Why have a blog if you can’t share your nightmares?
As I see it, we live in a time of paradigm shift, characterized by a rapidly morphing information environment, a reversion to tribalism, deepening economic insecurities, widespread civic illiteracy, and growing recognition of the inadequacies of current legal and political structures.
All of these elements of our contemporary reality challenge our existing worldviews.
Humanity has gone through similar “shifts” before, but with the possible exception of the nuclear arms race, we have not previously faced the very real possibility that our behavior will cause large portions of the planet to become uninhabitable, or that social order will collapse—with consequences we can only imagine.
The 2016 election exposed significant fault-lines in American society and forced us to confront the erosion of our democratic institutions. The problems have been there, and been accelerating, for some time.
A splintered and constantly morphing media has dramatically exacerbated the problems inherent in democratic decision-making. The current media environment enables/encourages confirmation bias, is rife with spin, “fake news” and propaganda, and is widely distrusted. The widening gap between the rich and the rest feeds suspicion of government decision-making, and Citizens United and its progeny increased recognition of—and cynicism about– the power wielded by corporate America through lobbying, political contributions and influence-peddling.
In order for democracy to function, there must be widespread trust in the integrity of electoral contests. The fundamental idea is a fair fight, a contest of competing ideas, with the winner legitimized and authorized to carry out his/her agenda. Increasingly, democratic norms have been replaced by bare-knuckled power plays and widening public recognition of the ways in which partisans game the system.
As a result, citizens’ trust in government and other social institutions has dangerously eroded. Without that trust—without belief in an American “we,” an overarching polity to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives. Especially in times of rapid social change, racial resentments grow. The divide between urban and rural Americans widens, as does the gap between various “elites” and others. Economic insecurity and social dysfunction are exacerbated by the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and “the Other.
Making matters worse, in the midst of these wrenching changes, Americans elected someone incapable of recognizing or dealing with them.
Citizens in21st Century America are facing a globalized, technocratic, increasingly complex world that poses previously unprecedented challenges to the goal of e pluribus unum (not to mention human understanding and survival). The existential question we face: Can we create a genuine “us” out of so many different/diverse “I’s” and “we’s”? Can we use the law and legal system to create a supportive, nourishing culture that remains true to the Enlightenment’s essential insights, while modifying those we no longer consider so essential? If so, how?
How do we overcome the multiple challenges to the rule of law and a functioning democratic system? Those challenges tend to fall into three (interrelated and sometimes overlapping) categories: Ignorance (defined as lack of essential information, not stupidity); Inequality (poverty, consumer culture, civic inequality, globalization, power and informational asymmetries among others) and Tribalism (“us versus them”—racism, sexism, religion, urban/rural divide, etc.)
As an old lawyer once told me, there’s only one question, and that’s “what do we do?”
In the wake of the election, there’s been a lot of understandable hand-wringing. Comments on this blog, on Facebook and elsewhere have emphasized the need to act. Most of us don’t need that reminder; what we need is specifics: what do we do? How do we do it?
The most obvious answer and most immediate imperative is political: we need to change Congress in 2018. But we also need to fashion concrete answers to the questions raised by social change and threatening political realities. If we can’t find those answers and then act on them, humanity’s prospects don’t look so good.
And I don’t sleep so well.