All That Matters Is the Mission

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I have always been a big believer in the importance of institutions. I like how institutions have the potential to mitigate the worst of our selfish individual impulses and instead organize us around a collective, shared set of values.

This is why I am distressed to realize that I no longer believe our institutions are capable of meeting the moment.

I am not alone. In the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the mainstream part of the Democratic Party turned to a public message of how it was now more important than ever to vote in this fall’s midterm elections.

Millions of Democratic voters, including a majority of young people, heard that call and replied, “Why bother?”

I am not young, but I cannot deny feeling a similar sentiment. Voting is obviously necessary, but it has clearly not been sufficient. As Edward Ongeweso Jr. argues, “We can’t save democracy just by voting.”

The lack of belief in the power of the presidency to make change is nothing new. As I observed in the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, two-thirds of voters didn’t believe that he possessed the qualifications or temperament to be president (they were correct).

Unfortunately, 20 percent of those people voted for him anyway.

Trump, recognizing that healthy institutions were a significant barrier to him retaining power, went about wrecking as many of them as he could. In that postelection post, I said that I thought we were really going to need our institutions, and I was right, but it’s clear they just barely held.

As we’ve seen in the congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection, a handful of bureaucrats and elected officials managed to thwart Trump’s plans, but some of them say they would still vote for Donald Trump in 2024.

Are the young people still saying “WTF”? Because that’s a total WTF.

President Biden’s approval rating at this point is below even Donald Trump’s, and it is no mystery why. The people who elected him to the office are disappointed in what’s happened since, with over 90 percent of younger voters saying that they’d prefer a different candidate in 2024.

(The silver lining politicswise is that over 90 percent say they would still vote for Biden if he was the nominee.)

While the buck always stops at the top, I think what we’re witnessing is not so much the failure of Joe Biden the president, but simply the consequences of the ongoing degradation of our most important institutions. For example, one of the reasons the Biden administration has been slow to roll out executive branch responses is their fear that the Supreme Court as currently constituted will strike them down. When the judicial branch can nullify the actions of the executive branch, we’ve lost any true balance of powers, an essential component of a functioning democracy.

That the Biden administration is willing to defer to a Supreme Court that was illegitimately installed and is legislating right-wing views (including sanctioned school prayer) is sort of perfect illustration of what I call “institutional awe,” the belief that the institution is essentially sacrosanct and that any change which will alter the shape and scope of the institution in a sudden way is an assault on the institution itself, e.g., expanding the number of Supreme Court justices is somehow an assault on the court.

But here’s the thing—institutions that no longer fulfill the substantive mission of the institution do not deserve our respect or our awe. The changes that have resulted in the weakening of our institutions may have happened slowly over decades, but that doesn’t somehow make them more just than proposed actions that would restore those institutions to their previous missions.

In fact, those of us who believe in the power of institutions have a responsibility to act to bring the operations of the institutional mission back in line with the underlying values and purpose of the institution.

Things really do seem a little desperate. Sam Adler-Bell has been watching (or rather not watching) those Jan. 6 hearings and observes, “The committee’s champions frequently claim that the survival of our democracy is at stake in these proceedings. So why does it feel like a postmortem?”

Why indeed? What is the benefit of maintaining faith in institutions that have repeatedly demonstrated an inability to address the problems that come before them? Congress had two chances to impeach and convict Donald Trump, and yet Republican partisans—the same partisans who would claim that expanding the Supreme Court would be an unconscionable violation of political norms—refused to do what they knew was correct.

I think there are two causes here. One is that the U.S. Congress is filled with people interested not in service or the preservation of an institution but in advancing their own aims for power and attention, and I’m not just talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene here.

Writing in his newly released book, Thank You For Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, Mark Leibovich writes of Senator Lindsey Graham to answer the question about how he went from dedicated Trump critic to loyal Trump crony. Graham said it was in order to stay personally relevant: “I have never been called this much by a president in my life,” he told Leibovich.

As gross as this kind of attitude may seem, I actually think it is a lesser problem to what Michael Tomasky puts his finger on, writing at The New Republic, saying that, essentially, Republicans have “declared war on the public good.” The long campaign to privatize as much of American lives as possible hatched just before the dawn of the Reagan administration has reached a key inflection point, as the 40-plus-year assault on institutions has come for public education, libraries and, yes, higher education.

The lack of belief in institutions to do things that benefit the institutional stakeholders is a significant threat not just to those institutions, but to democracy itself.

At times, this makes me feel chagrined about how stridently critical I have been—and let’s face it, will continue to be—of our system of higher education.

I get angry emails when I write about how tenure is already dead, claiming that I must want to exact some kind of revenge on those who were lucky enough to secure those positions. But the opposite is true. I want to see all faculty have the opportunity to labor under the conditions that allow them to do their best work, and unfortunately, what tenure has become is now a barrier to that goal.

I have no love for the institutions of higher education, but I have a pathologically deep faith in the worthiness of what those institutions claim to want to do: to advance the economic, social and intellectual abilities of those who intersect with the institution.

Bottom line, I believe our higher education institutions have largely been failing the stakeholders they’ve been meant to serve, and staying quiet about that helps no one.

Adler-Bell quotes the writer and activist Astra Taylor writing about democracy in general: “Democracy may not exist, yet it still manages to disappoint.” For those who have not experienced democracy in tangible ways, it is hard to muster the faith necessary to maintain democracy. Being told how important it is to vote when voting appears to have no impact on your material well-being regardless of who in office is a hollow message.[1] This of course plays into the hands of the overtly antidemocratic movement, but that’s all part of their larger point.

For certain something similar is happening at many of our higher education institutions, despite the best hopes and best efforts of those who labor within them. We’re well past the time when a true renewal of these institutions has become necessary.

But at some point, you have to act in ways that will, no doubt, upend the status quo operations of the institution.

Will this carry risk? Of course, but the alternative is to reach a state where there is no chance of reclaiming the mission we claim to believe in.

Adler-Bell has this to say about democracy, but it can easily apply to higher education institutions as well: “If, as I suspect, we can save democracy only by practicing it, we may need to take Taylor’s paradox to heart and accept that what we are fighting to defend is something that has never existed—something that, through our collective activity, is still struggling to be born.”

Put another way, you can’t destroy what does not actually exist, and quite possibly has never existed, at least for the vast majority of people seeking the benefits of the institution.

All that matters is the mission.


[1] Please know, I have voted in 98 percent of the elections for which I’ve been eligible since 1988, including primaries, states and local elections, in addition to the biggie federal contests. I love the act of voting and have been known to even get a little misty-eyed when I submit my ballot. I will continue to vote, but I will not accept that voting is sufficient.

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