The craziness of life in the US has abated a little following the inauguration of President Biden, but its causes still lurk in the background, but not far below the surface. Faced with a serious attack on our democracy, we are told by the pundits that our institutions held and we were saved (at least for now). Perhaps, but the institutions that hold us together are really in trouble.
Institutions are nothing more than linguistic creations. We tend to talk only about the very big ones, but we exist within many, many of them. In today’s highly technocratic society, we are rarely acting outside of them. They do not exist in material terms. You can’t put them in a paper bag. They are socially constructed facts, constituted simply by a structure of beliefs and rules (more linguistic constructions) to coordinate action towards some set of objectives. But as the sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote long ago, “Consider social facts as things.” Their reality might be clearer if we thought of them as machines in which we human beings are moving parts.
Another way is to think of them as games with rules, tools and authority figures. You cannot be a player if you do not follow the rules or respect the authorities. Taking performance-enhancing drugs broke the rules in many sports and the perpetrators suffered various sanctions consequently. Cheating on tests in school poses similar sanctions. Society is just a vastly bigger institution or game, and incorporates smaller, but interconnected institutions within: governance, economy, religious organizations, etc. All such institutions can function stably and effectively only when all the players follow the rules.
If the top-level institutions start to stutter and fail to function, those nested within are likely to show similar behaviors. The way the world has been ordered for centuries is by nation-states. Every nation-state constitutes a distinct society, each with its own structure of rules, etc. The United States is such an institution with several key groups of actors: citizens, legislators, governors (executives), and more, but these three are the most critical in maintaining the society on an even keel.
The nation-state called the United States was established by our Constitution, which contains the most basic beliefs and rules that guide normal behavior. One of the barriers to the smooth functioning of the US is that few of the citizens know more than a smattering of these beliefs and rules. The key beliefs are embedded in the preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Not bad for a bunch of framers with starkly different ideas about the nation they were defining. They left us with a document containing a few key words that are very hard to pin down: Tranquility, general Welfare, and Liberty. While establishing the basic structure of the system of rule-making (legislature), rule-managing (executive) and rule-adjudicating (Supreme Court), they left out similar rules for the citizens, a new class of actors created by the very establishment of the Constitution, even though it was initially silent about them.
Serious ommissions have been addressed by the Bill of Rights, subsequent Amendments and countless acts of Congress, Supreme Court decisions, and Executive fiat. Rights are one of a tripartite category of general institutional rules: 1) prescriptions—actions that are required; 2) proscriptions—actions that are not allowed; and 3) affordances or rights—actions that are allowed, but not required. All of this structure rests on a broader rule that it must serve the citizens according to their consent, which is to be rendered democratically, defined as a majority of those deciding by election or other means.
It is inevitable that, in a society as vast and diverse as the United States, some rules and beliefs come to be in conflict. The world of 1789 is far different from that of 2021. Our tripartite system of government was designed to deal with such conflicts and has done a remarkable job since the US became a nation. But it is breaking down with serious consequences. All of this structure presumes one critical belief that we are all living in the same world, the same reality, the same system of reason that characterizes our human species. In the absence of such commonality, all these constitutive rules lose their power to coordinate action coherent with the society, that is, maintain its integrity. That commonality has disappeared.
I noted earlier that institutions are a sort of social fact or, better, a socially constructed fact. They enter our consciousness in the same way that facts about material things do—the same way when we are playing a game of chess as when we are chopping up a carrot for dinner. Socially constructed facts take on the character of things because they have become established as facts in both individual’s and the (metaphorical) collective brain by being enacted over and over again over time. While such facts require some sort of authority behind them at the beginning to become embedded, once they are widely accepted, they are simply taken as factual.
As long as we are satisfied with the consequent outcomes, these “facts” stick around, but, if they cease to produce the desired outcomes because the world has changed (as it always does), they are usually discarded and new ones become embedded, but not always. A few very basic socially constructed facts about the nature of the universe and human existence continue to shape our most deep-rooted world-views in spite of the current persistent social and natural breakdowns that can be traced back to them. My book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World deals with this concern, but I will focus only on the state of the political system in this blog post.
The four years of the Trump administration, from the start, were spent in attempting to create a new socially constructed reality, a set of facts designed to provide authority for actions taken, but disconnected from the reality as understood by those relying on tried-and-true ways of establishing the validity of assertions about what is. By far the majority of the citizens of the US fit into the latter group. Science is their source of knowledge about natural phenomena, and trusted journalism and respected scholar/observers their sources about social phenomena.
Assertions about reality, that is, how the world is, can and do become the (socially constructed) reality when repeated from what or who are considered reliable, legitimate sources. When two such distinct realities collide in any arena of action, the possibility of consensual, coordinated action vanishes. Only two possibilities exist. One is that the different sides depart the scene, leaving any contemplated “project” undone, or, alternately, one side acts peremptorily by forcibly dominating the other. And, as everyone now knows, that is what happened following the last election and led to the events on January 6. Consensual action requires not only a shared reality, that is, truths about the world, but also trust. Both were missing.
Usually it takes a long time and a lot of practice to establish new socially constructed facts, but the power of the social media has changed that. As I noted, social construction starts after some (legitimate) authority declares what the “facts” are. Without an authoritative voice behind them, the newly declared “facts” will not be picked up and retained. But when the President and other authority figures, such as legislators, repeat the same “facts,” which are then repeated and repeated over news and social media, they begin to stick, eventually replacing whatever the current reality was. Actions, in the light of the new reality, will seem just as reasonable as are the acts of others, still operating in the consensus world. Rational arguments will not change anything.
There is no place in the polity, at either end of the political spectrum, for such extremists, whom I define as those who do not share the same foundational reality with the majority of the citizens. To function effectively, a democracy requires a shared set of beliefs about what is, but not beliefs about how to go about its business. Those who do not believe in democracy cannot coordinate their actions with those who do. They can impose their will, however, if they have sufficient power, as has been the case for some time in the United States, due to the mechanics of electing our representatives and their rules for governance.
The need for a high-level shared reality does not mean, however, that opposing parties have to agree on how the nation should be run. Our two-party political system rose historically out of just such differences. Our history seesaws between 1) policies enacted monolithically, expressing the views of one of the parties and then subsequently reversed when the other gathers enough power to act alone, and 2) more permanent changes due to policies that have been worked out cooperatively. The first pattern has been the norm in recent years, caused by the failure of the Congress to address important areas of concern in any manner, leaving policy largely to be enacted by executive order. The seesaw effect is obvious in the plethora of such orders that immediately follow Inauguration Day.
But in recent years the situation has gotten worse; different opinions about how to govern have hardened into ontological beliefs that see other parties as alien, living in a different world. The potential intersection of beliefs that might enable conversation and compromise is more or less completely absent. Visions that drive policy have narrowed to the worldview circumscribed by those beliefs, regardless of how they conform to the world out there. The basic cognitive glue that keeps the polity together—the notion of commonwealth, the rule of law and the democratic ideal of majority decision-making—is missing-in-action.
The political system at all levels is operating with a distorted socially constructed world. People are not democrats or republican, liberals or conservative, or residents of Red or Blue states. Even these labels are no longer very clear. They are, first, citizens that the Constitution created. Of course, it took the Amendments to include everyone in the (socially constructed) meaning of that word. And even that has not been enough, because the discrimination of minorities within the society, writ large, and specifically, the political system, remains.
Citizenship, while not explicitly addressed in the Constitution, also affords individuals full access to the economy, beyond participating politically. The implicitness of this feature of the United States has become explicit in the idea of the American Dream, the opportunity for every citizen to rise above whatever circumstances they were thrown into and reach toward the life they dream about. It is just another socially constructed fact that is clearly out of sync with the real world. This American Dream was offered as a fact to hordes of immigrants who eventually became citizens. But today, that constructed reality and the actual situation are far apart.
The power of national unity has shown itself many times in the short history of our country. It is far more than a political slogan. It is essential to the sustainability of the Commonwealth and to the effectiveness of all efforts to address the cracks that are inevitable in a complex and changing world. And that requires that the world view, that is, the reality,, out of which we craft our actions comes as close to the one that is out there. That is very difficult because our reality is always shaped by the past, but our problems rise in the present. Creating new realities by fiat that do not reflect actuality can only throw barriers in the onerous process of getting our thoughts and the actions that ensue aligned with the world out there. President Biden understands the need for and power of “unity,” but I am afraid, may not appreciate how deep we will have to go to find it.