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Thursday, January 05, 2023

Some Generalizable Points About Institutional Crisis

In his op-ed today about why the House Speakership affair "reflects larger structural forces that are changing American democracy," Rick Pildes lists some factors that he suggests serve as "forces of fragmentation [that] will continue to bedevil the leaders of both political parties, as they do parties throughout democracies today." The headline--or at least the current one I'm seeing, since the Times editorial section unfortunately tends to A/B many of its headlines these days--chooses to focus specifically on "the fringiest fringe of the G.O.P." That choice surely is meant to appeal to the preferences and prejudices of its readers, but it misses the very points Pildes is making. (A mere three paragraphs in, Pildes observes that the same factors at work in the speakership kerfuffle have also led to the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.)

I would take his point a step further. The features he lists contribute to problems for a great many institutions, public and private, whose welfare we should be concerned about. Consider those factors:

  1. "Revolutions in communications and technology...[that] have enabled individual members of [an institution] to function, even thrive, as free agents."
  2. A resultant "flatten[ing] [of] institutional authority."
  3. The greater ease that technology provides for "individuals and groups" to "mobilize and sustain opposition to [institutional] action."
  4. A resultant increased lack of ability for institutions to assert authority, which allows for "intense factional conflicts" to rage within those institutions without any ability to curb them effectively.
  5. An "explosion of small-donor donations"--to which one could stretch a little and add things like GoFundMe, Internet "side hustles," and so on--which allows individual members of institutions to raise money without having to depend on institutional sources of funding.

I am not criticizing these things as such, nor am I ignoring the dangers of ossification or the problems with establishments. But I would note that all of them have been lauded by all sorts of people, of all sorts of political persuasions, on all manner of occasions. They are certainly sexier and more au courant than talking about "institutions" or "authority." But, as the op-ed suggests, when it really counts to have those institutions functioning properly and authoritatively and with some kind of institutional loyalty or shared sense of institutional mission on the part of their members, it turns out that all these factors have corroded those institutions' ability to do any of these things.

As I noted the other day, most of these factors have been instrumental in the corrosion of the legacy press and in its replacement by dubious alternatives to those mainstream institutions. And as I suggested in my post on the legacy press, these factors are at work in the academy as well--with, I would argue, similarly corrosive effects. And the list could easily go on. A decade ago I wrote about the importance of institutions in the First Amendment and the activities it protects, which are the stuff of social and political life. A decade later the general sentiment for those who care about such things is that these institutions are in crisis. This week's events are just another data point. 

One source of that crisis is a sense of indifference to institutions among many, one that can be highly dangerous even if it is also sometimes earned, and a focus instead on the individual. Another is a lack of authority, and a lack of willingness on the part of institutions to wield what authority they still have. The factors Pildes points to have something to do with both these things. So does the all-too-frequent tendency to treat all of these these as positive developments, or to laud them while cherry-picking and dubiously defining some particular evil, such as "misinformation" or "disinformation," without acknowledging that those evils are simply the fruit of a lack of institutional loyalty, commitment, and authority. (What spectacle could be more enlightening on this point than universities speechifying about a decay in social attachment to truth while simultaneously putting out press releases about how some faculty member has made it onto a list of "most influential people on Twitter." Even now someone is penning an article for the Journal of Legal Education talking about how to build your own brand as a professor, or rhapsodizing about the importance of meeting some younger generation "where it lives" while studiously avoiding critical evaluation of any of the values or structures it discusses.)

I do not think any of the things listed above are bad. I like most of them at least some of the time. But I do think all of them are far from unqualified goods, that things like authority and loyalty are too often wrongly treated as suspect or boring, and that, just as parties and government bodies are not the only institutions we need for a functioning civil society, so the institutional crisis Pildes discusses, and the factors he points to, are hardly limited to the GOP, the House, political parties, or official organs of the state.     

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 5, 2023 at 03:45 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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