Who and what are Americans to believe in today?
Polls show that we suffer from a crushing lack of faith in government, business, educational institutions, religion, law enforcement, news organizations—and one another. The outcomes of this perhaps unprecedented collapse in trust in most every aspect of our daily lives are felt everywhere we look, and this likely accounts for much of the sour and suspicious insularity that pervades both our politics and personal lives today.
Our personal lives are based on trust, and the frightening cynicism that pervades our society—and manifests itself most obviously in our suffocating self-absorption and childish focus on our own personal needs above all else—drives many to either “hook up” without any long term commitment or simply retreat into daily lives built around video games and online pornography. The amazing numbers of people who are alone—yet seem not to even want to bother with human intimacy—is a symptom of a culture and people devoid of even the minimal faith necessary to have a cup of coffee with someone whom they find interesting or attractive. Of course, anyone willing to contemplate either emotional or physical intimacy must also reckon with the amazing lack of both personal boundaries and respect for the privacy of others that now pervades our existences. Expect to have a slurp-by-slurp description of your encounters pop up on social media somewhere because apparently an occurrence is no longer real until it is blared to a global audience—which is both frightening and ridiculous.
No society can thrive without trust. No one will, for example, be willing to engage in dialogue if they doubt both the veracity of the information provided and the good intentions of others involved in the conversation. Moreover, the willingness to marry, start a business, have a child, earn a college degree, buy a house, or work diligently at a job—each a basic function inherent in a successful nation—all rely on trust in either the future or in others. No modern economy can thrive without the willingness to both extend credit and assume reasonable debt; the alternative is a pre-industrial system of barter trade that was the key feature of medieval life. Worst of all, those who lack trust gradually—and catastrophically—stop thinking about the future and focus on nothing other than the here and now, which is an impediment to building the societal consensus necessary to both solve problems today and make the investments of time and money needed to ensure successful tomorrows.
The counterargument is, of course, that our leaders and institutions have failed us and are undeserving of our trust—and there is certainly validity to this. However, although we seem to now be unable to easily find leaders who can readily recognize that sweet spot on the spectrum between naive idealism and ruthless realpolitik, we must also keep in mind that the renowned men and women of our past were probably not much better. Time tends to wear the rough edges off both memories and events, and part of the problem with our “warts and all” modernity that records—and endlessly replays—our political and cultural highs and lows is that we are mercilessly stripped of our illusions and reduced to weary cynicism because we cannot escape the fact that our leaders are just a fallible are we are. Much like children who are crushed to find out there is no Santa Claus, we rage over the foibles of others who share our human weaknesses and are disappointed that no one in charge can ever satisfy our every need in precisely the manner in which we want it to be satisfied.
This childish need to have our every wish granted without having to deal with gritty and unwelcome realities is likely a key component of the irrational attraction many voters currently have for socialism—now rebranded as a new and improved American type of “Democratic” socialism offering the same empty promises that have beguiled previous generations around the world.
As a system of political, economic, and social organization, socialism has probably destroyed more lives than the Black Plague, but its attractiveness to those who believe that capitalism has failed because some are rich and some are poor is perhaps less puzzling when we view it as a symptom of our crushing lack of trust.
If one proceeds from the presumption that no one can be trusted to provide what you “deserve”, and there are those who promise to help “the people” experience painless wealth and ease by taxing and regulating those who hold undeserved wealth and power, it sounds pretty darned good. Particularly in light of the harsh fact that our nation—along with most of the developed countries around the world—is crashing headlong into the fiscal limitations of the post-WW II welfare state, the promise of endless benefits paid by a magic pot of money extracted from those who either lucky, smart, or both is simply irresistible to many who have no trust in the American economic system today.
This will not, of course, end well, but socialism’s many bold promises initially play well with people who have lost trust in their leaders and institutions. However, before we go that route entirely, it might be worth asking the Russians of 1917 and the Germans of 1933 how state-run socialism worked out for them in the long run.
The obvious problem we now face is that—after many decades of continued government interference and control of our national economy—we are far closer to socialism than should be comfortable. The redoubled efforts we will now face to encourage yet more “partnership” between business and government—which typically takes the form of subsidies, regulations, and ever more threat of legal jeopardy—are not going to solve the crisis of trust that so infects much of our electorate. Recommencing our nation’s journey along the path to more government control and oversight of our economic life, which has been only slightly interrupted over the past couple of years, is likely to further cripple the hopes and dreams of many, leaving them little choice but to be further infantilized by elected officials and bureaucrats who will promise parental care and understanding—if only they are given the power to do so by voters so dissatisfied with their lives that they will choose to believe in the snake oil of socialism. After these new-style socialist officials are in power, we will be assured of little but that the rewards of hard work and personal initiative will continue to erode as this terrible and destructive path to national ruin turns more Americans into passive and miserable wards of the all-powerful state.
Revealing the truth—that although sometimes people are ridiculously lucky or terribly unlucky, most success in an actual capitalist system still derives from brains, hard work, and sacrifice—is nowhere near as much fun as promising oodles of freebies. Telling people to put their heads down and work harder—but without any guarantee of having their fondest dreams fulfilled—is not a winning campaign message when so many are preoccupied with the blatant and blinding unfairness of a system now run to enrich the few at the expense of the many. However, until the electorate wises up to how the current economic disasters of their lives are brought to them courtesy of their own government’s corrupt and idiotic polices, which is doubtful at best, many politicians will continue to peddle their own version of El Dorado, the mythical “lost city of gold” that was there for the taking.
For those who don’t care to Google it, the myth of El Dorado drove many early explorers to madness and mayhem as they scoured the jungles of Central and South America for the gold and jewels that they were told were just lying there ready to be scooped off the ground. Why did they believe such an outlandish and implausible story? Perhaps for the same reason we continue to elect those who promise us all manner of government largesse without any explanation of how to pay for any of it. We choose to believe in wild tales of wealth that can be ours for the taking because we find the belief comforting—particularly when we no longer trust our nation and its leadership to watch out for our best interests because the system is run for the benefit of insiders and government-sponsored grifters.