Most Individuals Are Good People with Good Intentions. Is That Good Enough?
Most of us mean well and try to do the right thing in our daily lives. That calls for more radical thinking, not less.
In the fall of 2017, after spending the better part of a decade working on or around Capitol Hill, I left politics and entered a different line of work in a different culture on a different continent. In making this professional transition from public to private sector, from the business of government to the business of business (a fairly common transition for creatures of the system like me), I thought my political perspective would shift further toward that doctrinaire beliefs in trade-offs and tough choices that I adopted and espoused as a serious and responsible progressive.
Much to my surprise, it didn’t. In fact, my worldview has moved entirely in the opposite direction. As this series reflects, I’ve begun to rethink many of the rules I’d previously accepted. I’ve begun to wonder where they came from and why I absorbed them so seamlessly. I’ve begun to doubt whether it’s possible to overcome the most fundamental challenges facing the United States today with the same ways of thinking that helped create them in the first place.
These challenges can feel insurmountable. Our economy works better and better for a lucky few, and worse and worse for everyone else. Our planet continues to break records for how quickly and how irreversibly it’s succumbing to the carbon and pollution we pump into it, while we continue to break records for how quickly and how irreversibly we’re consuming it. Meanwhile, the American political system is increasingly broken and dysfunctional, moving closer toward white minority rule with every election. We’re trending in the direction of a fledgling autocracy rife with corruption, sustained by tax cuts and government support for the rich, and propped up with divisive, bigoted appeals to racial resentments and xenophobic insecurities.
Given that trajectory, it’s no surprise that for a long time I found it preferable to reassure myself that our problems, from dysfunctional and demagogic politics to wealth and health disparities, from rising income inequality to declining social mobility, are short-term and surface-level, rather than structural or systemic. Depending on the day, I might have managed to convince myself that many of our present woes can be resolved at the ballot box in November. (And, to be clear, there’s zero doubt that defeating Donald Trump is the most important item on America’s 2020 political to-do list.)
Yet while the Trump presidency has exposed and accelerated the systemic shortcomings I’ve discussed in this series, neither Trump nor his administration is the source of the problem. The Trump era, in all its shameless corruption and racist pandering, is just the most obscene manifestation of trends in the Republican party and in broader American society that have been underway for decades. From the erosion of voting rights and access to democracy, to the tidal waves of money in politics and growing corporate determination of public policy, to the unapologetic destruction of governing norms that has characterized the careers of congressional leaders like Mitch McConnell, these trends won’t be reversed with one election.
That’s why, on other days, I might have preferred to dull my anxieties about the future with soothing assumptions about the system of the present. We’re living in an age of unprecedented human prosperity, so surely all we need to do is tweak a few regulations here or implement a new framework there, right?
Long before the Trump administration’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus crisis upended our national trajectory, those self-assurances were starting to ring pretty hollow. The meritocratic class is deeply entrenched. The scam of false choices is accepted as fact. Thanks to relentless obstruction, funding cuts, and the success of the campaign to undermine it, the federal government is increasingly dysfunctional, treated as a problem to be solved rather than a solver of problems.
Even so, in my journeys through various segments of “the system,” so many of the people I’ve encountered — corporate types, academics, entrepreneurs, managers, nonprofit workers, artists, innovators, you name it — mean well. Not all of them, but a lot of them. They care about climate change. They’re worried about political uncertainty. They’re appalled by rises in homelessness and child poverty. They know that soaring income inequality is neither moral nor sustainable. They want their country to be more equal. They want more people to have access to health care. They want other people’s kids to be able to go to college. They want to do the right thing in their daily lives, and they often do.
That was basically my experience in government, too, at least on an individual level. When I worked in DC, I got along with a lot of Republican staffers and Democratic staffers, with Republican members and Democratic members, with advocates for medical research funding and lobbyists for big pharmaceutical companies. I didn’t always probe too deeply on sensitive political topics (and surely in some cases that that lack of probing was why we got along), but I’m willing to bet that even if we disagreed on certain policies, we could at least build a human relationship through common values, shared experiences, and mutual goals for ourselves and the people we cared about.
You might be thinking, then, that I’m about to make the type of argument we often hear from people (like me) for whom the system has worked pretty well: that we simply need to restore civility to Washington so Republicans and Democrats can unite around shared values and work out their disagreements over cigars.
But this is no nostalgic cry for the supposed glory days of American politics where compromise and pragmatism reigned and the middle class thrived and democracy and capitalism “worked” the way they were supposed to. Despite any superficial civility, the stability of that system was explicitly premised on racism and segregation. That era was decidedly uncivil, and the middle class decidedly inaccessible, for those whom law and culture deemed unwelcome. Today’s challenges would be far less daunting if solving them were simply a matter of returning to the mythical old days, when right and wrong were clear and solving problems meant rooting out the bad guys and getting the good guys in a room together to iron out their differences.
As has often been the case in our history, the fundamental issue isn’t just malevolent forces or an inability to find common ground or an unwillingness to compromise. The fundamental challenge lies in the fact that our political and economic systems are still broken even though most people see that brokenness clearly. Even though they have good intentions. Even though they usually try to do the right thing in their daily lives.
How is it that so many people mean so well, and are so aware that the status quo is unsustainable, and yet so many aspects of our political and economic systems remain broken and seem to be getting worse? How can it be that most Americans going about their day-to-day lives are working hard and trying to do the right thing, and yet those at the top do better and better while everyone else falls further behind?
This is, of course, what makes it a systemic problem. And it calls for more radical thinking, not less. We need more radical thinking not in spite of good people with good intentions, but because of them. We need more radical thinking precisely because in their individual lives, many people already mean well and think they’re doing the right things. Even some of those at the top, whose behavior and decisions sustain a system that protects their wins and minimizes their losses. Even some of those who are thriving because of rules that have made life so difficult for so many others.
That said, not everyone means well. There are plenty of powerful people and organizations with truly selfish or malicious intent. Some of them have played an outsize role in creating the dysfunctional rules we adhere to today. We shouldn’t dismiss the fact that certain individuals (like McConnell) and certain organizations (like the Republican party, its propaganda TV network, and its well-funded supporters) bear enormous responsibility for creating this broken status quo.
Yes, some individuals and institutions violated the law to build the present system. Others just used their money and influence to change the law when it didn’t suit them. Or found workarounds to it. Or obstructed its enforcement. Or prevented it from keeping pace with a complex and rapidly evolving society. A great deal of harm has been done, and a great deal of money has been made, by people who know how to be on the wrong side of the spirit of the law but the right side of the letter. So, yes, without a doubt, American politics is replete with bad actors operating in bad faith.
Yet our broken political and economic systems weren’t singlehandedly built or sustained by malicious individuals or nefarious entities. The behaviors and decisions that got us here are not part of a conspiracy. The system has been corrupted, but the people perpetuating the corruption are rarely guilty of the brazen, Rudy-goes-to-Ukraine type of behavior. More often than not, they are responding to incentives and looking out for themselves and people they know. That’s what human beings do.
Despite today’s headlines, I still choose to believe that the world is generally composed of well-meaning individuals. That means, for better or for worse (and for a lot of people, it’s worse), that we are where we are in spite of the fact that most people, most of the time, have good intentions.
Even if most of us genuinely want our country to be more equal, in other words, the system as it is means well-off families and successful businesses won’t be asked to pay more in taxes to achieve it. Even if we really do want more people to have access to health care, the system as it is already gives us good health insurance through our employers. Even if we mean what we say about wanting other people’s children to be able to go to college, the existing perks of legacy admissions and competitively low acceptance rates and multi-billion-dollar endowments have already helped us and will probably help our kids.
Even if we want people sleeping outside the subway station to be able to afford a home, the system as it is means we can make sure that home doesn’t get built in our backyard. Even if we don’t believe our employer is willing to do the right thing for our community or our country, the system tells us that it’s fine to keep the high-paying job that gives us good benefits and a sense of professional satisfaction. Even if we believe intuitively that the government has an obligation to help struggling families find a place to live or support someone facing medical bankruptcy or prepare the nation’s public health infrastructure for a global pandemic, the system also tells us that we simply can’t afford it. That we can only do so much. That we need to lower our expectations. That what happens to other people isn’t our fault.
Well-meaning individuals alone do not make a healthy collective. As human history shows over and over and over again, good people can create and sustain broken systems. Every one of us can mean well and care about people left behind and intend to help out those who are struggling. We can genuinely, sincerely feel these things, and nothing will change. The grooves of “the way things are” are too deeply etched in the inertia of global supply chains and political power and capital flows and short-term thinking and self-perpetuating networks of legacies and connections and friends of friends.
A few months ago, following Donald Trump’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a New York Times headline summed up succinctly how much change the system is capable of making on its own. Despite any personal misgivings they feel — and some of those misgivings, I believe, are authentic — “C.E.O.s have come to accept the president, in spite of his populist views and governance-by-Twitter style,” the headline read. “Tax cuts and a record stock market speak volumes.”
Of course they do. “More than 60 percent of the tax savings” from Trump’s tax cut, NPR reported in December, “went to people in the top 20 percent of the income ladder.” Meanwhile, as Patricia Cohen has noted in The New York Times, “84 percent of all stocks owned by Americans belong to the wealthiest 10 percent of households.” Tax cuts and a record stock market speak volumes directly to their intended audience. The people and institutions for whom the system works can hear shrinking taxes and growing markets loud and clear — so loud and clear, in fact, that they can choose not to hear the sounds of racist travel bans or human rights abuses on the southern border.
That is the inertia of the system. Even if most people mean well, even if they have good intentions, there’s too much invested in the status quo, and too many people comfortable with the way things are, for meaningful and systemic change to bubble up — or trickle down — on its own.
This article is the sixth in an eight-part series. Part seven will be published in the coming weeks.