BostonGlobe | The direst threat American society faces today is the collapse of civic virtue. By that, I mean the honesty and trust that enables the country to function as a decent, forward-looking, optimistic nation.
The defining characteristic of the 2016 Presidential election is that neither candidate was trusted. The defining characteristic of American society today is that Americans trust neither their political institutions nor one another. We need a conscious effort to reestablish trust, by making fair play and truth-telling an explicit part of the national agenda.
There are four interrelated reasons for these downtrends: (1) the rise of the secretive and duplicitous US security state, which has left a deep divide between the public and the federal government; (2) the sharp widening of the inequality of wealth and power since the early 1980s; (3) the impunity of the rich regarding the rule of law; and (4) the precipitous decline of political parties as vehicles of political participation and their replacement by the mass media.
In order to restore democratic legitimacy, we must reverse all four.
The first precipitous decline in trust occurred from 1963 to 1973. It started with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and extended through the failed Vietnam War to the Watergate scandal. For a decade the US government lied relentlessly to the public, and the public gradually came to see that official explanations hid darker truths. The machinations of the CIA in toppling governments and withholding evidence from the Warren Commission investigation of the Kennedy assassination, combined with relentless government lying about Vietnam, created a gulf between Washington and the people that has never closed. In more recent years, the perpetual shadowy wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, have further deepened the public’s doubts and distrust.
On top of that came the takeover of politics by the super-rich. This got underway in earnest in the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration and Congress slashed top marginal tax rates and “greed is good” became the Wall Street mantra. Since then, the inequality of income has soared to unprecedented levels. The rich have used their power assiduously to protect their growing wealth. Their tactics have included tax loopholes of countless varieties to hold their growing wealth offshore and free of taxes; privatization of public functions (schools, prisons, military operations) as sources of new profitability; monopoly power in the health care sector (the largest single sector of the economy); union busting; and encouragement of offshoring of jobs and inflows of migrant workers to keep wages low.
The public routinely asserts that the politicians do not care “about people like me” — and they are right. Top political scientists have carefully documented that only the attitudes of the richest Americans determine the policy outcomes of the political process.
The soaring inequality of wealth and income has also created an age of impunity, in which the rich and powerful escape from legal and even moral responsibility by virtue of their great wealth. We have seen everywhere the deterioration of basic moral standards among the elites of the society. The Clintons and Trumps epitomized the process, both using the political system to maximize their personal wealth while skirting all manner of ethical and civic responsibility.