It requires no great acumen to see that the United States of America is deep into a moral, societal and political convulsion of gargantuan proportions. The question is: Is the US going through a pivot or is it in steep decline?
That is the question asked in an erudite 8,000-word essay published last week by conservative columnist David Brooks in The Atlantic magazine. His depressing answer – that America has become a broken, alienated society caught in a “distrust doom loop” – ought to serve as a warning for Israeli society too.
I fear that the lack of faith exhibited by Israelis in government institutions and in each other that so characterizes the coronavirus period could lead Israel down the path toward implosion of national identity that now characterizes America.
Regarding America, Brooks notes that every 60 years or so, the US has gone through convulsions in which people feel disgusted by the state of society. Moral indignation becomes widespread, and contempt for established power grows intense.
The current moment of US moral convulsion involves the collapse of government credibility and democratic legitimacy; a process in which, Brooks says, Donald Trump is a dangerous instrument, but neither the cause nor the end of the process.
Brooks traces the American cataclysm back to the social mindset embraced in the late 1960s. On the background of family stability, widespread prosperity and cultural cohesion, Baby Boomers then set about rebelling against authority, unshackling from institutions, and celebrating freedom, individualism and liberation. This led to a fracturing of society.
And today’s American youth, Brooks says, have grown up in a world in which institutions have failed, financial systems have collapsed, and families are fragile; a world where there is no financial, emotional, identity or social security. Therefore, “the worldview of Millennial and Gen Z generations is predicated on threat, not safety.” They feel betrayed.
And so, contempt for “insiders” rises, as does suspicion toward anybody who holds authority. People are drawn to populist leaders and demagogues who use the language of menace and threat, who tell group-versus-group power narratives. People seek closed, rigid ideological systems that give them a sense of security.
The current moment of US moral convulsion is marked by the rise of outsider groups such as white nationalists and young socialists who have upended all notions of Republican-Democratic consensus. One side of the divide has elected Donald Trump to office, and the other extreme has boosted to prominence Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Brooks fears that in these circumstances the US will not be able to navigate itself through renewal, “because the cancer of distrust has spread to very vital organ. The stench of national decline is in the air.”
Brooks argues, I think correctly, that social trust is an ultimate measure of the moral quality of a society – of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good. When people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses. And Brooks feels that the US has reached this point of collapse.
Brooks notes that when Americans were confronted with the extremely hard task of locking down for months to confront coronavirus, they couldn’t do it. Having lost any sense of common good and national ethos, social discipline disintegrated as well.
“Without any of the collective resources that would have made it easier – such as a dense network of community bonds to help hold each other accountable, and a history of trust that if you do the right thing, others will too – America failed.”
WHICH BRINGS ME to Israel. I am quite certain that Israeli society sustains a much more cohesive national ethos than does today’s American society; an ethos rooted in Jewish tradition, peoplehood and Zionism. In comparative perspective, Israel is the sane, stable democracy these days. America is a question mark.
But centrifugal forces are also beginning to tear Israel apart, as an age of distrust sweeps across this country.
Common values in Israel are eroding and are being replaced by a value system that places personal freedoms above all else. Partly because of this, Israeli society has been unable to muster enough social solidarity to support a system of across-the-board restrictions to defeat the coronavirus.
Instead, every sub-sector in this country – from protesters to those who want to pray in synagogues, and from small-business owners to big industrialists – angles for advantage over one another, each looking out for its narrow interests at the expense of others and to the detriment of the common good.
Nobody wants to be a “frier,” a sucker who takes upon himself more of the burden to fight corona than the “other guy.” No Israeli wants to take it on the chin first by canceling a hotel vacation or large family wedding when everybody else is not sufficiently self-restricting.
This is the moment when wise political, social and religious leaders should be stepping forward, speaking in harmonious tones about taking responsibility and shouldering the burden; about going beyond the letter of the law in careful adherence to coronavirus restrictions.
This is not the time to be barking in angry tones to cast blame and shirk responsibility, or to selfishly defy national guidelines that seek to protect the broad public.
This also is the time for rigorous enforcement and equal punishment of lawbreakers, whether they be hassidic grand rabbis or left-wing politicians who encourage their followers to attend pandemic-propagating events.
This is an ultimate test of societal health and trustworthiness. Woe be to this country if Israelis cannot overcome their partisan, ethnic and religious divisions to pull together to defeat the pandemic. We do not want to fall into America’s distrust doom loop.
The author is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, jiss.org.il. His personal site is davidmweinberg.com.