An article in the Atlantic had described the decline of American institutions – church, government, school – and has referred to the increasing alienation of those who have not adapted to a world ‘without’ them. This alienation, the author proposes, is the reason why this disaffected group has turned away from the Democratic party which used to be the party of help and support to the middle class.
However, institutions always have and always will exist. It is just that in the 21st Century there has been such a radical transformation of them from brick and mortar to cyberspace, it seems as though evolution has speeded up and little time has been afforded ordinary citizens to adapt. Nevertheless, evolution is unstoppable, and most of the changes in our institutional framework have been good.
Whitmire [the subject of the article] is an angry man. He is among a group of voters most skeptical of President Obama: non-college-educated white males. He feels betrayed -- not just by Obama, who won his vote in 2008, but by the institutions that were supposed to protect him: his state, which laid off his wife; his government in Washington, which couldn't rescue homeowners who had played by the rules; his bank, which failed to walk him through the correct paperwork or warn him about a potential mortgage hike; his city, which penalized him for somebody else's error; and even his employer, a construction company he likes even though he got laid off. "I was middle class for 10 years, but it's done," Whitmire says. "I've lost my home. I live in a trailer now because of a mortgage company and an incompetent government."
Mr. Whitmire has not kept pace with rapid change. In these days of deficit, debt, and suspicion of inefficient government programs, an FDR government is impossible – unthinkable in fact. ‘Protection’ is now increasingly an individual matter and the word ‘trust’ is fading from the lexicon. Not only does Mr. Whitmire not know where to turn – that is who will support him in his time of need – he does not realize that the institutions that did that are disappearing. Moreover, in this new brave and harsh world, he realizes he does not know whom to trust.
This, however, is not a failure of institutions; it is the unfortunate failure of individuals like Mr. Whitmire, with relatively little education and isolated from the larger arena in which structural changes are debated and effected. He knows that his rock-solid, marble-and-Corinthian pillared local bank is no longer, but he has no clue about entering the new financial world of complex investments – a world, which if understood, would reward him more than the marginal interest rates paid on savings.
He is dismayed at the decline in local public education, but as in the case of banking, is ill-equipped to navigate the increasingly complex world of vouchers, charters, for-profit education companies, and home-schooling which could offer him a better education than the one he has relied on.
Mr. Whitmire sees empty pews in his traditional church, but feels emotionally and socially ill-equipped to move to the more dynamic and socially-attuned alternative churches in which an alien form of religion is practiced. He does not realize that these churches are far more in tune with a media-focused, socially networked, and highly individualized congregation. Moreover, they are particularly suited to the 21st century and could afford the support he is looking for:
Union Chapel's pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you'd expect from an M.B.A. ("I'm in the word business") or a sociologist ("We're going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world"). He keeps his sermons simple because "you can't assume everybody knows the Lord's Prayer," and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life's challenges. His church offers counseling for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, marriage problems, alcoholism, and sexual abuse. Union Chapel heavily promotes its social clubs to buoy connection-starved people. The services are casual, hip, and focused on middle-class Muncians who feel abandoned amid economic change. "My job," Parris says in an interview at his office, "is to fill in the gaps where our institutions have failed us."
In short, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the decline of traditional institutions because they will always be replaced by others which simple include, organize, and serve people in different ways.
Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It's not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clichés oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation's onetime 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.
This statement is almost right, but fundamentally off-key. It implies that old institutions are simply ‘ill-equipped’ for the 21st century, and that they are failing to adapt and to serve their old constituency. It is not that the old institutions have to be reformed; it is in the nature of social evolution that they be replaced.
Much has been written about the hopelessness of the inner-city ghettoes – places which have been left in the backwaters of the mainstream – but little has been written about the hopelessness of the Mr. Whitmires of the country who feel the same sense of despair and aloneness.
The answer to both – to the dismay of those like Mr. Whitmire and his political allies who still feel there is a role for big government – is individual economic and especially intellectual enterprise. This is a matter of necessity, not programs.
The example of Eastern Europe is a good one although not exactly homologous to the one of the white middle class addressed in this article. I worked in Romania right after the fall of Ceausescu. It was a period when all the supports of communism, however feeble and inadequate, were dismantled, destroyed, or removed. The very intellectual foundations of society were broken in one blow. The principles espoused by communism – a supposed no-class, egalitarian society which depended on the state for everything – were gone. People were individuals responsible for their own well-being and in competition with others for it. European and world history as taught had to be relearned according to fact rather than to ideological perspective. The same scenario repeated itself throughout the region, and Poles, Bulgarians, Macedonians, and Ukrainians faced the same challenges.
Now, a little over twenty years since the purging revolutions of the 90s, these countries and their citizens have quickly changed. It is a remarkable story of human adaptability, courage, persistence, and intelligence. What made the challenge even more difficult was that these countries had to make the leap from the 19th century to the 21st in a few years. There was certainly a dalliance with old-style institutions such as the Church which, especially in Poland, had been a heroic supporter of revolution, but in general the young people look to cyber-institutions just like their Western European counterparts.
The point is in the sink-or-swim environment of post-Communist Europe, most people swam. At the beginning Romanians turned to their rural relatives for food, some of which they sold. When the exchange rates were freed up, their little revenues, turned into dollars, bought foreign goods which were sold at a higher profit. First there were sidewalk vendors, then kiosks, then stores, then superstores. Few young people talk in Communist-speak but in the language of MBAs, Google, Mark Zuckerberg, and Apple.
The author cites recent history to suggest that this social dislocation has happened before:
We've been through this before, and Muncie is again instructive. Nearly nine decades ago, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd moved here to document the transition away from an agrarian economy. Americans were battered by unbridled commercialism, stymied by an incompetent government beholden to special interests, and flustered by new technologies and new media. The Lynds found a loss of faith in social institutions.
But, somehow, institutions adapted or gave way to vibrant new ones. The Catholic Church took on poverty, illness, and illiteracy. The Progressive movement, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, grappled with the social costs of modernization and equipped the government to offset them. Labor unions reined in the corporate excesses of the new economy. Fraternal organizations, a new concept, gave people a sense of community that was lost when knitting circles and barn-raisings died out.
Once again, the author is right, but still off-key. Old-fashioned adaptability – e.g. the Catholic Church becoming more socially-attuned, or new social groupings such as labor unions constituted and organized to play an advocacy role – is not the issue here. These institutions corresponded to an old social order – one in which social organizations were still given primacy for support and progress over the individual. Today, that paradigm has been reversed. It is the individual increasingly responsible for his/her own destiny and well-being. Also, the move from an agrarian society to an industrialized one happened in glacial terms relative to the quantum leaps in social interaction today. Not only has the paradigm shifted from communal to individual; and not only have old institutions been replaced by new ones; the pace of change has been staggering and hard to deal with by many.
When people trust their institutions, they're better able to solve common problems. Research shows that school principals are much more likely to turn around struggling schools in places where people have a history of working together and getting involved in their children's education. Communities bonded by friendships formed at church are more likely to vote, volunteer, and perform everyday good deeds like helping someone find a job. And governments find it easier to persuade the public to make sacrifices for the common good when people trust that their political leaders have the community's best interests at heart. "Institutions -- even dysfunctional ones -- are why we don't run amok in the woods," Hansen says.
The word ‘trust’ again has become archaic. It is no longer a question of trusting institutions; it is developing the skills to deal with a highly competitive world where opportunities must be identified among vying companies and contracts negotiated individually. ‘Trust’ on Facebook is a non-term; protection of privacy is. That is, we the FB consumers lobby as online individuals to assure that our information is not too seriously violated. We don’t want or need to ‘trust’ Facebook. We need to keep them in line.
This is not to say that all traditional institutions have gone or will go. Government, for better or worse, will be around for a long time; but it will be reduced in scope and intent, and in particular its relationship with individual citizens will be redefined. We will still need police and fire departments. We may or may not need the old-fashioned groupings the author describes to ‘perform good deeds’, although it is unimaginable that such groupings will not be increasingly virtual.
I have sympathy for Mr. Whitmire, for it is unlikely that he will survive the upheavals in American society without pain and difficulty. He is too old, too uneducated, and too isolated to even make a decent go of it. His income is just too high for the safety net. He does not know where to turn. He will be a casualty of the revolution.
At the same time, the younger, better-educated, urban generation will not only do quite well, but they will thrive. They see social networking as the key to individual learning, expression, and influence. They see online commerce, political action, and religion as liberating. They anticipate the coming interface between mind and computer as ultimately fulfilling; and synthetic genetics as even more revolutionary in terms of human nature and society as anything ever before.
In conclusion, I am sorry for Mr. Whitmire, but happy with the substantive structural changes that are occurring. Not only are they inevitable – life is nothing but change – but they promise a level of individual and social fulfillment that only has been dreamed of.