Haiti’s Cautionary Tale for America’s Next Generation
This is another Civic Way essay on the importance of good government and engaged citizenry. And how the next generation must invest in government and citizenship to prepare for future crises. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
- The unfolding tragedy in Haiti offers a poignant reminder of the importance of good government
- Many Americans, anxious about their futures and angry about the cards they’ve been dealt, train their insecurity, frustration and resentment at government and public officials
- Other Americans distrust government, take it for granted or merely ignore it
- The ultimate risk of such misdirected anger and indifference is corroded, failed government
- Our hope is that the next generation will renew our nation’s commitment to good government
We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.
– James Baldwin
The Tragedy in Haiti
Haiti’s August 14th 7.2 magnitude earthquake was devastating. It killed at least 2,200, injured over 12,200 and damaged (or destroyed) about 130,000 structures. Its aftermath has been even more heartbreaking.
International relief efforts there are encountering stunning obstacles. Ravaged infrastructure. Defective or erratic public systems like water, energy and sanitation. Harassed or threatened volunteers. Kidnapped health care workers. Ransacked food trucks. Stolen supplies. If government remains paralyzed and its systems dysfunctional, Haiti’s humanitarian crisis could descend into anarchy.
Many view the US as immune to such chaos. That our nation’s vast resources will insulate us. That our ingenuity, technology and resilience will protect us. That what is happening in Haiti could never visit our shores.
In some ways, this is not an unreasonable hope. We certainly have far more resources than Haiti. Our government officials are more capable than their Haitian counterparts. Our public infrastructure and systems, while fragmented, are more reliable. Our politics, as toxic as they have become, are more stable. However, it would be arrogant (and myopic) to assume that the disorder devouring Haiti could never happen here.
What so few of us grasp is that the one thing that buffers us from chaos, that sets us apart from so many other nations, is the very thing we care so little about—our government. Many Americans will no doubt find it in their hearts to help the Haitian people, but perhaps we can learn something from them, too—the importance of good government to a civilized society.
The Creative Class’ Parting Gift
We are not Haiti, but our democracy is fragile. The American experiment faces an uncertain future. The Capitol Coup. Rabid anti-vax protests. Undue state interference in local public health and election administration. Ruthless anti-democracy measures. A refusal to accept past elections. A fervor for overturning future elections.
Our nation is splitting at the seams. Jaded media outlets. Dispiriting presidential races. Partisan gerrymandering. Strict party-line Congressional votes. Fanatical state legislatures. Biased election audits. Wild conspiracy theories. Frayed family ties. The political chasm is growing by the day, but why?
The pundits suggest that our political divide is largely geographical. Coastal versus middle America. The Northwest versus the Great Plains. New England versus the Southeast. Blue states versus red states. Urban versus rural. This take is entertaining, but devoid of any clues that could suggest a solution.
A more promising—albeit partial—explanation for our political divide may be caste. Trump won nearly 63 million votes in 2016 and over 74 million votes in 2020, partly because he gave some Americans a voice. Trump—and the Tea Party before him—exploited the fears of millions of ordinary Americans. And they did so by putting a face to those fears.
When Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump’s 2016 voters as deplorables (e.g., racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic), she was pilloried. While Trump and his minions attract many who reject America’s noblest ideals, Clinton’s math was off. Many Trump voters in 2016 and 2020 found other reasons for supporting his malignant candidacy. And we will not successfully navigate our troubled political waters or maintain viable government without understanding those reasons.
Hopefully, few voters chose Trump because of his vision, values or competence. In all likelihood, what many Republican voters appreciate about Trump and his acolytes is his gift for infuriating elites.
Who are these elites? It is hard to generalize, but a good starting point might be the group we once called yuppies. The urban achievers who became the creative class or Bobos (a mash-up of bourgeois and bohemian). The thought leaders who dominate our media, culture and politics. The sages who set the rules for the rest of us. The moguls who move mountains with money.
It may be true that most elites hold liberal views, but many do not. One characteristic they do share is their obsession with merit, not merely as a way to justify their own success, but as a way to wall off others. For elites—be they politicians, journalists, professionals, executives, actors or other luminaries—the holy grail is merit. Best schools. Impeccable credentials. Hard work. And merit, once demonstrated, justifies tasteful homes, eclectic interests, irony, condescension and the relentless (yet subtle) proselytization of values.
This proselytizing has had unintended consequences. The creative class set out to build a more productive society, but it has left some serious socio-economic disparities in its wake. The disparities were not intended, but to many Americans they are all too real. As such, the disparities—and the widespread resentment and political backlash they have triggered—may be the least understood legacy of the creative class.
Overcoming the Backlash
For many Americans, the bridge to the 21st century was more of a moat. Disappearing jobs. Stagnating wages. Unaffordable housing. Inaccessible health care. Staggering college costs. Uncertain futures.
Despite working hard and playing by the rules, many such Americans fell further behind the elites. And they could not help but notice (or at least perceive) how elites solidified their grip on the nation’s best schools and institutions. Worse yet, they worried that their children were falling further behind and the education and credentials they would need to keep pace were beyond reach.
When things go badly, it is entirely human to feel disappointment and despair. If we perceive even a hint of unfairness, we may harbor resentment and anger. Some part of us may even spin wild conspiracy theories or think about getting even. To tell the elites to go to hell. To turn our backs on history, assault our institutions or abandon Democracy. Such raw emotions may be human, but they rarely produce positive change.
There have always been those who thrive on exploiting the anxieties that accompany our setbacks. Talking heads who play on our deepest biases. Journalists who alarm rather than inform. Candidates who demonize their opponents. Agitators who attack government or ridicule ideas without offering alternatives. Politicians who refuse to compromise or accept responsibility. Public figures who respond to criticism by bashing their critics.
Demagogues of all stripes know that, by appealing to our basest instincts—sexism, racism and nativism, for example—they can realize the fame and wealth to which they aspire. By telling us what we want to hear, they can expand their audience. By manipulating us, they can join—if not supplant—the elites. Their greatest fear? That we will reassert our independence, stop watching and start thinking for ourselves.
If we convert anger into action, it won’t be the first time. The battle between the powerful and powerless has raged throughout American history. Slavery. The 1830 Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears. Jim Crow. The Wilmington Coup. The Gilded Age. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Child labor. Sweatshops. Chinese exclusion. Japanese-American internment. Love Canal. Enron. The Great Recession.
Progress did not always follow, but when it did, it came from collaborative, constructive action. Our greatest strides in broadening opportunities and improving lives came not from yielding to our anger, but from controlling it. Not from whitewashing our mistakes, but from challenging the status quo with ideas, compassion and votes. Not from circling the wagons, but from forging a unified agenda to make our nation over.
Overcoming our Disdain for Government
Americans have an odd relationship with their government. Most of us know that government exists, but few of us have a good handle on its strengths and weaknesses. The number and variety of governments. What they do for us. How they protect us. How we can improve them.
For all that government does for us—in public safety, education, health care, roads, energy, water and sanitation to name a few—we offer indifference, if not outright scorn. Some dismiss politicians as nuisances. Some heap abuse on public workers. Others demand tax cuts and defunding. On occasion, most of us complain about taxes or wonder if we would be better off without government.
Few of us trust government. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 24 percent of Americans trust federal government, down from over 70 percent during the late 1950s. With a few exceptions (e.g., during the post-911 era), this trust rating has declined steadily. During the Reagan years, it never rose above 45 percent. During the Obama/Trump years, it never exceeded 30 percent.
This steady erosion in public trust has many causes. Economic frustrations. Perceived injustices. Anger toward elites. Relentless rightwing attacks on government, including implicitly racist anti-government assaults on programs (e.g., welfare queens). Self-righteous liberal attacks on the independence and integrity of government regulators. While public faith in state and local government remains higher, it will likely become a casualty of the same forces that have eroded our trust in federal government.
Existential threats momentarily remind us of government’s necessity. Pandemics, extreme weather, energy debacles and cyberattacks underscore our individual vulnerabilities and mutual dependence. How little our differences matter. How intertwined our fates really are. How we can help one another. But, when those threats fade, we quickly return to our respective camps, persuaded once again of our invincibility and government’s futility. We forget the importance of working together against a common enemy or for a common cause.
Can we find a way to work together again? Not without a government on which we can count. The real risk of public apathy, alienation and distrust is that government gradually breaks down, ultimately unable to protect us in times of crisis. And such decline seems likely without an aggressive government reform agenda.
Finding Hope in the Future
Every generational succession follows a time-honored pattern. As the old generation departs, the new generation disparages the last, confident that it will do better. Our hope must be that it will.
If one looks hard enough, one can see a titanic political realignment on the horizon. A new generation emerging with different values and new priorities. New challenges and developments demanding new ideas. Old battles and tribes receding into history.
As the old generation’s expiration date draws near, we must hope that the new generation learns the lessons overlooked by prior generations. Failing to learn from past mistakes (or victories) will likely contribute to more missteps. The next generation of leaders and activists should absorb the lessons of the past, such as:
- Lesson One – Be a good citizen, one who understands the political system, welcomes respectful debate and truly considers competing arguments. Become a more informed voter and more active participant in civic affairs. Start making a difference in your community.
- Lesson Two – Become a leader. Run for office. Seek appointments to boards and commissions. Retain your humility and curiosity and always listen to opposing views. Don’t wait your turn, but don’t get too comfortable when you arrive. Never, ever risk your principles to preserve your standing.
- Lesson Three – Be a tireless champion for good government. Not just effective, efficient government, but good government broadly defined—honest, capable, wise, frugal, humble, fair, objective and decisive. Government that is diverse (in every sense), empathetic, inclusive and collaborative.
Finally, let’s do what we can to help our neighbors in Haiti, but let’s also take a moment to appreciate our public institutions or at least take note of how essential they are to our way of life.
In the years ahead, let’s renew our commitment to good government and make smart investments in modernizing and reforming public institutions. Government is structured in archaic, hidebound ways that complicate modern efforts to improve effectiveness and efficiency.
Let us hope that future leaders are willing to redesign government for the challenges that will surely face it.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe