REBOOTING DEMOCRACY | SEPTEMBER 30TH, 2014 | DANIEL YANKELOVICH

An Anti-Social Willfulness

What's causing the dysfunction of our nation's institutions?

We should expect a deluge of theories about what has gone wrong with American life and why the public is growing ever more distressed. The only reason we haven't heard many of these theories yet is the widespread expectation that economic recovery will cure whatever ails us, including the public’s current dark mood.

Regardless of the direction our economy takes, however, I believe we can no longer ignore how dysfunctional our institutions are becoming. These include our political, economic, health care, criminal justice and education systems. None are functioning as well as they can and should.

Exactly what has gone wrong? The answer points to our national psychology and culture rather than to our economics or politics. Our exuberant embrace of individualism has inadvertently brought to the surface several negative trends.

One is an anti-social willfulness (“I can do whatever I want and you can’t stop me.”) Aggressive drivers, cell phone addicts, stock traders and officious cops manifest this trend most vividly, but it affects almost everyone. Much of the time, it is merely disagreeable but otherwise harmless. But some clashes of wills lead to violence and stubborn refusals to seek the common ground that democracy requires.

A closely related trend has been documented by Public Agenda research. Public Agenda reports that “a marked deterioration of courtesy and respectfulness has become a daily assault on Americans’ sensibilities…Americans are particularly concerned about the discourteous and disrespectful conduct of children and they hold parents primarily responsible.”

Some clashes of wills lead to stubborn refusals to seek the common ground that democracy requires.

People clustering together in like-minded groups and communities is another negative cultural trend. Increasingly, Americans are becoming isolated from people with different worldviews. Ever more specialization reinforces this isolation as each profession develops its own proprietary frameworks, increasing the difficulty of communicating across sectors.

The upside of greater individualism is that it enhances agency and freedom. The downside is that it reinforces self-centeredness, self-righteousness and arbitrary opinions.

These tendencies are unintended consequences of the great transformation in American values that has taken place in recent decades. As a result, irrationalities are cropping up in virtually all of our important institutions.

Collectively, they are badly damaging our society. Unless they are addressed, the public mood will grow even more unstable, angry and resentful, leading to destructive political consequences.


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.


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