BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | JUN 2, 2018
We are a nation being consumed by our own anger, anxieties, disillusionment, and alienation from one another.
They are emotions widely exploited by a vast media empire that employs everyone from late night comedians to early morning news anchors. They are manifest in our tribal politics and social behavior. They are also, of course, manifest in the persona and politics of our President, who rubs them raw when he should be applying soothing salves.
It is Donald Trump, on whom we place much of the blame for this current condition, but the truth is he is not the cause; he is only the result.
President Trump does make it easy and convenient to believe these debilitating feelings would all disappear if only he were deposed. After all, he is everywhere–in our living rooms, our workplaces, our cocktail conversations, and social events.
He is both villain and hero; there is no in-between. His image is forced on us relentlessly, obsessively, compulsively by media that have more invested in him than any public figure in a long, long time, maybe ever. And the media understand to perfection how to push our buttons, how to draw our eyeballs, clicks, and ultimately our pocketbooks to their pages and screens.
But the causes of our current state, this turmoil raging like an underground river just beneath the surface of our lives, actually have little to do with Donald Trump. The river has been flowing for some time, decades or more, cracking the surface and creating dangerous sink holes ever more frequently, sowing the seeds of our discontent and disconnection.
If you remove President Trump, drain him from the swamp; if you take him out of the epicenter of national conversation and focus not on the who, but the why, you may come to a conclusion growing in favor among politicians and thoughtful writers.
The country’s current condition is not just current but chronic, deeply embedded in our lives and not dissimilar to political and social upheaval occurring around the globe, everywhere from Mexico to Myanmar.
The true causes of our discontent are many and varied, but two in particular have made our lives less certain, our society less stable, and our relationships with each other less trusting and open.
The first is the abandonment of core values that once defined what we like to project to the rest of the world as the great American character. You may have different views of them, but they usually include honesty, morality, humility, a basic sense of fairness, civil behavior, mutual respect, a strong work ethic, and some sense of spirituality (more on values in the next installment).
Second is the breakdown of the core American institutions that serve as pillars of society, culture, and politics and are, or once were, in good measure the citadels of the American character.
You may have differing views here, as well, but those that stand out to me are our system of governance, our political process, public and private education, news and entertainment media, organized religion, family, marriage, and the community: civic responsibility and civil rights (you could easily add others, such as organized labor, the financial sector, or segments of government, such as the military).
What do they have in common? One, they are considered essential to the framework of an orderly, pluralistic society; and, two, they are all broken or breaking.
Survey research from PEW Charitable Trust, Gallup, NPR, and Ron Faucheux is consistent on the subject. Fifty years ago institutions were held in higher esteem than now.
In the early 1960s, 70 percent of those surveyed said they trusted government. Today it runs about 20 percent.
PEW found last year that 55 percent were frustrated with government and 22 percent outright angry, double what it was 20 years ago. PEW also found that only 43 percent thought colleges and universities were above average, 41 percent thought the same of our political system, and only 16 percent rated public schools above average.
National Public Radio found that only 24 percent had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the media while 68 percent had little or none at all. Congress got the confidence of only 25 percent while the Presidency got 43 percent. Gallup found that only 41 percent had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in religion; 12 percent in Congress; 57 percent in police; 28 percent in labor; 36 percent in public schools; 27 percent in newspapers; 72 percent in military; 32 percent in the Presidency, 24 percent in TV news; and only 16 percent in news on the Internet.
Most of those numbers, with the exception of organized labor and the military, are lower than they were twenty years ago.
We also see the breakage all around us, in the stark images of tragedies such as the school killings in Texas and Parkland, Fla.
Writing about Parkland, Wall Street Journal Columnist Peggy Noonan rightly defined the tragedy as “much more than a story about guns, which became the focus only hours after the massacre.“ The story is also who we are now and what shape we’re in. A way to look at the question,” she wrote, “is: what has happened in the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?… so much change, so much of it un-gentle.”
In her most recent column, she wrote: “Other institutions (aside from government) have suffered, too—the church, the press, the professions. That’s disturbing because those institutions often bolster our national life, in highly personal ways. When government or law turns bad, they provide a place, a platform from which to stand to make a cause, to correct.”
We see the institutional erosion in the divisions among us.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, a masterful observer of sociology said recently on PBS to counter those who seek to divide us…“You have to have a theory about what makes America a nation, about what our institutions do in that nation…we need a common story where the institutions play a role in the lives of all the individual citizens.”
The ugliness gushed to the surface in the late 1960s. It has been more prevalent in the last two decades.
Five years ago, journalists Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton journeyed to Muncie, IN and wrote “In Nothing We Trust,” for National Journal, that “Muncie is the story of America. In this place dubbed Middletown by early 20th Century sociologists, people have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing…with few notable exceptions the nation’s one time social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st Century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.”
Our institutions and our values are in jeopardy, maybe in part because we are living in a world changing faster and more dramatically than it has since the Industrial Revolution, and we just aren’t coping very well.
“We’re entering a new, robot-fueled tech boom that is already disrupting the world’s balance of power, and is changing how we fight wars, stay alive, drive, work, shop, and do chores. The future is now: We keep talking about what’s coming, but we’re already on the leading edge of a profound global change that will create tremendous opportunity for new power and wealth.” Mike Allen, Axios
Historical, transformational change is occurring in every aspect of our lives. In such a critical time, there is no calming and fortifying leadership, not from politicians, spiritual leaders, not from media, academia, or free enterprise, from which so much change is emanating.
Rather, we seem hopelessly caught up in the immediacy and absurdity of the American political theater, a mindless repetition that reminds you of the movie Groundhog Day, from which we cannot wake.
Every minute of every 24-hour news cycle generates a different version of the same overheated, teeth-grinding, rhetorical flare ups and day-time drama that wash out any rational thought and make it difficult to think about anything else. The irrelevant is given greater credence than the relevant. Facts and opinion are so intermingled in everything we read, hear, and see it is difficult for us to know what is factual and what is fake.
Being transfixed on the theater gets us nowhere, not even entertained. Our institutions continue to crumble and our behavior only sinks lower into the gutter.
It is apparent that the actors are not going to leave the stage, so we the audience should leave the theater and get back to work focusing mind and heart on restoring institutions and values that once brought our country and our people to a place of global pride and envy.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.