A basic requirement of every human society is that it must have a set of rules that define the society and the people in it. It is this shared understanding of what defines the society that keeps the thing together. “Who we are” is defined by “what we do” and it is the commonsense of the people. People living in a monarchy take the king and the nobility for granted. To question the legitimacy of the king is to question the very nature of society and the rules that define it.
In modern America, the experts who run the country have become one of these fixed things that everyone accepts. For example, the head of the Federal Reserve runs the banking system and controls the money supply. Since Alan Greenspan made the job famous, Americans have just accepted that the person in this job is responsible for keeping the economy from danger. He does not set taxes or control spending, but he makes sure the economy avoids catastrophe.
This general assumption is not without merit. It was the Federal Reserve that pulled the country out of stagflation in the 1980’s. They kept the Savings & Loan crisis from creating a bank run. In the 1990’s, they organized the bailout of Long Term Capital Management and then navigated the Dot-Com bust. They came to the rescue of the global economy in the mortgage crisis. So far, they have managed to prevent the Covid panic from cratering the economy.
There is a lot one can quibble with in that list and many will say that those crises were the fault of the bankers, including the Fed. To most people though, the mysterious group of people who run the economy are one thing you can trust. Even though trust in government at all levels has declined sharply over the last few decades, the Federal Reserve remains the most trusted institution. Most years, the Fed chairman has better approval than the president.
In a world where people assume there is an answer to every problem and an expert able to find the answer, there is an assumption that whatever problems crop up, the people in charge will find the solution. This is what makes managerialism both possible and tolerable. If the experts keep getting things wrong, what is the point of having a society run by experts? People put up with the metastasizing set of rules because there is a general trust that there is logic behind them.
This trust in experts is not new. It has been a defining characteristic of American society since at least the 19th century. Taylorism was the attempt to use science to improve management of companies in the 1880’s. That gave birth to the Efficiency Movement, which sought to apply engineering principles to social policy. What we think of as the Left in America grew out of this belief that social reform could be achieved by experts changing the rules of society to achieve the desired outcome.
The fact is the strength of the American system over the last century has been this faith in the experts to find the right answer. When things go wrong, the current experts are fired and new experts are brought in to solve the problem. Elections have been an indirect review of the experts class. If the people are not happy, they vote for the other party who come in with new experts. If things go well, then the party is rewarded with a good election the next time.
That is what makes the current crisis so serious. Most people think the experts badly bungled the Covid problem. The experts said we had two weeks to bend the curve and two years into it the curve is not bent. The vaccine was supposed to be the great triumph of science and technology and it is looking like it is not only not working but possibly a billion dollar boondoggle. The last two years have been a massive blow to the credibility of science in modern America.
Then you have the economic troubles. Most people assumed there would be some trouble from the Covid panic. You cannot close down the economy for months and not have consequences. Unlike those prior economic crises, the Fed is not skillfully navigating this one. Empty shelves and spirally prices are not what people expect from the expert class. Things that could be acquired in days now take months because the supply chain is a chaotic mess.
The deeper problem is the old habit of just voting for the out-party when things are not doing well has not been working either. People voted for Obama to close the books on the history of race. Instead, race relations got sharply worse. Obama was supposed to end the forever wars and he expanded them. Trump was the shot across the bow by the people and the system responded with a four year tantrum. Biden was supposed to be the return to normal and we have chaos instead.
This is why 70% of Americans think the country is in a serious crisis. They are not puzzling it out like this, but they just sense that the system has broken and there is no one around with an understanding of how to fix it. One of the paradoxes of the current age is the people in charge say we are in the middle of a crisis, but then wage jihad against anyone proposing a way out of the crisis. Their solution to “save democracy” is to eliminate any trace of it from society.
The core of the current crisis is that no one can honestly answer the question that is the basis of all human organization, who are we? It is no longer easy to say what it means to be an American. The commonsense that are the rules of society are no longer making sense, which calls into question the basics of society. We used to be a people who assumed the experts would eventually get it right. Now we are a people wondering if there is such a thing as experts at all.
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