Awash in Rotting Institutional Distrust

We recently had a thirty-year-old hot tub removed from our back deck. The hulking beast came as-is with the purchase of our home over a year ago, and had clearly lain dormant for some while. When, on a lark, I attempted to fill it from the hose, water splayed out on the tough dirt below. We thought the entire contraption rotted through, environing lumber supports and all, from years of neglect and quadrupedal fauna making shelter of it.

But when the jacuzzi removal specialist (markets in everything indeed!) and his teenage son popped the rust-shotted chassis out of its concave hold with a large bellow-esque device, the foundational wood underneath was unweathered, near brand new. “If only the rest of your deck looked like that!” the technician cracked.

The hot tub itself had plenty of moldered holes; the undergirding fundament was intact. There’s a civilizational metaphor, or symbolism, or ham-handed similarity, to draw from this illustration; a synecdoche of society, if you will. To coin one of Moses Herzog’s five-cent syntheses: a country operates on two levels, through civil, informal, and traditional institutions, and through a formalized and economized structure. The latter can’t function without the former. You don’t get a GDP measurement or a Nasdaq exchange without moms and dads rearing children and Little League. An economy can collapse, a government can be couped, a megabank can go belly up (ahem), but a family, a congregation, a book club, a barbershop quartet that meets biweekly, can prevail.

And just to kick the dead horse analogy once more with blunt feeling: a jacuzzi can decay and wither, but its base can remain intact, with enough foundational strength for a new, more durable tub (as soon our Biden stimmy hits, of course).

In a healthy society, the underlying base is not one entity, but many. Toqueville called these “associations”; Burke called each of them a “little platoon.” We know them as voluntary institutions that don’t require a Social Security number at the door.

So, if I haven’t buried the lede too far under a pile of egocentric debris, I bring up my home improvement travails to make a larger point about contemporary civil society. Growing institutional distrust is an old story. The familiar scene: Congress is full of on-the-make phonies who, when they aren’t gassing in front of a camera, endeavor to squeeze a little more out of taxpayers to pad their pockets; the media lies and manipulates facts to push narrative agendas; Wall Street exists to shift around the digital integers that flow from a font of ex nihilo credit. The government-press-banking nexus is so thoroughly rotted through with self interest that few living Americans bat an eye when, say, a popular governor bumps his TV anchor brother to the top of the list for medical treatment during a pandemic. The intelligentsia retreats into higher elite echelons; corruption grows like lichen in gilded bureaucratic halls; the left-behind proles are isolated into a class the Greeks called res idiotica—same as it ever was.

But two of America’s oldest, most treasured institutions have now descended into the contentious mire of puerile political scrapping. Major League Baseball is moving its All-Star Game to Denver after canceling its original venue in Atlanta. The given reason: Georgia’s recent passage of an omnibus election regulation bill. The law has been painted as Jim Crow’s second coming despite its expansion of voting times and locations compared to pre-pandemic years. The choice in alternative location is also a quandary: Colorado has, in some ways, more stringent rules on voting than Georgia, including signature verification for mail-in ballots. The Washington Post, in a rare move of journalistic diligence, corrected President Biden after he likened the election law to renascent Bull Connorism.

There’s also the equitable hiccup in transposing the Midsummer Classic from a black majority metro to a conurbation composed of only 8% of African Americans. But—BUT!—Colorado enjoys the lordship of the country’s first openly homosexual governor. All put-upon minority identities are equal, but some are more equal than others.

This isn’t the first instance that America’s Favorite Pastime has waded into the tangled and fraught history of race relations. But it’s gross incongruence to compare putting Jackie Robinson on the plate to innocuous election legislation. The MLB now gets to face the flipside of socially conscious capitalism: its conservative fanbase isn’t pleased by the League’s liberal pandering. The unnecessary injection of blue partisanship is tainting what was once a reliable bastion of nonpolitical patriotism.

The second episode of undue politicization comes from the U.S. military. While the armed forces are technically a branch of the government, they have consistently retained the highest level of institutional trust twenty years running. The unwavering support has historically come from Republicans. But that may be changing, thanks to a tiff between top brass and the top-rated Fox News host.

When Tucker Carlson criticized President Biden’s praise of “maternity flight suits” for aviatrixes, the Pentagon took the unprecedented step of reproving the primetime anchor, trading barbs with a civilian concerned that “pregnant women are going to fight our wars.” Meanwhile, the longest conflict in U.S. history shows no end of stopping in Afghanistan. The Taliban is resurgent. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is reportedly reconsidering the negotiated extraction date of May 1st. And while he’s prevaricating over removing our troops from an unwinnable war, Sec. Austin has no qualms with his ribboned underlings praising Black Lives Matter and smearing critics as racists.

In both cases, the leap into the muck of political mudslinging isn’t an issue because the MLB and the Pentagon took firmly leftist stances. It’s unfortunate that a position was chosen at all, that Commissioner Rob Manfred and Secretary Lloyd Austin deemed it appropriate to adopt partisan soundbites as unimpeachable moral strictures.

Introducing woke divisiveness where none existed before doesn’t just turn off those on the right. It encourages a siege mentality where it feels like once-unifying institutions are no longer welcoming. And the slow creep of progressive inculcation isn’t limited to the baseball diamond or the battlefield. Churches of all denominations are making an idol of anti-racism. Social media platforms are squeezing the voice box of conservatives with draconian prohibitions based on arbitrary moderation. Woke capital is opting for liberal ataboys over Republican market share. Politics increasingly strains family ties. Kids can’t play with Mr. Potato Head without reconsidering his gender, and thus becoming unwitting participants in culture war.

“We do not often remind ourselves that the most powerful resources of democracy lie in the cultural allegiances of citizens,” Robert Nisbet wrote, “and that these allegiances are nourished psychologically in the smaller, internal areas of family, local community, and association.”

Back to my backyard: were my deck to be a microcosm of America’s fraying social trust, the base and piles supporting our deteriorated hot tub would be just as putrescent. The great middle class mass of unwoke Americans are feeling more and more like Diogenes, searching the weal fruitlessly for something honest and true that hasn’t been adulterated by political sanctimony.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to look up a decking contractor who won’t check my library for White Fragility before covering the gap left by our corroded soak bin. Ah, first world problems amidst decadent dissolution. What could be more American?

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