Warren, in examining institutional trust, calls for embrace of common good

Setti D. Warren, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, delivers his lecture Thursday in the Amphitheater. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Alton Northup
Staff writer

Mending societal divisions requires courage to contribute to the common good, said Setti D. Warren.

Warren, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, discussed the divisions that threaten American society and how to address them in his lecture, “Building Trust in Our Institutions to Protect Democracy,” at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater for the penultimate lecture of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Four theme, “The State of Believing.”

Public trust in institutions is declining everywhere, he said. According to Gallup, 69% of Americans do not have confidence in the government. In a recent Harvard Youth Poll, 53% of young people said they believe democracy is failing; the same respondents placed the chances of a civil war in their lifetime at 35%.

“The disillusionment (with) our institutions that are supposed to be operating for us is quite saddening,” Warren said.

The current economic and social landscape of the United States only feeds this disillusionment. Contractions in the economy are leading to polarization, he said, as wealth inequality grows. When fewer people have economic mobility, and are instead stuck in poverty with no way out, the erosion of faith in institutions will only continue.

But the institutions are not the only thing at risk; how people view one another is also in danger. As inequality grows and those at the bottom seek an explanation for their position, people often develop a “mindset that the system is being rigged by those in power at the expense of ordinary people.”

The problem with this mindset is “people are often fuzzy on the details,” which opens the door for xenophobic and racist applications, Warren said.

As more Americans get their news from social media following the loss of one-fourth of local newspapers across the country, unregulated algorithms can amplify and spread these harmful beliefs. 

“This has created an existential threat to our democracy, posing risk to national sovereignty and democratic processes,” he said. “We have to change the trajectory of information in our society.”

But information is just one spoke in the wheel of polarization. Having spent much of his life in politics, Warren said many in Congress place fundraising as their main priority, resulting in a small number of donors driving political discourse in the country.

HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

These donors tend to have more extreme views than the average voter, he said. On the issue of economics, the gap between Republican Party donors and Republican voters is wider than the gap between Democratic Party voters and Republican voters.

“This makes it increasingly difficult for government to be effective, leading to the erosion of trust,” Warren said.

The division between voters should not be minimized, though. America is more diverse than ever, yet it has also never been more segregated. Forty-eight states now have one-party control of legislatures, showing little room for compromise. And political debates have become charged, angry and polarizing.

“Republican and Democratic voters don’t believe the opposing party has the best interest of the country in mind, and believe they’re brainwashed or very ill-informed” he said. “This isn’t a policy disagreement.”

This polarization has also seeped into once-apolitical areas of American society; 42% of Republicans say the military is “woke,” and 32% of Democrats are concerned about far-right extremism in the ranks, Warren said.

These changing attitudes are having an impact. Since 2004, public trust of the military has decreased each year. Annual recruitment is down 25%.

“If you believe that the military is central to our national security, our ability to respond around the world to threats, you should pay attention,” he said.

These problems pose the largest threat to American democracy in decades, Warren said. But they are problems that can be solved.

He evoked the words of Robert F. Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’ ”

“What I believe this question really entails is for us to ask not just why not, but why can’t we tackle the difficult problems in our society, ask tough questions and have the courage to offer some bold solutions?” Warren said.

These solutions, he added, need to be interlaced with politics and society alike. 

When running for state-wide office in Massachusetts, Warren campaigned in Winchendon, a town that largely voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. 

He said he wanted to understand why the predominantly white town voted the way it did. To help him, a resident juxtaposed the town’s past with the present.

Wichendon was once a booming manufacturing hub producing textiles and computer parts. Now, opioid dealers fill the streets that workers between shifts at the factories once did. The town’s only supermarket shuttered, so residents buy groceries at CVS. The town felt disenfranchised in a society no longer working.

A week later, Warren made a stop to Roxbury, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Boston, where he found the same sentiments. He started his speech there with a story about Winchendon.

“I tell that story only because we do have to address economic mobility, but we also have to find a way to politically lead and to bring constituencies together that are suffering from many of the same ills,” he said. “Yes, it is different – we know there’s structural racism; we know that’s historic; we know the numbers for people of color are (in much more) dire straits than white people – but we also know there’s a society that is being left behind.”

Investing in spaces that bring people of different backgrounds together should be a priority, he said.

As an Iraq War veteran, he and his comrades were forced to live with, rely on, and even die with men and women of different backgrounds. He said implementing a national service, outside of the military, would help soothe the divisions in the country.

“I do believe that everyone needs to serve our country, and they need to be together with people that don’t look like them, have the same ideology, have the same background (and) have the same geography,” he said. “They need to humanize the person across from them and learn from them and be a part of a mission that’s greater than them.”

Service to the country is central to Warren’s philosophy; his father and grandfather both served in the military during the time of racial segregation. After returning home from war, his father was arrested three times for defying segregation laws.

His father’s commitment to the country instilled in Warren that if the American experiment was going to work, each person had to play their part.

“We have a responsibility here to challenge the current orthodoxy, point out that these issues are tough, put forth answers, make sure that we embrace the common good and the public good, and have the courage to lead politically,” Warren said. “We owe it to not just the current generation, but the future generations.”


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