From the Distrust Doom Loop to a Healthy Social Body

American society seems to be falling apart.

David Brooks published an article on The Atlantic in October 2020 summing up his thoughts on our situation and where we go from here.

I wanted to understand his argument, so I reorganized and summarized his piece below. I also wanted to make his 17-page article more accessible, and my summary is 3 pages.

I intend this to be a fair characterization of Brooks’s argument with a minimum of my own interpretations and embellishments. If I want to praise, criticize, or comment on his argument, I’ll do that later in a separate piece.

What’s happening and why

    1. American society is falling apart.
      “By early June [2020], after [George] Floyd’s death, the percentage of Black Americans showing clinical signs of depression and anxiety disorders had jumped from 36 to 41 percent. Depression and anxiety rates were three times those of the year before. At the end of June, one-quarter of young adults aged 18 to 24 said they had contemplated suicide during the previous 30 days.”
    2. American society is low in trust (or high in distrust).
    3. Distrust is an accurate reflection of real social problems.
    4. The problems that cause our distrust include:
      1. Physical insecurity – “school shootings, terrorist attacks, police brutality”
      2. Financial insecurity – “By the time the Baby Boomers hit a median age of 35, their generation owned 21 percent of the nation’s wealth. As of [2019], Millennials—who [are an average age of 32]—owned just 3.2 percent of the nation’s wealth.”
      3. Emotional insecurity – “more single-parent households, more depression, and higher suicide rates.”
      4. Identity insecurity – the uniquely modern stress of “self-creation,” of consciously choosing “your identity, your morality, your gender, your vocation, your purpose, and the place of your belonging.”
      5. Social insecurity – in the words of Fredrik deBoer, “For many people, it is impossible to think without simultaneously thinking about what other people would think about what you’re thinking… you’re always at the mercy of the next person’s dim opinion of you and your whole deal.”
    5. Our distrust reflects these unaddressed problems. But distrust itself is also a key problem. “Unless we can find a way to rebuild trust, the nation does not function.”
    6. Then, perhaps more powerful than any of the other causal factors, is the positive feedback loop of escalating distrust. That is, distrustful people are more likely to neglect or damage the resources we all share, i.e. “the commons.” And when people see that the commons are damaged, they withdraw their trust and are less likely to contribute to the commons. This is a self-reinforcing cycle.
      How might this play out, for example, considering just me and my vote? Well if I think that all politicians are solely motivated by lobbyist money, I’m less likely to vote. If I don’t vote, worse people may be elected to government, and I will certainly have less connection with whoever is in government. That means I’m even more likely to think they’re sinister, more likely to feel discouraged when things don’t go my way, and I’m less likely to vote next time.
    7. If this positive feedback loop gets out of control, you can get trapped in a “distrust doom loop.”
    8. We are in the distrust doom loop.

We’ve been here before

  1. American society has been through this before. In fact, Brooks and others believe that America is on a 60-year cycle of growth, stagnation, destabilization, “moral convulsion,” then revival. The past instances of “moral convulsion” looked something like this, with items below listed in vaguely chronological order:
    1. Society seems to be falling apart under the weight of enormous social problems.
    2. There is a massive decline in trust. People become alienated from traditional authorities and values.
    3. Cultural values shift in reaction to unaddressed social problems.
    4. People see the problems and feel morally energized. They take responsibility for fixing the problems themselves. They engage in civic life.
    5. People build new organizations to address the specific problems they’re facing. These new organizations are built on the blueprint of the new cultural values, and their actions articulate those values in society.
    6. After the civic revival, there is frenetic political reform.
    7. Trust returns.
    8. Society returns to health.
  2. Reasons to think we’re in a period of “moral convulsion”:
    1. It’s been ~60 years since our moral convulsion (“the social-protest movements of the 1960s and early ’70s”).
    2. Society seems to be falling apart under the weight of enormous social problems.
    3. We’re experiencing a massive decline in trust.
      People distrust institutions – they’ve actually come to see institutions as evil.
      Half of all Fox News viewers believe that Bill Gates is plotting a mass-vaccination campaign so he can track people… When Trump was hospitalized for COVID-19 on October 2, many people conspiratorially concluded that the administration was lying about his positive diagnosis for political gain.”
      And we’re also in a crisis of interpersonal trust.
      “In 2014… only 30.3 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted,” the lowest number the survey has recorded since it started asking the question in 1972.”
    4. Our culture is shifting right now in response to the “prevailing sense of threat.”
      “In this period of convulsion, almost every party and movement has moved from its opportunity pole to its risk pole. Republicans have gone from Reaganesque free trade and open markets to Trumpesque closed borders. Democrats have gone from the neoliberalism of Kennedy and Clinton to security-based policies like a universal basic income and the protections offered by a vastly expanded welfare state.”
  3. So our challenge now is to successfully navigate the moral convulsion.
    “Are we living through a pivot or a decline? …America will only remain whole if we can build a new order in its place.”

“What can we do?”

  1. Brooks thinks we can successfully navigate this moral convulsion by taking concrete, daily actions:
    1. Recognize our social problems. Feel morally energized.
    2. Take responsibility for solving our social problems – for fixing society. Ask “What can we do?”
    3. Extend trust to others even when you doubt it will be reciprocated. Believe in the goodness of other people. Don’t give up.
    4. Build new civic organizations to address our current social problems, including “climate change, opioid addiction, and pandemics.” These organizations will help us even more if they “provide rules to live by, standards of excellence to live up to, social roles to fulfill” – that is, if they maintain a strong sense of morality and social responsibility, and if people enter them to be formed into morally mature individuals and citizens.
  2. Alongside those actions, we also could benefit from some navigational thinking. Without a defined destination or roadmap, we’re unlikely to arrive at a place we’d like to be.
    1. Where are we going? What would we like our post-convulsion society to look like? Given the shifts to our values and institutions that have already taken place, how would we like to structure our healthy future society? Brooks thinks that “our only plausible future is decentralized pluralism.”
    2. How are we going to get to our ideal post-convulsion society? What kinds of institutions, laws, norms, social connections, and ways of thinking do we need to get there? This in turn informs what organizations we make.

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