Midterm Elections and Existential Angst

This I a really great article. Sure, people say all the time “I read today in the NYT…” and what follows is usually something pretty interesting, but this article goes beyond the call of duty. Why you ask? Well, because it tries to see around blind spots by not taking the everyday narrative for granted.

The premise of the article is that, contra Washington, voters aren’t that upset about the budget or healthcare, or what have you. (undoubtedly, they are upset about unemployment, but its always less clear how much people blame the government for that rather than wall street, or themselves, or whoever). Instead, voters are upset about the state of society.

The word society is such a nebulous term, and I help myself to this word often on this site. One day, I’ll come up with a clear and comprehensive theory for what it means. For now though, I want to keep using it intuitively.

A common misconception these days (especially among liberals I think) is that people mainly care about how much money they have, either absolutely or relative to others. I think people care very much about this, but as society gets richer, I think people stop caring as much (even as consumerism and what people acquire with money gains increased importance). Rather, people care about things like “does my voice count,” and how do people treat each other.

Of course, how we treat each other is partially encoded in our institutions. A pre civil rights act America was certainly not treating many groups in society with respect. In the same way, I think that a society without some social safety nets is not treating its populace with respect (other examples abound, a justice system might be another we institutionally demonstrate respect for other people). Hell, voting with its doctrine of one person one vote is another way of demonstrating respect.

But what this NYT article hints at, and what I think is true, is that institutions can only do so much. Yes, a good government can set the groundwork for a prosperous society, but in the end, and now I will betray my latent libertarian affiliations (used to be die hard, not anymore, but I learned some lessons while I was in that camp), society depends on people in their individual moments of moral choice and personality. I often talk about holding doors for people on this blog, and this is a prime example of how for the most part, society has to depend on a blizzard of daily actions that show respect. Saying excuse me or holding a door open for someone. Today I saw a woman and a man stop to help a homeless person whose cart of cans had fallen over accidentally.

Institutions crumble without the lively participation of individual people who choose to be good or excellent or active or engaged or friendly. These are the people who starts businesses, or, if you don’t like such corporatism, non-profits. These are also the people that chat with you in line at the grocery store or ask if you need help when they see you fall down. These people monitor their communities, combat insensitivity and strive for inclusion.

Can government do a lot of good? Of course, they’re well-positioned to use their massive power for good. Can they do it alone? No chance. The bonds of trust and energy that sustain institutions of all types are just you and me.


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