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A New Day for the World?

David Brooks highlights the dramatic societal shift we are experiencing. His intervention from Rimini, August 22, 2020

I’ve been helped over the past five months by a book that the great Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote in 1981 called The Politics of Disharmony. In it he says that history moves forward through a series of moral convulsions, and in the U.S. these happen every sixty years or so. In 1770, we had the revolutionary moment. In the 1830s, we had a populist uprising. In the 1890s, we had a progressive movement. In the 1960s, we had the counter culture, the New Left, the Civil Rights movement, and in 1981, he predicted that in about 2020, America would probably have another moral convulsion, and of course he was right, and of course it's not just America; the entire world is having a moral convulsion.


And in moments of moral convulsion there's great indignation at the status quo. There's a contempt for established power. There's a loss of faith in institutions and particularly in government. A new highly moral generation rises up to the scene and wants to take control. You have new communications technologies that allow people who are partly outside the system to get into the system, and in these moral convulsions, things change dramatically. It’s not just that ideas change or politics change, but the whole frame of reference, the whole consciousness of society is transformed, and I think we're in the middle of that, and we're in the middle of a culture that really was dominated by the Baby Boomers. A culture of individualism is being replaced by a culture of lack of safety and a response to lack of safety.

The story I would tell would begin in 1968, and this is true in Europe and in the United States. In many places around the world, there was a general sense that the culture was too confining, that it was too static, and that it was too oppressive, and the Baby Boomer generation rose up in a spirit of emancipation, of liberation, of individualism, and that individualism had a right-wing version which was Margaret Thatcher, economic liberalism, and it had a left-wing version which was the lifestyle individualism, the free-to-live-any-lifestyle-you-wanted, and that moral culture, moral ecology started in the 60s, but it really peaked in the 1990s.

I was living in Brussels then and covering the end of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany and the end of Apartheid, and it was a great moment of what seemed to be the triumph of liberalism; democratic capitalism seemed to have triumphed. There was a great theme of convergence—the Maastricht Treaty, Germany coming together, Europe coming together, East and West coming together. We thought China was becoming more democratic.


And in retrospect that great moment of the end of history--1989, 1991, 1993--was in some sense a triumph of something, but also a moment of naive globalization. We were naive to think that prosperity would be evenly shared in a global economy. We were naive to think that people would welcome the intermingling of lots of different races of people in their country without protest. We were naive about a culture of individualism without a sense of moral cohesion. We were naive in Europe to think that there was one single European conversation. And finally, over the decades, over twenty years, people had had enough. We entered this moment of moral convulsion which is a global moment, and I would say the opening salvo was in Spain when the Indignados protested against their own government. Their mantra was you do not represent us, and that turned out to be the cry of the 2010s, and we had entered another moment of moral convulsion, and what happens in a moment of moral convulsion is a loss of faith, more specifically a loss of trust, a loss of trusted institutions.

In almost every country around the world, people trust their government less now than they did before. In the United States we have the unique disadvantage that we not only trust our government less--only nineteen percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing--we trust each other less. A generation ago sixty percent of Americans thought that they could trust each other, their neighbors. Now only thirty-three percent.

There are three groups who are most distrusting in America, and they're most distrusting because they've been the most poorly treated. Trust is a reflection of experience. Trust flows from untrustworthiness. When people are untrustworthy of you, you become untrusting, and that has happened in American society and maybe in other societies, and in our society three groups have high distrust and all of them for good reason. Black Americans have very low trust in neighbors, and that's because blacks have been treated poorly by their neighbors throughout the course of American history. The white working class has very low trust because they've lost out in the de-industrialized economy, and they are the backbone of the support for Donald Trump who is himself a product of distrust and a sower and creator of distrust. And then young people. If you're a Baby Boomer, you still have very high trust in your neighbors, but as you go down the age ladder, levels of distrust rise and, so when [you get to] Millennials and Generation Z, young people under thirty, only nineteen percent trust their neighbors. If you ask young adults, are most people selfish and out for themselves? Seventy percent say “yes,” and that is a reflection of their experience of living in this age of disappointment, and so we around the world have high distrust in government, and in the United States high distrust in each other. And once you get in a cycle of distrust, it tends to magnify itself.

In the United States, like elsewhere, we had failures of government. We had extraordinary failures of government. Almost every institution of society failed us in March when COVID hit. And COVID was not the beginning of this crisis. The earthquake had already happened. COVID was just a hurricane that hit in the middle of the earthquake, and so it didn't start any new trends; it just accelerated all the trends of convulsion that were already underway, and we learned that our government couldn't function, that our president couldn't function, but unlike some other societies-- and in other societies, as was said, the society was greater than the state--our society was not greater than the state; our society failed as much. We never shut down as other countries. After our humiliation we did not rally the way Italy did, and we are now in the midst of still high death, high infection. And then Joan hit.


June of 2020 for the United States and maybe elsewhere was a climactic moment where everything shifted. We went through five big crises at once. One, we had the pandemic; two, we had massive unemployment, economic recession; third, we had the killing of George Floyd and a racial reckoning like we'd never seen before; fourth; we had a political realignment as political views shifted all the way over to the Democratic part; and fifth we had a rising generation. Five epic things happening all at once. Each one alone would have been historic, but they all happened all at once, and that's moral convulsions: things happen all at once.

It takes this kind of shock and trauma to the system to shake a culture. We can already see cultural shift and basically a rejection of the culture of the baby boomer generation, a rejection of individualism, a rejection of convergence, a rejection of that sense of naive globalization, and a shift in people's values, a shift from openness to safety. Make me safe. Make me economically safe, make my health safe, make my political system safe. So we move from high tolerance for risk to a deep desire for security.


Second, we move from a high emphasis on personal achievement, a meritocracy where some people rise far above others, to a tremendous emphasis on equality. There's a great intolerance of any kind of inequality right now, whether it's income inequality, status income equality, hierarchies and organizations. People want to be equal.


Third, from self to society. The boomers thought themselves emancipated. “I am alone.” Now people see themselves as members of a group. Either "I’m an American," "I’m white," "I’m Asian." "I’m part of an economic class." It used to be “don't label me”; now it's “label me.” I speak to you as a _____.


Finally, from global to local. We had a period of globalization when it seemed we were going to be networked individuals in a global system. Government and power follow trust and these days trust is local, and therefore local authorities and local power have much more trust and therefore much more emphasis.


The days of liberalism when we had open debates are in danger because people want conformity. They want intellectual safety. They don't want here as many foreign views, and so this is going to be a shift in politics, probably in the U.S., but more importantly, I think, globally, it's a shift in culture from the individualism and convergence of the baby boomers to a high awareness of risk and a desire for order and safety which many people and especially young people feel is missing.

So, thanks very much for your attention.

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