Steven Brill – How My Generation Broke America [Brill is the author of Tailspin, from which this article is adapted, out this month from Alfred A. Knopf.] This appears in the May 28, 2018 issue of TIME: “Lately, most Americans, regardless of their political leanings, have been asking themselves some version of the same question: How did we get here? How did the world’s greatest democracy and economy become a land of crumbling roads, galloping income inequality, bitter polarization and dysfunctional government? As I tried to find the answer over the past two years, I discovered a recurring irony. About five decades ago, the core values that make America great began to bring America down. The First Amendment became a tool for the wealthy to put a thumb on the scales of democracy. America’s rightly celebrated dedication to due process was used as an instrument to block government from enforcing job-safety rules, holding corporate criminals accountable and otherwise protecting the unprotected. Election reforms meant to enhance democracy wound up undercutting democracy. Ingenious financial and legal engineering turned our economy from an engine of long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casino with only a few big winners.
These distinctly American ideas became the often unintended instruments for splitting the country into two classes: the protected and the unprotected. The protected overmatched, overran and paralyzed the government. The unprotected were left even further behind. And in many cases, the work was done by a generation of smart, hungry strivers who benefited from one of the most American values of all: meritocracy.
This is not to say that all is rotten in the United States. There are more opportunities available today for women, nonwhites and other minorities than ever. There are miracles happening daily in the nation’s laboratories, on the campuses of its world-class colleges and universities, in the offices of companies creating software for robots and medical diagnostics, in concert halls and on Broadway stages, and at joyous ceremonies swearing in proud new citizens. Yet key measures of the nation’s public engagement, satisfaction and confidence – voter turnout, knowledge of public-policy issues, faith that the next generation will fare better than the current one, and respect for basic institutions, especially the government – are far below what they were 50 years ago, and in many cases have reached near historic lows…”