Like the collapsing coast of California seen recently on TV news, the ground beneath some of our most important institutions is crumbling, and the danger has never been greater than in this election year.
The institution of politics itself is in grave peril. Our favored candidates used to be experienced professional politicians (think Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt or Richard Nixon). They held junior positions in the executive or legislative branches and climbed the ranks, ensuring that they were capable of the actual work of governing. Today, however, regular participation in the political system is seen as corrupting. Eight years ago, Obama’s relative lack of experience in government was seen as a weakness. Today, such a lack is seen as strength. Quick flip? Perhaps the institution of politics is today considered so untrustworthy that political inexperience is paraded by many as a mark of integrity and independence.
Furthermore, the institutionalized pathways for affecting change have been bypassed with dangerous results. Until recently, Americans who were anxious, dissatisfied, or upset with the status quo would write letters, protest, and lobby for concrete, specific changes. While their working within the system may not have always achieved the desired result, it often did result in constructive compromise. Compare Robert La Follette’s gang of progressives to the contemporary Freedom Caucus. The former worked within the system and enacted significant change. The latter has tried to hold the system itself hostage to attempt to push through their radical agenda with limited success. Though no one can get everything they want, the current system is aimed at achieving the compromises that allow people to feel that their voices are being heard, even if the effect is not always dramatic.
Compounding the danger is the fact that our political parties are caught in a moment of dramatic change. Though they have never been perfect, the political parties have always been vital to healthy governance. However, the power structures that have held up these vital centers of the parties are being torn down by external foes and political infighting.
The Republican Party is in particular danger. The party is being pulled in at least two different directions. The Tea Partiers, whose real mission sometimes seems to be bringing down the federal government, have been joined by (or revealed to be) far-right ideologues, whose jingoism and xenophobia threaten to define the presidential race. At the same time, more moderate establishment Republicans want to fight for leaner government but recognize the vital work that government does and will compromise to keep that work going. Adding to this conflict religious voters, some of whom have become alienated by the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric flowing from the right wing of the party, leads to a political system that lacks any vital center of gravity. The result is a splintering institution, a process defined not by sensible compromise, but by rhetoric, gridlock, and frustration.
Meanwhile, the danger to our political system is dramatically increased by the eroding trust in our media. Gone are the days when our news came from trusted, vetted sources like Walter Cronkite. Gone are the days of news as information. Now the Internet allows almost anyone to pose as a journalist, pumping baloney into what should be serious public discourse. Meanwhile, news has become entertainment, which has caused some journalists to poison their own wells by exaggerating the truth and engaging in fear-mongering.
As a result, we have people willing to overthrow the status quo without any serious, concrete plan to replace it. A sizable segment of our population is now so opposed to more of the same traditional politics that they find themselves drawn to inexperienced, volatile, anti-intellectual candidates, whose presidency would be at its very best a risky roll of the dice.
What exactly must be done to shore up the ground beneath our vital institutions that make up our political system is not yet clear. But until there is a wider understanding and appreciation of the impending institutional breakdowns, the subject is unlikely to be studied, understood, and addressed.
We cannot simply take for granted that these institutions will save us from our worst selves. Rather, we have to save them!
When the nightly news shows them collapsed into a mess at the bottom of a collapsed cliff, God help us ALL!
We are perilously close to that reality!