I’ve been thinking a lot lately about institutions. As vital and important as they are to our civilized lives, what happens when they themselves constitute the threat to our collective survival? Or the main impediments to our collective flourishing?
Crisis is how societies indicate that institutions have met their moments of reckoning, when they must either be remade or replaced. Right now, we’re in a moment of manifold crises that might all boil down to one meta-crisis, which we may call a crisis of trust.
Truth, after all, is built on trust. We trust, for instance, that experts — scientists, engineers, doctors, teachers — generally operate in good faith and that the knowledge they advance is based on fact. After all, the world is big and complex. We can’t possibly know everything in it at all times. If we’re to make some sense of the world, we need people who specialize in parts of it and we need to trust what they say to be true — at least on the whole (of course, there are always bad faith, incompetent actors in every field).
“A huge part of what we know rests on the foundation of consensus: if everyone agrees on something, it’s probably true,” Chris Hayes writes in his essential Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.
“This is how we ‘know’ gravity exists, that there are 50 states in the union, and that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around,” he writes.
“But in our shared political and social life, consensus is far more elusive, if not impossible,” Hayes continues. “Choose nearly any important public issue — the long-term solvency of Social Security, the effect of taxes on growth, the importance to student performance of merit pay for teachers — and you will find smart, well-credentialed, and energetic advocates arguing for mutually exclusive positions. In this way, the voter is asked to referee a series of contests for which he or she has absolutely no independent expertise.”
That’s why political parties are so important, Hayes explains. They take on the “informational burden” of responsible citizenship. The party “constrains the set of people among whom one looks for consensus. As a Democrat, you can simply look to Democratic consensus on an issue and be relatively confident that it syncs up with your own opinion.”
But our current era is one in which partisan affiliation has dramatically weakened, with an ever-increasing number of voters now identifying as independents, with no political home.
Without “an organized party platform to look to for guidance in forming opinions about complex issues, so-called independents are naturally inclined to seek out some sort of general agreement to point the way,” which is why the concept of “bipartisanship” is “so reliably popular among a polity increasingly alienated from political parties.”
People value bipartisanship, Hayes writes, “not because they like the substance of what bipartisanship produces, but because it reduces the cognitive stress that partisan disagreement creates.”
Bipartisanship allows the public to “off-load the burden of having to choose between competing narratives, arguments, and data points. This isn’t laziness: it’s entirely rational. Controversy is exhausting to our cognitive faculties.”
This insight from Hayes is how I’ve come to understand Barack Obama, whose new memoir, A Promised Land, I’m currently reading.
Obama’s presidency happened, I believe, at (or perhaps even signified) an important tipping point — the moment our country entered full stop into the current crisis of trust.
In crises, leaders always must choose and in existential crises, the choice is almost always zero sum. Confronted with a choice between institutional reform and radical reformation, Obama — driven by his pre-eminent optimism in the American people and his deep faith in the value of consensus (a faith that was not altogether misplaced) — chose the former.
Because of Obama’s decision, this country may have either averted even greater catastrophe or missed an opportunity for a glorious and necessary rebirth. We will never know.
I won’t belabor you with specifics. Please visit the Book Table and buy the memoir. And if you’re something of a radical progressive, like me, knowing this about the former president will perhaps make for a less frustrating read.
But I also mention Obama, alas, by way of thinking about the dilemma that must have faced outgoing District 200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams five years ago, as she stepped into an institution that was experiencing its own reckoning.
Oak Park and River Forest High School, after all, was an institution that flat-out failed generations of Black kids, if we’re to be blunt about it. I will never forget hearing one Black parent say that OPRF almost ruined her child’s righteous mind, so much so that the boy felt the need to attend a historically Black university, as a course correction.
Like Obama, Pruitt-Adams was confronted with the nearly impossible responsibility of both being a good fiscal steward of an institution that, from the standpoint of its Black students, had become fundamentally corrupt, and also flirting with catastrophe by radically reforming said institution for the sake of equity.
Fortunately, for all of its flaws, Oak Park is not a microcosm of the United States. Here, I believe, the consensus is racial equity (in poetry if not in prose); here, I don’t think the truth of OPRF’s lapsed history is in serious dispute, and any would-be superintendent of D200 would have a governing mandate, an expectation, imbued by most of Oak Park’s residents, to govern with the school’s historic failure of its Black students front of mind.
And because of this local consensus, Pruitt-Adams was allowed the freedom to attempt to bring about something approximating institutional reformation. Time will tell where those efforts lead.
Unfortunately, the first Black president’s governing mandate was not to center Black suffering, but to coddle fragile whites; to prudently manage institutional corruption; to harness a nation suspended in a fallen state, having tripped while trying to avoid confronting the fallout from its original sin.
And that’s the real tragedy of “A Promised Land.”