal middle-class aspirations of the large majority of the American electorate.
It’s essential that we repair this disconnect with new political approaches and a new policy language designed to help strengthen the broad American middle class as opposed to strengthening the hand of the well-connected who currently control the policy debate.
One aspect of this reorientation on the Right will entail reintegrating so-called “cultural issues” with the corrosive commodification of every aspect of American life that has left the middle class politically disenfranchised and economically disempowered. As Pope Francis has emphasized, the disintegration of the family and lack of respect for human life (perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the recent revelations regarding Planned Parenthood’s profit-motivated harvesting of fetal tissue) must be seen in the context of the commodification of all things, including human beings.
The “culture war” model of engaging liberal secularism that some conservatives have promoted has been a counterproductive dead end. Attempts by “movement conservatives” to mount a defensive, rearguard action to preserve the last vestiges of a traditional, constitutional order in the teeth of a hostile, secularized political and moral environment have been not only a dismal failure in practice but fundamentally flawed in their conception.
A true rebirth of a more humane and trusting society requires dialogue, engagement, and sincere empathy with the plight of those oppressed, marginalized, and downtrodden by the ubiquitous structures of government and big business. It requires a recognition that we are all in the same boat, and demonizing political opponents, while it can temporarily drive fundraising with a disaffected base, undermines any attempt to move that boat in the right direction, even marginally.
Show Some Solidarity with the Needy
Drawing bright lines regarding conservative or constitutional orthodoxy is not only ineffective when conservative leaders have, because of their reactionary and mindless mouthing of outdated political clichés, lost their influence and relevance, it is positively counter-productive. What is needed, and what will move our contemporaries towards appreciating what the Good Society entails, are real solutions that address the pressing issues for both the forgotten American middle class and those most alienated, least valued, and with least influence over the direction of the powerful institutions that dictate the realities of modern American life.
This last point is crucial because any successful efforts to establish a culture of life require a genuine attentiveness to the needs of those without power, influence, or hope. This means not asserting a hectoring and accusatory moralism, but concretely valuing, serving, and empowering those our culture of commodification regards as having no value: the infirm, weak, poor, and, not least of these, the disabled. Only when we put into action our professed beliefs about the dignity of every human life, regardless of status, achievement, influence, or attainment, will we achieve a widespread positive influence on the direction of our culture and our political life.
Some of the issues in most immediate need of our attention include: a reflective foreign policy that respects human rights as a central point of engagement, a criminal justice system that does not immediately banish citizens from society, law enforcement that engages the community it protects with something other than brute force, an electoral system that better represents the democratic aspirations of the populace, an entitlement system that serves as a safety net for the truly needy rather than an income supplement to politically connected constituencies, and an immigration system that respects the human longing for a better life and a more secure future.
Let’s Ditch Winner-Take-All
Conservatives should take another hard look at reforming the Electoral College, not clouded by a misguided insistence on constitutional purism. Given that Republicans have won the popular vote in a presidential election precisely once since 1988, there is a strong argument that electoral reform should not simply the province of the Left.
Turnout is notoriously low in solidly red states under the winner-take-all system. In the last several presidential election cycles, 99 percent of voluminous spending from campaigns and outside groups has taken place in just ten states considered toss-ups. Because they are not competitive, 40 states are considered “fly over” and get virtually no attention from the campaigns. This understandably depresses turnout in the states that don’t matter, and undermines both the democratic process and civic engagement among a huge slice of the electorate. Conservatives’ knee-jerk defense of the Electoral College undermines their own possibilities of competing nationally.
Reviving civic engagement and trust and reconnecting the Washington political establishment to the aspirations and concerns of base voters who feel unrepresented is a prerequisite to winning elections. To regain the influence we have lost on the direction of our culture and political life, we must obtain a purchase on the moral imagination of our fellow citizens who desire to be included in the American story, not shunted to the margins of society. We need a new vision that seeks to revive the American Dream for all, not just the well-connected and well-heeled.