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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Living in a Post-Institution Age

As institutions failed the people, people failed the institutions.

November 10, 2016



Our nation’s founding was a confidence game, a bluff. Colonial Nate Silver wouldn’t have given more than a 30% probability of the revolutionaries to escape from the tyranny of the King. Their truths, our truths, were so great as to be “self-evident,” but they named them anyway: Life, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness.

The Founders set the greatest experiment in pluralism the world has ever known in motion with those values.

Of course, our independence was declared on an irony that sowed the seeds of our future and current troubles, “all men are created equal.” Not all men, though. We know that. Only white men. No women. We were falling short of our values from the moment of our founding.

But subsequent generations have helped push us closer to those awesome ideals, all of us created equal. 

I’ve asked myself today: Do we still believe in them?

Is belief sufficient?


I wonder if future generations will have a hard time believing that one of our most treasured fictional characters was a banker.

We all know It’s a Wonderful Life as a morality tale of the power of a single individual to affect the lives of others, but it’s interesting to note that the primary vehicle for George Bailey’s good works was the Bailey Building and Loan. It was only through the institution that the well-meaning George could help create a community  where the people of Bedford Falls own their own homes, live as neighbors, rather than being consigned to the immiserating Pottersville.

In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, there’s a lot of different things to try to make sense of[1], but I find myself thinking about the importance of institutions, and the role our broken institutions played in the outcome.

At their best, institutions rely on individuals to put our shared values at work without favor for one group over another.

They are places of opportunity, communities.


In 1971, my mother, and three other women who were done having children, but were still tasked with raising the ones they already had got it in their heads that their town (Northbrook, IL) needed a bookstore.

They went to the local bank, asked for and received a small business loan (co-signed by their working husbands, of course), and started the Book Bin. Over the years it faced many threats: Crown books (a discount chain), Barnes & Noble, and now Amazon.

The laws of competition say they should’ve been wiped out even before my mother sold her stake in 1992. They’ve never had the widest selection or the lowest prices, but for better than 45 years, the people of Northbrook seem to agree that their town should have a bookstore.

I was literally raised inside that institution. Maybe that’s why I believe in them.

I know their power.


When institutions no longer fulfill their community mission, there’s always blame to go around. The mortgage crisis, for example, was facilitated by lax to non-existent government regulation.

The Republican Party has explicitly refused to govern during the entirety of the Obama administration, essentially breaking government as in institution. Though, we also have to acknowledge Bill Clinton’s embrace of neo-liberalism, which left laborers tied to a party that worked less and less in their interests, which resulted in mass alienation. Clinton’s stance was not principled, but explicitly electoral.

And what to say about the media? It feels like a chicken/egg situation. Our mass media runs on eyeballs, clicks, and views. Whatever people gravitate towards is what gets covered, so it gets covered more, no matter how trivial.

But attention is not truth, and in realm of social media fabrications stand alongside reality, with no indication of which is which. Add in that most our social media feeds are de facto segregated spaces, and you start to wonder, how can we trust any of it?

That said, there was plenty of real journalism – in the pursuit of truth sense – happening during the election. But none of it matters when sufficient portions of the electorate don’t value or don’t believe in “truth.”

One of the institutions some of Donald Trump’s supporters apparently don’t believe in is the presidency itself.

There was a sizable chunk of Trump supporters who hope he's lying about his proposals.

And according to exit polls, 63% of voters didn’t believe Donald Trump has, “the temperament to serve effectively as president.” Twenty-percent of those people pulled the lever for Donald Trump anyway.


The election of Donald Trump is at least a symptom, if not a consequence of the collapse of our most meaningful institutions.

It was once our institutions that helped bind us together, neighborhood schools, neighborhood banks, the local paper, a bookstore. We experienced the value of these things and gave them our support in return.

There is no such thing as a “neighborhood bank” anymore. Banks make money not by safeguarding our money, investing it carefully and giving us our share in return, but by charging fees. They are not our ATM; we are theirs.

Donald Trump is no statesman, or even a strongman. He seems more interested in adoration and affirmation than power.[2] He’s a salesman, and his pitch was to remind people of what they’ve experienced, “no one is looking out for you.” Even worse, government was in the hands of Barack Obama who was looking out for people who are not you, and only I, Donald Trump, can rectify that error.

Donald Trump so understood the impotency of institutions, he didn’t even bother to spin-up a political campaign. They spent more on hats than polling, and it didn’t matter.

Throughout the campaign, journalist James Fallows documented Donald Trump in his “Trump Time Capsule,” focusing on the campaign events – no tax returns, his Russian connections, “rigged” election, etc… - that he believed deviated from “established norms.”

But norms are just another word for values, institutional values, and we are in a post-institution era. As one Republican after another fell into line behind Trump despite their obvious loathing, we witnessed this reality. The party was meaningless.

You can’t have norms if there isn’t a mechanism to enforce them.


This is not an “I don’t recognize my country” essay, because I recognize this quite well in what’s happened to the institution with which I’m most familiar and was once most invested, the public university.

Our public system of higher education was once one of our absolutely greatest collective institutions.

It was open, affordable, and not perfect, but good. Yes, they had a whiff of elitism, but that was a good thing, something to strive for.

This is obviously no longer the case. The average student debt for graduates of pubic and non-profit colleges is now over $30k.

The most vibrant office on many campuses is marketing and recruiting, as evidenced by a recent New York Times profile of the University of Alabama.

The University of South Carolina has 20 full-time recruiters.

Students are the chief revenue source for the institutions, both from tuition and the explosion of fees. It is similar to the relationship we now have with our banks. Students are our ATM.

Yes, we can argue that the institutions have been abandoned by our legislatures, and these things are what’s necessary to survive.

But how meaningful is survival when the core educational values of inquiry, equity, and opportunity have been subsumed to efficiency and competition?

While I know there is additional harm that a Trump Administration can do to public higher education, the bigger problem is that so many either don’t care, or would actively root for it as just deserts for those rotten elitists who for so long have been getting things they don’t deserve.

Can we still claim that our public institutions are communities where we rely on individuals to put our shared values to work?

What do we still believe? What are we going to do about those beliefs?




[1] I don’t seek to minimize the nativism, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism that were all present in Trump’s campaign and were explicitly part of his appeal to the worst elements of his coalition. There’s also significant evidence that legislation passed in Wisconsin and North Carolina designed to suppress minority votes may have tipped the balance in each state, but it’s impossible to throw a blanket over every last factor in the election result. Because of numerous privileges, I am going to be fine, but I am flat terrified of the hate and bigotry of some of his supporters that has been emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory and its potential to harm those I care about who are most vulnerable. I hope my fears are proven overblown.

[2] My personal greatest fear is that President-elect Trump’s weakness for fealty and core incuriosity makes him vulnerable to many who do lust for power and will wield the force of the presidency from the relative shadows.

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