Dana Hall McCain: American institutions losing competence, losing trust

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Photo Source: Dana Hill McCain, Alabama Policy Institute

From our American press corps to major political parties, and in some cases even state and national government, American institutions appear less and less competent and trustworthy by the day.

In my adult life, the first taste of it was in 2000 with the dangling-chad disaster in Florida’s general election. Granted, statewide margins had probably never been thin enough to make the percentage of error possible with hole-punch ballots a factor until the Bush-Gore race. But when the race was tight, accurately tallying the ballots was a problem.

It was the first time that I realized that we can’t take it for granted that these processes are airtight, or that the people charged with running them know what they’re doing.

We live daily in a morass of “news” coverage, some from credible news agencies, and some from propaganda machines parroting partisan talking points or even baseless allegations.

That, combined with old-school news organizations operating mostly in facts, but tripping regularly over their own biases, has left Americans with no sources of information in which they can fully trust.

No mutually agreed-upon sources of information mean that Americans across the ideological divide possess no shared facts. If we can’t even agree upon the facts, you can forget compromise. We can’t even start a good-faith negotiation.

And now major elections—we’re looking at you, Iowa Caucuses—are clearly run by some kids from the A/V club who coded a new app this week, and are curious to see how it works.

The storyline in Iowa is one that will be used to craft lesson plans in organizational management and crisis communications classes for years to come. The entire debacle will be a lesson in what not to do. Terrible planning. Non-existent contingency planning. Sloppy execution. Disastrous messaging when the ship was going down.

Here in Alabama, we thought our own iteration of the Democratic Party was likely the least competent in the nation. They can’t even agree on who is in charge and should have the keys to the office.

Then the Iowa Dems said, “Hold our beer.”

So what’s the point in all this? It’s that for all of our advancement, all of our technology, and all of the tools at our disposal, we are no better off. In fact, we may be less competent within key national institutions than ever before.

That’s a problem. It is tearing at the fabric of our increasingly fragile national unity and stability. We can’t afford the level of incompetence that we’re suffering at the moment—a moment when we need the best and brightest minds and most diligent taskmasters at the helm of key institutions and processes.

Every time we have a failure of competency, it cracks the door for the conspiracy theorists to create more fear, stir more dissension, and deepen the divide. And while there are certainly instances wherein there is an intentional effort on the part of foreign governments or other bad actors to corrupt our processes and weaken our nation, it is more often the product of incompetence.

At this rate, hostile foreign powers and jihadists may be no more threatening to the future health and safety of our nation than our own laziness and ignorance.

Get it together, America. The stakes are high.


Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture, and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.