Sam Smith – Lacking in our obsession with people Like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis is much consideration of why they became so important. A major factor in this is a media that tends to ignore significant cultural changes in favor of covering power, individuals who benefit from it, and institutions rather than social change.
I was reminded of this recently when MSNBC ran a show that began with the Alec Baldwin story first while reaching the national debt ceiling came in only third.
Because this reflects such a huge cultural change in our society, it is hard to lay specific blame but it is clear that a number of factors have played an important role. For example:
· Our schools are deemphasizing such cultural skills as understanding civics and democracy, learning cooperation, ethics and mediation, and understanding the multicultural nature of society. Instead, education has been increasingly focused on success and developing competitive skills. Kids are taught how to exercise power rather communal ability. And as Icivics points out, “Lincoln warned in 1838 that if America failed to prioritize fundamental civic education we would be risking national self-destruction,”
· At universities, majors in humanities degrees have declined. One study of 36 countries found that this was true in 24 of them, with declines between 2015 and 2018 of 5-11%. As one example, the Cornell Diplomat reports that at Harvard more than half of incoming humanities majors ultimately transition to other fields before graduation. A 2019 study found that 40% of humaniites and social science grads would change their major if they were to attend university again.
· Churches, historically major guardians of decency and ethics and now among the last places where such values are even promoted, had a large decline. As The Gospel Coalition reported: “For the first time in 80 years of surveys, Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below 50 percent. A survey by Gallup finds that in 2020, 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, down from 50 percent in 2018 and 70 percent in 1999.”
· Beginning with television and later the Internet, American values became the ownership not of churches, schools and civic organizations but of media. And show business, strongly promoted on TV, replaced the Bible, Constitution and literature as sources of values. It is not accidental that two of the worst presidents of the past century – Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan – were beneficiaries of this shift. Even corruption changed from individuals who pragmatically served communities they represented while wheeling and dealing on the side, to Trump-like figures who felt no need to care for anyone any time.
· The other huge media change was in news. Notes Northwestern Now, “Between the pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022, more than 360 newspapers closed, the report by Medill’s Local News Initiative found. Since 2005, the country has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers and is on track to lose a third by 2025”. Major media, meanwhile, increasingly ignored the moral in favor of the powerful. Cultural changes that affected millions could be ignored in favor of what those individuals at the top were up to.
Of course, this massive shift in priorities, values and decency was not reported by the major media and so we have become a drastically different country without really understanding what has happened. There is no easy solution to this, but if the remaining decent of our land – likely found in schools, churches, groups, alternative media and responsible businesses – could come together and attempt to redefine what America is about, it might be a good start.