Brokenist or Status-Quoist?

It’s a commonplace these days to say that the United States is in turmoil. While many understand the primary conflict as one between progressives and conservatives and others point to conflicts within both the progressive and conservative sides as being at least as significant, Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine, suggests a different way of looking at things.

The primary conflict, she says, is between brokenists, those who think American institutions are irretrievably broken, and status-quoists, who see problems in these institutions but that the problems are fixable. Moreover, she says, this split does not line up at all with the progressive-conservative split.

I find her discussion in this piece to be very thought-provoking, and her conversation with Sean Illing is also fascinating. I’m still thinking about it, but I’m inclined to go meta on Newhouse just a bit. It seems to me that the productive functioning of all of the institutions central to the American experiment — education, government, cultural institutions, and on and on — depends on our ability to have authentic conversations about what we expect from these institutions. And the authenticity of these conversations depends on our ability to agree on some common principles and standards by which we judge the validity of what everyone contributes to these conversations. In so many cases these days, people in a conversation aren’t able even to agree on what’s happening in the world — charges of “fake news” from one side and “unfair and unbalanced” from the other side dominate any “conversation” about what we should do. In short, as a community we not only can’t agree on what’s really happening; we can’t even agree on how to find out what’s really happening.

So, how do we fix this? Is it fixable? A complicated question, but I think the only way to move forward on the matter is to move behind the questions “What’s going on with our institutions?” and “Why do I believe what I believe about these institutions?” to the question “On what basis do I believe the things that I believe?”

I’d suggest we start with an exercise. Put yourself in a conversation with a person with whom you disagree, whether that disagreement is couched as one between a progressive and conservative or as one between a brokenist and a status-quoist. Then move your conversation to this question: “What would I be willing to accept as evidence that my beliefs about these things is wrong?” And continue to push that question both on yourself and on your conversation partner. Eventually, you’ll either reach a bedrock of evidence that both of you will accept as legitimate, or you’ll acknowledge that there’s absolutely no basis for agreement. If you agree on some common evidence, then perhaps you can move back up the chain of reasoning, agreeing at each stage on the appropriate evidence, and perhaps finally addressing the specific policy questions that are currently dividing us.

But if you (or we) can’t reach that bedrock, then I’d say that there’s no hope for our continuing as anything like the United States envisioned in the Declaration and the Constitution.