Public Agenda

Digging Ourselves Into A Hole

by Daniel Yankelovich

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

For years now, our nation has been digging itself into a pit of social immobility that threatens the very core of our democracy. Every year we confront:

  • Growing income inequality.
  • Shrinking opportunities for individuals to better themselves and their children.
  • Disproportionate accumulation of wealth in the top income brackets.
  • Slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-8.
  • The failure of our education system in preparing our children to compete successfully in today's global economy.
  • Paralysis in Washington.

Polls show that, by greater than two to one margins (58 percent to 28 percent), Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track. A 70 percent majority use words like "divided", "troubled" and "deteriorating" to describe the state of the nation.

Thoughtful observers point with alarm. All the measures of a good society are moving in the wrong direction – wages, school rankings, college and health care costs, poverty rates, job opportunities, etc, observes social critic Matt Miller.

"The great unstated question of today: Can America come back, reclaim her old spirit, confidence and joy, can we make things again, build them, grow, create, push out into the new? And here I think: Oh dear," laments Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal.

Citizens aren't engaged; they are on the sidelines…Issues are approached in ways that promote divisiveness.

"Citizens aren't engaged; they are on the sidelines…Issues are approached in ways that promote divisiveness …People may get involved and make very poor decisions. Hasty reactions fueled by misinformation and emotional biases rule the day," writes Kettering Foundation President David Mathews in his book, The Ecology of Democracy.

George Packer of The New Yorker sees the present era as a great "unwinding." However, he notes hopefully that "there have been unwindings every generation or two and out of each came a new cohesion." (That quote is found on page 3.)

The causes of the current unwinding are many and complex. Our economy no longer creates the rising tide that raises all boats. The core value underlying the American Dream – equality of opportunity – is steadily eroding. Our institutions of governance are not functioning well. And our moral norms are weakening.

But I do believe we can find a new cohesion. This blog aims to explore how.



Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.




Comments

Submitted by: David Mathews, Kettering Foundation on Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

The public’s low morale may have something to do with loss of confidence in most all of our major institutions – school systems, governments, and even large nongovernmental organizations. It also seems significant that the lack of confidence is on both sides of the divide separating citizens from institutions. People aren’t often positively engaged with these institutions but tend to be pushed to the sidelines. So the coproduction of public goods that Elinor Ostrom found essential to institutions effectiveness in her Nobel Prize winning research doesn’t get done. And this may contribute to the difficulties we are having with education, health care, and even the economy.

As you point out, however, there are other troubling trends like growing income inequality, as well as people’s sense that working hard and playing by the rules won’t ultimately pay off. If Americans no longer see the country as a land of opportunity, we are in deep trouble.

To me, this situation means Americans have to regain confidence in themselves, or more specifically, in the sense they can make a difference by working together, even when they don’t particularly like one another or agree. That sense of what some call political agency or efficacy won’t immediately reinvigorate the economy, do away with income inequity, or make institutions more responsive and effective. Yet without that sense, which may have to do more with determination than optimism, the larger problems may be unyielding.

At the Kettering Foundation, we are looking for people who are trying to make a difference even if what they are doing is small and local. We want to find out, what, if anything, rekindles their determination to keep trying. The national mood seems to have shifted from anger at the leadership (as in references to the “mess in Washington”) to cynicism (you can never trust _____ fill in the blank) to pessimism (the country in deteriorating). That is really dangerous. So a small group of people who decide to repaint a school building long suffering from “deferred maintenance” can be significant if they realize that what they are doing isn’t just to get paint on the siding, but more important, to demonstrate that by joining forces people can begin to bring about needed changes.



Badly needed discussion

Submitted by: James Harvey on Thursday, May 29th, 2014

As a great admirer of Daniel Yankelovich, I'm delighted to see this blog launched. This conversation is badly needed

It seems to me that growing income inequality isn't just another troubling trend. Along with the current faith in market solutions to public problems, the chasms separating the one percent from the 99 percent, or the ten percent from the 90 percent may lie at the heart of the loss of public faith in public institutions. As an historian, I'm reminded of the era of the robber barons. Who ever thought that the attitudes of Ayn Rand, who believed that "if civilization is to survive it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject," would become guiding principles of a significant number of powerful political leaders at the state and national levels?

I believe there's a growing sense that the system has been rigged in favor of the powerful, with tax incentives encouraging outsourcing of jobs and short term profits over long term growth. Have people become sour just for the sake of being sour? Or have many of them looked around and realized that the American dream has left the dock and their children are not on board?

As a former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and a thoughtful scholar who first raised the issue of whether there is a public for public education, David Matthews certainly knows that schools are in and of their communities. Are school systems on average failing? Well, yes they are, if your only interest lies in tested achievement in the United States compared to achievement in apartheid systems such as Shanghai's, in dictatorships such as Kazakhstan's, or in Lichtenstein's outcomes, involving just 5,600 hundred students in the entire country (compared to 56 million in the United States). All of those jurisdictions rank ahead of us on these international assessments.

But if one's interests are broader a decidedly different picture emerges. We prepare people for participation in democratic life, not just for employment. We still lead the world in the proportion of adults with high school diplomas, with bachelor's degrees, and in adults expressing entrepreneurial interests. And we've done all that in the face of world-class levels of childhood poverty and income inequality.

Let's hope the conversation launched by this blog encourages people to dig more deeply into these issues.



Divided

Submitted by: Cliff Cobb on Thursday, May 29th, 2014

The majority of Americans may think we are on the wrong track, but their prescriptions for change are diametrically opposed to each other and each side has an equal amount of support. Conservatives emphasize personal morality and the need to strengthen individual character. Progressives favor more structural solutions that would increase equality of opportunity and stop forcing a growing portion of the population deeper in debt.
The key difference between today and the relatively high level of consensus that existed from 1945 to 1980 is the growth of an ultra-individualistic public philosophy that has been adopted by a large segment of the population. There has been no countervailing public philosophy that articulates the proper role of society, the public sector, or institutional behavior. Even the philosophy of John Rawls, the foremost political-ethical theorist of the last 40 years, is based on a social contract that relies on the aggregation of individual preferences. It is just a kinder, gentler form of individualism. The problems we face ultimately derive from the atomistic principles of 17th century science and the philosophy that accompanied it. That is why progressives lack a coherent response to neoliberalism--because the premises are the same. Postmodernism challenged modernist premises, but sadly in ways that merely reaffirmed the power of the status quo. So, for most intellectuals, we are left with TINA--There Is No Alternative. That is clearly unacceptable, but we are going to have to dig a lot deeper for a new framework than most people--both intellectuals and activists--realize. The image of "rebooting" democracy suggests that we just need to turn something off and turn it back on again, as if the answers are within easy reach, if we just try a little harder. Not so. The crisis we face is millennial, not generational. We have not even begun to ask the right questions. In contrast to the image of the giant hole in the ground, I would juxtapose the image of planting one foot in place and seeming to travel great distances, but actually going round and round in a four-foot-diameter circle. That is what happens without new ideas.



Divided

Submitted by: Cliff Cobb on Thursday, May 29th, 2014

The majority of Americans may think we are on the wrong track, but their prescriptions for change are diametrically opposed to each other and each side has an equal amount of support. Conservatives emphasize personal morality and the need to strengthen individual character. Progressives favor more structural solutions that would increase equality of opportunity and stop forcing a growing portion of the population deeper in debt.
The key difference between today and the relatively high level of consensus that existed from 1945 to 1980 is the growth of an ultra-individualistic public philosophy that has been adopted by a large segment of the population. There has been no countervailing public philosophy that articulates the proper role of society, the public sector, or institutional behavior. Even the philosophy of John Rawls, the foremost political-ethical theorist of the last 40 years, is based on a social contract that relies on the aggregation of individual preferences. It is just a kinder, gentler form of individualism. The problems we face ultimately derive from the atomistic principles of 17th century science and the philosophy that accompanied it. That is why progressives lack a coherent response to neoliberalism--because the premises are the same. Postmodernism challenged modernist premises, but sadly in ways that merely reaffirmed the power of the status quo. So, for most intellectuals, we are left with TINA--There Is No Alternative. That is clearly unacceptable, but we are going to have to dig a lot deeper for a new framework than most people--both intellectuals and activists--realize. The image of "rebooting" democracy suggests that we just need to turn something off and turn it back on again, as if the answers are within easy reach, if we just try a little harder. Not so. The crisis we face is millennial, not generational. We have not even begun to ask the right questions. In contrast to the image of the giant hole in the ground, I would juxtapose the image of planting one foot in place and seeming to travel great distances, but actually going round and round in a four-foot-diameter circle. That is what happens without new ideas.



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