The Breakdown of Institutions and The Conservative Conundrum

If you haven’t read Katherine Miller’s “Donald Trump, #MeToo, Facebook, And The Breakdown Of Institutional Power,” stop cheating yourself.

One of the main themes in Miller’s essay is one familiar to regular readers here, i.e., that the election of Donald Trump is a symptom or product of the decline of American institutions.  I’ve written about this with respect to the GOP, the family and other institutions.  I’ve written about how the left’s long march through the institutions also contributed to a shallower conservative movement.

And I have walked up to — albeit from a different angle than Miller — to the conundrum of modern conservatism: what does a movement invested in significant part on the wisdom of preserving and strengthening civil society do when conservatives have so often failed that the institutions themselves have become corrupt?

As a bit of an aside, while Miller refers more than once to the sex abuse scandal plaguing USA Gymnastics, I would briefly mount my hobbyhorse to underscore that Larry Nassar is but one horrifying exhibit in the corruption and breakdown of our colleges and universities as institutions.

Conservatarians have long complained about academia’s increasing hostility to the notion that they have any responsibility for promoting a culture of free inquiry or the civilizational values undergirding that culture.  More recently, we have had to fight institutions that increasingly seem to reject notions of due process when adjudicating claims of sexual misconduct — a function outside their core mission and one to which they are not well suited.  And ever since the Penn State scandal (at least), we have been learning that when these institutions were not proudly ruining the lives of ordinary students whose crime was going on a drunken date, some of them were systemically ignoring and suppressing claims of sexual assault within their athletic programs in order to fundraise off the tribal nostalgia of wealthy alumni donors.

Miller sketches a holistic overview of this decline across institutions that includes the related issue (also addressed here on occasion) of institutions losing the ability to serve a gatekeeping function.  She smartly ties these problems to the architecture of the internet age (largely the inability of social media platforms as comprised to assume a gatekeeping function) in ways that go beyond the ways in which I have written about that relationship.

It continues to surprise me that there is so little public discussion of the ways in which the information revolution was and is radically reshaping our society and its institutions as surely as the industrial revolution did.  That sort of discussion is soooo early 2000s, even though it remains a subtext of so many other public debates.  If you think we do talk about this subject enough and with the gravity it deserves, ask yourself how in 2016, America’s major parties wound up fielding presidential candidates offering only a nostalgic rematch of Woodstock vs The Rat Pack.

The other reason to read Miller is her talent as a prose stylist.  She is the Politics Editor for BuzzFeed News, but talent as an editor does not necessarily translate to writing (and vice versa).  A quick search reveals her degree is in English (not Journalism) and it shows.  DDHQ’s Jeff Blehar referred to this latest essay as “depressingly lyrical,” which is an apt description and one which I suspect she will take (privately) as perhaps the highest complement.

There are secondary reasons to appreciate the essay that are more politically reductive and utilitarian… which is why I won’t mention them here.

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