📰 Trust, Politics, and Meaning
Full Title: Trust, Politics, and Meaning
The big extended Family is an endangered species; even the immediate Family is likely to be broken. Attendance at religious institutions is in precipitous decline. The same is true of membership in lodges, chambers of commerce, and sports leagues. We are proud of our individualism, and we repudiate as obsolete those relations and structures that impinge upon it. But the flip side of that repudiation is a terrible loneliness, a dearth of meaning, and a constant anxiety about personal worth. When we turn our attention to politics, we do so from a posture of existential hunger.
At this moment of weakness, the web came along to tempt us with a vision of all the kingdoms of the world. Any member of the public could be “followed” by millions. Ordinary people could dispute online with presidents and scholars. Here was meaning and community beyond our most distempered dreams. The lure of the web is its massive warping of distance: objects below the horizon appear close at hand.
But the web is also a mangler of identity. Communities of millions can be entered only at the cost of a severe conformism. At every turn, on every platform, the organic you must be mutilated to join hands with the digital them.
I have often said that the collapse of trust in our political institutions is in large part earned. Democratic government and politics must be reconfigured if they are to adapt to the digital age. But there’s another side to this story. If we place an immense weight of personal expectations on democracy, the system will always fail relative to those expectations, and failure will inspire ever-increasing levels of frustration, anger, and distrust. The last desperate attempt to convert politics into a creed produced the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. I would hope that no one wishes to head in that direction today.
Liberalism is the politics of adulthood: no creed is imposed from above, but individuals are expected to wrestle with their doubts, seeking answers in a society rich in systems of meaning and belief. When society is hollow and political life becomes infantilized, liberalism has little to say.
Individuals must abandon the empty dream that they can “save the earth” and try instead to serve and assist the people in their private sphere, where the human adventure, the endless search for meaning and decency, must necessarily play out.