The Great Unraveling: Your Thoughts

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I’ve written a lot about the loss of faith in American institutions, particularly government. From the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina to the Flint water crisis and scores of institutional failures in between, I’ve railed against the corrupt Republican-Democratic duopoly. Long before Donald Trump became a combed-over reflection of angry voters and Bernie Sanders galvanized revolutionary liberals, I predicted a populist revolt.

Now that it’s here, readers are reminding me that the Trump and Sanders phenomena are not the end result of voter unrest. They represent merely the beginning of a great unraveling. Many Americans have not just lost faith in the political system; they’re losing faith in the idea that they can ever trust again. This email is from a Michigan attorney who works for the federal government:

I have long believed in our governmental institutions. In an era where some people want to destroy government agencies with a hatchet, I've quietly defended these institutions as necessary and worthy of support and reform. But now? How can anyone have any modicum of faith in these institutions? In democracy?

I grew up in Grand Blanc, Michigan, where the population is affluent enough, and white enough, to avoid being poisoned. It's shameful for me to think about how the golf course my parents live on gets cleaner water than the children a few miles up I-75. Periodically, I'll read something in the news about the Flint water crisis that will sicken me so much, that I feel I must make a large financial donation to the cause. I've done that three times so far, and will probably be compelled to do so again soon.

Today, I sat in the waiting room of an auto repair shop, waiting for a mechanic to fix the damage done by the Michigan legislature’s unwillingness to fund road repairs. To pass the time, I listened to the most recent congressional testimony. The thing that stood out to me the most was the “circular-Nuremberg-defense” between [Gov. Rick] Snyder and [EPA director Gina] McCarthy. Apparently, leadership comes full circle. The other thing I noticed was that, even if a person was originally oblivious to which political party each congressman belonged to, they could figure it out by the first question that they asked. I guess it's true that the two parties are living in alternate universes.

I've always been a cautions optimist. But now …

I replied to his email: “Any thoughts on our way out of this? Is there hope in the next generation? Are there bold policy fixes?” I included a link to this column suggesting that, beyond recrimination, political leaders could find in Flint the seeds of broader government reforms that allow for crowd sourcing of crises and solutions. He replied:

A couple years ago, I legitimately thought Flint could have had a Detroit-style revival. Young professionals, loft apartments, gluten-free artisan everything. I really doubt that’ll ever happen. Call me a cynic, but Flint’s best case scenario is now just getting back to its pre-lead-poisoning past. If Flint is able to maintain anything close to its current population (even if it’s mostly people who are too poor or too stubborn to leave), that’ll be a huge victory. Pretty depressing aspirations, right?

As far as larger policy fixes, it would be nice if both parties developed a legitimate interest in actually improving government. What we have now is Republicans wanting to kill government with a chainsaw, and Democrats just trying to stop them, but not seeking reform. It would be nice if Republicans made their peace with the existence of government regulations, and Democrats worked with them to maintain a constant sense of vigilance and oversight. That would be how government should ideally work. But it’s hard to focus on clearing out the rats when someone else is trying to burn down the entire building.

I couldn’t agree more with this reader. Note the lack of equivalence in his critique; he clearly sympathizes more with Democrats than Republicans. And yet, unlike most professional liberals and conservatives in both politics and the media, he’s holding his party to the highest standard.

Where does this all lead? The reader isn’t hopeful:

Best case scenario: The funding comes in and Flint slowly crawls its way back to being one of Michigan's struggling medium-sized cities. Government learns a bit of a lesson.

Worst case scenario: Once the political fervor subsides, Flint gets forgotten and rapidly crumbles. Then, sometime in a couple years, you get to write an article about Flint that has to include a lengthy introduction reminding readers of where Flint is and what happened there.

Will Flint get its money? Will the duopoly reform government? Or is the United States circling the drain? Let me know what you think. More importantly, let me know what you’re doing to force disruption upon the status quo. I’m on email and Twitter.