Worrying Times

One of the great things about being a professor is having some time in the summer to spend with family, focus on research and writing, and to catch up on reading. These days I find myself particular interested in books about the Weimar Republic, and the transition from the U.S.S.R. to Putin’s Russia. I am interested in these topics not because I think we are on the path to fascism or totalitarianism, but rather, because the United States is in a transition period. I, like so many, am struggling to make sense of the chaos and confusion. I find it helpful to understand how other societies functioned and changed during transition periods.

To be clear I have no answers, just reflection. But I am worried for a few reasons. First, truth no longer seems to matter in public life. I am not talking about issues like climate change, but rather the day-to-day willingness of so many to simply ignore obvious lies. This seems to be leading to a day where we just dismiss lying as something all politicians do. I fear new generations of voters will just expect dishonesty out of their public officials.

Second and related, I fear politics will be seen as an unserious enterprise reserved for celebrities and others famous for things totally disconnected from politics. It is not just Trump, I cringe when I hear Oprah or other celebrities floated as candidates. There is lasting damage when a generation views politics as something reserved for other elites. Tocqueville noted that America was unique in the degree to which regular people were engaged in civic affairs. I do not think we as a nation can afford to lose that.

Third, I worry that public service will be seen as an ideological choice. One must either choose to serve the deep state working against the people, or resist the tyranny of government by working in politics or the private sector. Our bureaucracy does not work if it seen as captured by one political party or ideological agenda. The demonizing of expertise and administrative institutions will have real negative consequence on government legitimacy for generations.

Fourth, I hate the language of winning. Being a part of a society is not a win or lose proposition. Something that is good for Democrats does not have to be bad for Republicans, or vice-versa. When the standards for political support becomes nothing more than it angers my opponents, we create an environment where any policy of mutual benefit is impossible, and where ideological consistency collapses.

My biggest fear is that the chaos and confusion will make people check out. I do not care where anyone stands on the political spectrum (my students often ask me where I stand, I tell them to google me, which just makes it that much more confusing), when people stop paying attention bad things can occur. The lasting damage done to government performance and legitimacy in these uncertain times will likely be a result of the gradual accumulation of events and actions, not one big thing.

I really am not pessimistic. Our system of government is resilient, and we are buoyed by the relative health of local government and a strong civil society. I also see students wholly committed to improving their communities on a daily basis, which gives me hope. But I also feel our system is unmoored right now, and understanding why is worth my time.

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