Thu, Jul 14, 2016 - Page 9 News List

US facing generational challenges with dysfunctional leadership

By David Brooks  /  NY Times News Service, SAN ANTONIO, Texas

I never really understood how fascism could have come to Europe, but I think I understand better now. You start with some fundamental historical transformation, like the Great Depression or the shift to an information economy. A certain number of people are dispossessed. They lose identity, self-respect and hope.

They begin to base their sense of self-worth on their tribe, not their behavior. They become mired in their resentments, spiraling deeper into the addiction of their own victimology. They fall for politicians who lie about the source of their problems and about how they can surmount them. Facts lose their meaning. Entertainment replaces reality.

Once facts are unmoored, everything else is unmoored, too. People who value humility and kindness in private life abandon those traits when they select leaders in the common sphere. Hardened by a corrosive cynicism, they fall for morally deranged little showmen.

And then perhaps there is a catalyzing event. Societies in this condition are culturally tense and socially isolated. That means there are a lot of lonely, alienated young men seeking self-worth through violence. Some wear police badges; some sit in their rooms fantasizing of mass murder. When they act, the results can be convulsive.

Normally, nations pull together after tragedy, but a society plagued by dislocation and slipped off the rails of reality can go the other way. Rallies become gripped by an exaltation of tribal fervor. Before you know it, political life has spun out of control, dragging the country itself into a place both bizarre and unrecognizable.

This happened in Europe in the 1930s. We are not close to that kind of descent in the US today, but we are closer than we have been. Let us be honest: The crack of some abyss opened up for a moment by the end of last week.


Blood was in the streets last week — victims of police violence in two cities and slain cops in another. The US’ leadership crisis looked dire. The FBI director’s statements reminded us that US presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is willing to blatantly lie to preserve her career. Her Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, of course, lies continually and without compunction. It is very easy to see this country on a nightmare trajectory.

How can the US answer a set of generational challenges when the leadership class is dysfunctional, political conversation has entered a post-fact era and the political parties are divided on racial lines — set to blow at a moment’s notice?

On the other hand, I never really understood how a nation could arise as one and completely turn itself around, but I think I am beginning to understand now. Back in the 1880s and 1890s, the US faced crises as deep as the ones we face today. The economy was going through an epochal transition, then to industrialization. The political system was worse and more corrupt than ours is today.

Culturally things were bad, too. Racism and anti-immigrant feelings were at plaguelike levels. Urban poverty was indescribable.


And yet the nation responded. A new leadership class emerged, separately at first, but finally congealing into a national movement. In 1889, Jane Addams created settlement houses to serve urban poor. In 1892, Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance to give the diversifying country a sense of common loyalty. In 1902, Owen Wister published The Virginian, a novel that created the cowboy mythology and galvanized the American imagination.

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