Smash the state! While we’re at it, let’s demolish social conventions, the World Bank, the FBI, and the State Department. Encrusted institutions are the enemies of freedom. To liberate society, we must attack and undermine them.
Rebels throughout history have used rallying cries like this. They fueled the counterculture that emerged in the 1960s. Protesters and their supporters in Washington denounced what Robert Kennedy called “the violence of institutions.” The panicked business elite, in concert with Republican politicians, rallied to defend the established order against pitchfork-bearing peasants.
Today the tyranny of institutions is again under attack. This time, however, Republicans are on the other side. Rather than defending the fortress, they are leading the attacking horde. Determined to protect their president, they are waging a campaign against long-established institutions that mimics and exceeds in scope what leftists did half a century ago. This includes trashing the CIA, the Department of Justice, and other government agencies before which Republicans used to bow down in fealty. Now the political right, not the left, is telling Americans that our civic values are corrupt, our government agencies are engaged in nefarious conspiracies, and our most respected authorities are untrustworthy. It is a startling role reversal.
At unsettled historical moments like the one through which we are now passing, the value of institutions becomes clearer. They are not inherently oppressive. On the contrary, they provide the indispensable foundation for civilized society. They can be bulwarks of justice. We should be seeking to strengthen them. Yet when our leaders scorn and undermine them, many Americans applaud.
Why do people cheer for the weakening of institutions that undergird our national life and the global order? The main reason is simple: Many of those institutions are manifestly failing. Rarely in modern history have the American presidency or Congress seemed less worthy of respect. Grand international experiments like the United Nations and European Union are deeply troubled. Institutions have earned the low esteem in which they are held. This is destabilizing because when people lose faith in institutions, they are more easily swayed by demagogues. It is happening in the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary — and the United States.
One reason powerful institutions have proven unequal to today’s challenge is that they over-promised. The United Nations was sold as a force that would “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Visionaries who shaped the European Union imagined that they could forge a “European identity” that would make people forget they were French or Italian. Those ambitious promises ignored all of human history. When they proved illusory, people who had believed them felt betrayed.
Institutions also fail when they fall under the power of elites. Predatory private interests often distort and take advantage of projects originally designed for the public good. At other times they are turned into political or ideological tools. Much of the American foreign aid program is shaped to suit the needs of agri-business and shipping lines, not needy countries. The International Monetary Fund was established to help countries fight poverty, but for decades it forced developing countries to adopt harsh economic policies that actually made people poorer. Human rights organizations manipulate suffering to achieve political ends. Contradictions like these breed cynicism about the hyper-institutionalized West.
A third danger to political institutions is their resistance to change. Even those that prove successful can decay if they do not evolve. They often continue to exist far beyond their sell-by dates. Some, like our Electoral College, long ago stopped working as intended, but for legal reasons cannot be easily jettisoned. Others, like the NATO alliance, devote great energy to inventing new missions so they can justify their existence even after the goal for which they were created is accomplished.Their drive to perpetuate themselves clouds their understanding of the public good.
Arguably the most powerful cultural institution of modern life is the Internet. It too has come under withering attack. Alongside the Internet’s wondrous blessings, we now realize, lies its vast potential as a means of social control. New forms of media threaten to destroy privacy — itself an institution we once cherished. One characteristic of institutions is that they are trusted. The Internet, like many other institutions, is losing that trust. That contributes to our spreading sense that everything can be manipulated, no rules are fixed, and there is no such thing as a true fact.
This leads to the real reason why many former defenders of established order now seek to wreck it: greed. Institutions, by their nature, regulate and limit what people may do. Undermining them is the path toward unchecked wealth and power. Radical changes in the political and social order begin with the destruction of institutions. Populations join the wrecking crew when their leaders persuade them that institutions are distant, faceless, and hypocritical. Many are. They are also, however, the architecture of civilized life. Without them we are adrift. Defending them is one way to resist the dismantling of society.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.