A recent National Journal cover story, “In Nothing We Trust” gets straight to the point: we don’t trust anything anymore. Most people have heard that American’s don’t trust Congress — 85-90 percent of us don’t. But, it turns out, that our skepticism of core American institutions has been a secular trend. No matter the institution, our trust in their ability to provide services, fix societal problems and protect us from harm is not what it used to be. The numbers, in some cases, can be startling: only 25 percent of Americans trust banks; 28 percent for TV news; less than 40% of us trust the Supreme Court; and trust in the American presidency is at an all-time low, at 35 percent.
This probably doesn’t surprise many people — we all sort of feel it, whether we’re Republican or Democrat, young or old. Nothing big seems to work well anymore. Do you think your elected leaders are on your side? Does it seem that hard work is rewarded fairly in today’s economy, in your specific case or in general? “No” seems to be the answer to all of these questions. To a growing degree, we’re all just fed up. Mark it down; the decline in institutional optimism has come full circle. What began with the Watergate Scandal in 1974, amplified by public unrest with the Vietnam War, has now reached the last straw with the 2008 Financial Crisis and the absence of the “Change We Can Believe In” after electing President Obama.
This distrust, I think, is one of the major catalysts for both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movement. Yes, both. That’s my point: our biggest policy problems aren’t about left vs. right now, they’re about big vs. small, structurally fair vs. structurally corrupt. Partisan differences remain, to be sure — Tea Party members and Occupy supporters surely would address our biggest problems differently. But that’s not notable. What is notable is the fact that the people being decried on those signs in Zuccoti Park and those on signs at local Tea Party rallies aren’t that different, and sometimes they’re the same. Wall Street bankers? Both groups hate them. The “Mainstream/Inside-the-Beltway Media?” Both hate them, too.
So, both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement have similar critiques of our society today. They both think that Joe Six Pack has been screwed. Occupy thinks our big institutions rob us of sweat equity — the working class gets screwed by big corporations unwilling to pay a living wage, and graduating college kids can’t find the jobs they’ve been all-but-promised when going into massive debt during college. The Tea Party thinks that big government has robbed them of their liberty, further hamstringing their chances for an economically stable life with every levied tax. In sum, the organized unrest in America today has reached a consensus of sorts. Those not active in either group are angry, too — those people are less involved for several reasons probably including losing hope in their ability to change the situation.
I think both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement are right: the biggest policy problem facing America today is the structure of our institutions and how those structures create and reinforce inequity. I believe this is the most pressing, foundational cause of policy failure domestically, and globally to some degree. In short, we’ve built our society with 19th Century, top-down institutions inspired by Fordist industrial management. These institutions have always been flawed, but there was a time — before radio, TV and the Internet — when the average person was never exposed to those imperfections. Basically, our grandparents were being screwed by the system too, but the people getting preferential treatment were being quiet about it — they hadn’t yet caused a massive financial crisis leaving millions of homeowners underwater.
Cut to today. We’ve got the Internet, smartphones taking pictures to be posted on Facebook and videos to be posted on YouTube, etc. This is a generation beyond the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam where our biggest institutions can be discredited almost instantaneously. Go back to that National Journal article; the only institution with relatively high trust is the U.S. Military, and that’s likely to go down as we have more Bradley Manning-esque incidents. So, our parents were first stumbling onto the folly of top-down institutions and now we see those flaws in detail. The Emperor has no clothes, indeed.
So what do we do, as Millennials, to be constructive? We’ve seen how the worst common denominator and arbitrary rules of action codified into the status quo limit innovation. Our technology enables us to tear down our institutions, to reveal their inadequacy for all to see. But, let’s not stop there, let’s reinvent these institutions — let’s actually create “an America that’s built to last.” How will we do that? My suggestion is that we begin by doing what we do best: collaborate. Let’s rebuild government, finance — indeed, the social contract itself — from the bottom up, with the social Internet, and with long-tailed tech innovation. We’re the grassroots, but more importantly, now we’re the “netroots.” Let’s leverage the web, Big Data and radical transparency to educate, to collaborate and to build better institutions for our children to believe in and benefit from long after we’re gone.