Last night, I spoke at the Peace and Justice Center about my most recent book, Living Together: Mending a Fractured America. Here are those remarks. (Sorry for the length)
As most of you have noticed, we’re living in tough times.
We—by which I mean all of humanity, but especially citizens of the United States—find ourselves in the middle of a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the basic assumptions through which most of us have been accustomed to viewing the world. I know that such shifts aren’t unprecedented (the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution are arguably an example), but while they’re occurring, people on either side of the shift find it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with each other; they occupy different realities.
As we are trying to negotiate and adapt to the technological and social changes that seem to constantly be accelerating, we’re faced with a really scary number of economic, governmental and social institutions that are in crisis—or as I describe them in the book, broken. We’re just now beginning to realize how disorienting and damaging it is to occupy a fragmented and inconsistent information environment in which Americans don’t share a common reality. Our ability to choose whatever “facts” we prefer to believe has abetted a renewed tribalism, and a resurgence of populism and white nationalism. We live in an era marked by dramatic economic inequality, and if that wasn’t challenging enough, the accelerating pace of automation is eliminating a huge number of jobs—a number that is projected to grow exponentially, and sooner than most of us think.
Worse, it’s no longer possible to ignore the inadequacies and corruption of America’s current legal and political structures.
If those problems weren’t daunting enough, while we are trying to make sense of the economic and social challenges we are experiencing, we are also facing the very real possibility that climate change will cause large portions of the planet to become uninhabitable—with consequences that are, for most Americans, unimaginable.
Most of these problems have been incubating for years, but in the United States, the 2016 election and its aftermath have made it impossible to ignore them. That election forced recognition of the extent to which a longtime, steady erosion of the country’s democratic norms has hollowed out and corrupted this country’s governing institutions.
As we enter 2020, we face thorny social and economic challenges in an environment that makes it very difficult to solve them—or even agree on what they are. Changes to journalism driven by the Internet have dramatically intensified the difficulty of democratic decision-making. Actual news based upon verifiable fact is still available but diminishing, especially at the local level. Cable news and the wild west of the Internet enable and encourage confirmation bias, and are rife with spin, “fake news” and outright propaganda. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United increased public recognition of—and cynicism about– the disproportionate power wielded by corporate America through lobbying, political contributions and influence-peddling. Together with the enormous and widening gap between the rich and the rest, recognition of the outsized influence of money in America’s political system feeds suspicion of all government decision-making.
In order for democratic institutions to function, there has to be widespread trust in the integrity of electoral contests. The fundamental democratic idea is a fair fight, a contest of competing ideas, with the winners legitimized and authorized to carry out their agendas. Increasingly, however, those democratic contests are marked by disinformation and cyber-warfare, as well as by bare-knuckled power plays and mechanisms—notably gerrymandering and varieties of vote suppression—through which partisans game the system. As a result, citizens’ trust in government and other social institutions has dangerously diminished. Without that trust—without a widespread belief in an American “we,” an overarching polity to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives. 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 made worse by the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and those considered “Other.”
Making matters worse, as we began to recognize the immensity of these challenges, America’s antiquated Electoral College facilitated the election of a President incapable of recognizing, understanding or dealing with them.
As I said in the Introduction to Living Together, citizens in 21st Century America are facing a globalized, technocratic, increasingly complex world that poses unprecedented challenges to the goal of e pluribus unum (not to mention human understanding and survival). The existential question we face is: Can government policies create a genuine “us” out of so many different/diverse “I’s” and “we’s”? Can policymakers use law and legislative processes to create a supportive, nourishing culture that remains true to the Enlightenment’s essential insights, while modifying or discarding those that are no longer so essential? If so, how? How does this nation overcome the escalating assaults on science, reality and the rule of law and create a functioning, trustworthy democratic system?
The challenges America faces tend to fall into three (interrelated and sometimes overlapping) categories: widespread Ignorance (defined as lack of essential information, not stupidity); historic Inequality (the wealth gap, civic inequality, power and informational asymmetries among others) and unapologetic Tribalism (“us versus them”—racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, the urban/rural divide, and political identity.)
An old lawyer once told me that there is really only one legal or political question: “what do we do?” How do we fashion concrete and politically tenable answers to the multitude of questions raised by social and technological change? How do we live together in what should be our brave new world?
That was the fundamental question I explored in Living Together.
In Part I, I set out the various ways in which our cultural assumptions and social institutions are being upended, and how issues we’ve dealt with more or less adequately have suddenly become much more salient and disruptive. We face once again the age-old question: how should humans govern themselves? What institutional arrangements are most likely to be perceived as fair and just by most people, even when those people have very different desires, abilities, beliefs and needs? What sorts of governance and institutional arrangements are most likely to promote what Aristotle called “human flourishing?”
In the 18th Century, Enlightenment philosophers answered that question by proposing a social contract based upon the issues and understandings of their times. Those philosophers and scientists challenged longtime assumptions about how a society should be constructed, how it should be governed and what it should value. In the United States, the nation’s Founders built a legal and constitutional system based upon those Enlightenment insights and values and the belief that human flourishing could best be facilitated by a limited-authority government that allowed individuals to exercise personal autonomy to the greatest extent compatible with an overarching order.
That original vision and approach to governance has never been uncontested or fully realized, but it has provided the framework—the paradigm—that shaped subsequent policy argumentation. That liberal democratic framework, as it has evolved to the present, rests upon a (necessarily limited) respect for self-determination- the ability of individuals, cultures and states to determine and pursue their own ends, their own telos. Respect for the right of individuals or groups to determine their own life choices requires that we reject many legally-imposed uniformities and recognize that human diversity is not just inevitable but socially desirable.
Of course, the principles that emerged from the Enlightenment and were embraced by America’s founders are not now and never have been universally held. Furthermore, even among people who do accept the general framework and stated values that undergird America’s Constitution, there are significant differences of opinion about what individual liberty actually means and when government’s authority may be properly exercised. Ongoing tensions between the majoritarian “popular passions” that so worried the architects of America’s constitution and Enlightenment ideas about the importance of individual autonomy have spawned a long line of academic studies and a significant body of constitutional jurisprudence. America’s civic history has been a series of conflicts between the rights of the individual and the preferences of the majority.
In the 21st Century, the increasingly frenetic pace of technological, economic and cultural change has dramatically intensified the conflict between the individual’s right to self-determination and societies’ need for social cohesion. Those changes have tested America’s purported commitment to equality—especially as previously marginalized populations have entered both the workforce and the political arena and demanded equal social and civic status. It’s no longer possible to ignore the demographic changes that threaten entrenched social privilege, and the imminent loss of dominant status feeds the white nationalist movement that has emerged with such ferocity in parts of Europe and the United States. That movement, together with certain strains of populism, appeals especially to people disdainful of diversity and the claims of previously marginalized groups—and for that matter, Enlightenment values—finding them not simply offensive, but existentially threatening.
The dramatic degree of economic inequality we are experiencing hasn’t just deepened group tensions—it has challenged what is essentially our 18th Century understanding of the nature of both liberty and equality.
As I was writing this book, fundamental and acrimonious disputes about immigration, racial equity, women’s rights, global alliances and the rule of law were being further inflamed by the daily tweets of an authoritarian President who is widely seen as corrupt, incompetent and mentally unstable. The legitimacy of the Supreme Court has been compromised by its growing politicization, and most recently by legislative tactics that allowed the unprecedented “theft” of a seat that President Obama should have filled. People are increasingly taking to the streets in protest, convinced that their grievances will not be addressed by a system they see as fatally flawed.
Assuming—as hopeful people must—that a reformed, small-d democratic order will eventually emerge from the chaos and inter-group hostility we are experiencing, it seems to me that we urgently need to revisit our basic assumptions about government and the social contract. We need to critically assess what has gone wrong, move to safeguard those elements of our governance that have proved their ongoing utility, and revise those that are no longer working. We need to learn from the country’s mistakes if we are to facilitate the building of a better, fairer and more durable society.
The questions are eternal: What do humans owe each other? What is the nature of liberty? Of equality? What is the proper role of government? What should the rules be, who should make those rules, and how should they be enforced?
The questions may be eternal, but the answers aren’t.
I wrote Living Together to describe what I see as the most daunting challenges we face as a country, and to suggest the terms of a new social contract that would address those challenges.
Part One of the book details the threat posed by contemporary manifestations of tribalism and civic polarization; explores the dramatic, accelerating changes in the economy and the nature of work; and describes the “brokenness” of an American government that embraces cronyism while rejecting science, evidence and longstanding understandings of what constitutes fair play. Chapters also address the dangers posed by the incessant attacks on public education, by the propaganda that has become ubiquitous in the age of the Internet, and by our stubborn refusal to recognize the extent to which all of these challenges are likely to be dwarfed by the effects of climate change.
In Part Two, I proposed policy changes prompted by these analyses—policy changes that, taken together, would amount to the creation of a new, much more expansive social contract appropriate to the age in which we live; a set of policies that would address our growing inequality and moderate the hostilities that characterize current debates among America’s quarrelsome tribes.
Let me conclude with a caveat: I am not naïve enough to expect current policymakers to embrace my proposals; certainly, a sizable number of the people serving in Congress as I write this have demonstrated neither an interest in advancing the common good nor the capacity to understand the problems America currently faces. However, in my optimistic moments (which are getting fewer and farther between…) I tell myself that the increase in civic awareness and participation that followed the 2016 election, and the various political movements generated by the so-called “resistance,” will result in the election of a more thoughtful, responsive and ethical set of policymakers. If that happens, maybe some of what I propose in Living Together will prompt discussion and debate. (We can discuss what those proposals are during the Question and Answer period.)
If America is, as I think, on the cusp of a broad upheaval triggered by dramatic social, economic and technological changes and aggravated by the broken-ness of our current governing and social institutions, this country’s “best and brightest” will need to explore a variety of potential changes to our governmental, economic and social systems.
Living Together is my contribution to those explorations.