We wonder why there is so much social chaos eating into the once secure centers of American life. Guns in schools or workplaces are obvious examples. Among a complex chain of causes, low commitment to societal institutions is having it’s effects.
A few years ago a local bank ran a series of print ads of a comfortable family relaxing on a spacious patio that was meant to signal money. The headline for the private bank was “You Did it All by Yourself.” The tone-deaf headline was meant to pander to the affluent on how they arrived at their privileged position. It perhaps said more than the bank intended. An old commonplace has it that it really does not ‘take a village,’ nor the shoulders of others’ to succeed. Instead, as the durable old commonplace has it, gumption and hard work are the keys to accessing American prosperity. The message many of us carry around and still promote is that we are masters of our own destiny; failure or success will depend on our efforts. In this simplified logic everyone is an island responsible for their success, obligated only to themselves. So goes the fantasy.
The misguided impression that gun ownership represents a form of personal freedom
What this view nurtures is a long and continuing suspicion of institutions intended to nurture a civil society. We still hear the tired overstatement that prairie settlers, immigrants and nineteenth century entrepreneurs provided for themselves, partially taking on responsibilities to deliver justice, protect property, and find our own pathways out of the depths of poverty. Other social goals like the education of children by professionals, and providing basic medical care for all are now contested territories, with a vocal minority doubting the virtues of these traditional social functions. Florida is a case in point, where even the accurate portrayal of the nation’s origin stories, or the value of virus vaccines, are officially challenged. Arguably, the populace of the continent-spanning United States has never uniformly committed to institutions promoting public welfare. Mistrust of authority and disparagement of fiscally hobbled public services seem embedded in out national character.
Consider evidence of decreased faith in major institutions. As researchers at the political website Five Thirty Eight recently noted, “disillusionment with pretty much every major institution” has set in. They cited a recent Gallup public survey found that Americans registered a one year drop in confidence in virtually every kind collective enterprise. For example, in 2022 “high confidence” in the military fell five points to 64%; confidence in the police dropped to 45%; the medical system to 38%; religious groups down to 21%; the supreme to court, 25%; the public schools to 24%; big business to 14%; and confidence in congress fell into a cellar of just 7%. All of their categories showed a decline in spite of real advances in child and senior citizen protections.
What is left of the social structure stressed by a higher level of fear and the enduring birthright myth of survival by any means. It is little wonder that disenchanted youth believe they must be their own providers and protectors. At this age, guns are now the leading cause of death.
The idea of the self-sustaining individual can easily fuel the view that, among other things, a firearm is a necessary defense. We can take our pick of either the founder’s woolly wording of the Second Amendment, or the woeful misapplication of it by the Supreme Court (District of Columbia vs Heller, 2010). In either case the U.S. is now awash in guns that kill as intended. Never has a claim to freedom carried such a destructive outcome.