Marking a Milestone Amidst Deep Disquietude

            The Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) will celebrate its tenth anniversary on July 1, 2016. That milestone is notable for its own sake, but also because VTIPG has generally thrived in an often inauspicious environment. For these past 10 years, many Institute faculty and affiliated faculty and staff, college and university leaders and others have worked diligently to realize VTIPG’s broad mission to explore policy and governance concerns at all scales of analysis. We have garnered nearly $22 million in grants and contracts during this period, and seen 27 Institute-affiliated Ph.D. students and 24 Master’s degree students complete their work. At least three times that number of graduate students from multiple colleges and disciplines have shared their insights and often remarkable talents in our Community Voices program and our RE: Reflections and Explorations series. Indeed, that commentary series became the source for the Institute’s first published book under its own imprimatur earlier this year.

            We have also been privileged to work with faculty and staff from every college at the university and to have hosted several visiting scholars from India, Russia, China and South Korea. More, a wide array of guests and speakers, representing a diversity of perspectives, have shared their insights on democratic policy, processes and politics with Institute audiences. Those guests have included, among many others, two Gandhi Peace Prize winners, the director of a major health system and the current Director of the American Enterprise Institute. Withal, our primary focus has been to explore policies and concerns and their effects on the nation’s (and the globe’s) most vulnerable populations, including its poor, its drug addicted, its mentally ill, its children, its disabled and its veterans.

            It has been an exhilarating, productive and immensely rewarding journey to date, but as I write, American governance stands at a crossroads. For that reason, it seems appropriate not only to thank sincerely and deeply all of those who have worked to move VTIPG forward in its first decade, but also to focus on the major elements of the cultural, economic and social environment that are determining the character and possibilities of our nation’s current policy-making and governance and that have brought it to its present difficult pass.

            I outline a share of the trends shaping the United States political landscape in recent decades, with brief comments on each, below. Most are interrelated, and together they have wrought a major challenge to the sustainability of American self-governance and democratic politics, and have brought the U.S. to a moral crisis. I count the following trends as especially significant:

  • The continuing and rapid globalization of trade, transport and communications that have reshaped virtually every dimension of daily life in the United States. These massive shifts have caused widespread economic dislocation and change and have subjected the American economy to stiffened competition in almost every realm of production. Many industries, including a strong share of furniture production, textiles and appliance manufacturing, have relocated to other nations in recent decades seeking lower wage rates. Since these companies were concentrated in delimited geographies in the country, the impact of their loss has been acute for those communities that relied most deeply on them. Virginia’s Southside, for example, has been hit hard by globalization and its accompanying offshoring of many of that region’s previously regnant industries. The political challenge this rapid change has wrought is often manifest as anger and confusion among those citizens affected, since these shifts often have been both swift—typically occurring within the space of a single generation—and unsparing. Corporate leaders making the choices that have afflicted these swathes of the population have justified them as efforts to assure their firms’ shareholders higher profits or improved competitive position. But, however rationalized, they have left entire communities and their populations economically and socially bereft. Many Institute projects in our first decade have addressed first-hand the consequences for individuals and communities of the rapid onslaught of these changes.
  • The advent of neoliberalism as the nation’s dominant philosophy and frame for social organization and governance. Proponents of this view have long sought to maximize the role of markets in the nation’s political economy, to minimize the role of democratic institutions and to embrace unfettered individual choice and responsibility as the axiom for virtually all social, economic and political decision-making. This public philosophy’s trajectory to ascendancy paralleled Ronald Reagan’s rise to California’s governorship in 1966 and to the American presidency in 1981, but it antedated both of those events as an ideology, and was concisely captured in Reagan’s First Inaugural declaration that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This broad and ongoing trend has been accompanied by a hard right ideological turn in the nation’s Republican Party during the last several decades. Libertarians and Ayn Rand enthusiasts as well as neoliberals and Tea Party and evangelical Protestants aligned with the GOP now constitute its most significant voting blocs, and none welcomes compromise with others of different points-of-view, while all see government institutions as anathema to personal freedom (a perspective antithetical to democratic possibility) and unworthy of individual and social trust. Neoliberalism has also provided arguments for a continuing upward redistribution of wealth in society, even as Republican Party leaders espousing this philosophy have attacked trade unions and unionism as an undue brake on the energy and entrepreneurialism of capitalists in American society. The consequence of this inclination has been a rapid and continuing decline in the role of organized labor as a force in the American political economy. This trend has exacerbated the relative wage stagnation that high school or less educated workers have experienced since the early 1970s, since there is no economic or social counterweight to firms’ proclivity to maximize profits.
  • Neoliberalism is also recreating the American university (and many universities across the world) by redefining the forms of knowledge perceived as socially legitimate and by commodifying learning as that for which the market is perceived to have an immediate need. This trend, coupled with a continuing decline in state support for higher education, has placed enormous pressure on public universities and the research organizations within them, such as VTIPG, to produce “useful” research that aligns with short-term imperatives and market requirements. In the process, the broader roles that universities and social inquiry have long played in the personal development of students as citizens, and in serving as “transmission belts of culture” are now under persistent political attack and in growing peril.
  • Continued and deepening consumerism. The nation has developed an entertainment and coarsely evanescent culture that frequently celebrates boorish and “famous” individuals simply because they are well-known. Consumerism enshrines and encourages personal preferences of the moment, which can and are expected to change quickly. Moreover, this orientation subtly reinforces individualism, and suggests implicitly and anti-democratically that only those with means are valuable assets in society. Consumerism has also eclipsed the role of the citizen for many Americans, who have come to see politics as they see all else: as transactional. Millions of Americans now believe they owe nothing to anyone beyond themselves, except as they may wish to define those obligations at any given moment. This view implies a society comprised of atomistic individuals with few or no ties to others unless those connections are perceived as immediately consumable or personally useful. The logical end result of this deepening trend, if it continues, will be a citizenry that no longer views the bonds amongst its members as elemental to democracy, and that is incapable of the empathy necessary to sustain such an understanding and the governance institutions that require it.
  • The growth of an ever more specialized and splintered broadcast and internet media. The revenues and ratings of these entities depend on “eyeballs or ears,” and their purveyors therefore continually search for ways to engage fickle and impatient consumers whose average attention spans have declined markedly in recent decades. In many cases, including the rise of the conservative entertainment industry, this has led to persistent anti-government bombast aimed at ensuring that listeners and viewers remain outraged and therefore tuned in, whether or not those claims bear any relationship to reality.
  • The rapid decline in citizens’ belief in government efficacy at all levels, leading to a continued and widespread deterioration in voter political awareness, engagement and understanding. The result is a deepening crisis of legitimacy in our country’s governance institutions, which are the target of daily and often cynical and misleading claims by neoliberal marketization advocates.
  • The rise of the "campaign consultant” industry, whose reason for existence and lone measure of success is candidate victory. The growth of this profession has created a new form of electoral politics in which, under these individuals’ guidance, those running for office ceaselessly position themselves with specific segments of voters, guided by the mantra that only winning matters. Political candidates and their views are now incessantly “spun” by their “handlers” for electoral gain amidst relentless polling and focus group meetings aimed at eliciting voter preferences. The result has been ever more carefully crafted and increasingly cynically derived position statements and political advertisements among candidates and office holders alike that have spawned an equally contemptuous response from many citizens. The legitimacy of governance comes the cropper in this sad game.

            Taken together, these trends have created a polity whose distribution of wealth is now the most skewed in favor of the most-wealthy individuals (those in the top 1 percent of the nation’s income distribution) that it has been in 100 years. Globalization and neoliberalism have together created a climate of fear of social and economic dislocation and relative decline among millions of citizens. These individuals have been encouraged by many political leaders to blame government and self-governance for their situations, and millions have done so. Meanwhile, those officials pressing this claim have simultaneously and ironically supported policies that have exacerbated the social and economic conditions of these citizens by refusing to use government in meaningful ways to assist them as they confront changing social and economic realities. More, those same leaders continue to call for reduced regulation of capitalists, despite the fact that just such action played a critical role in creating the conditions that resulted in the deep financial crisis of 2008. Indeed, on purely ideological grounds, Republicans continue to seek to remove all of the efforts put in place following that Great Recession to regulate the banking and financial sector more effectively to prevent future catastrophes.

            All of these developments suggest a polity in political crisis, and our society may be fairly so described. That fact is symbolized by the imminent nomination for the Presidency by the Republican party of an unqualified race-baiting and nativist demagogue. Should Donald Trump win the presidency in November 2016, the United States will follow several European and many East-Asian nations into de facto authoritarianism. This crisis is as much moral as economic or political. That is, the coming general election is hardly simply a choice of candidates on purely partisan grounds. It is instead shaping up as as a test of whether the American people are interested any longer in governing themselves under the rule of law.

            For this profound reason, it is surely an important time to be a student of democratic politics and to work with colleagues also dedicated to such concerns. The nation’s present difficult predicament and the trends underpinning it suggest afresh why research centers such as VTIPG are necessary in our culture, and how their efforts can illuminate both democratic possibility and fragility for the nation’s citizens. America now stands at a difficult juncture, and the nation needs vital minds, caring hearts and thoughtful students and scholars seeking to help it discern its course as its population charts its path forward. My fond hope on this milestone anniversary, with abiding thanks to all who have helped us come this far, is that the Institute continues to play a role in just that process for many years to come.