Institutional Inertia in the Era of Birtherism

Those baffled by this election cycle are missing the forest for one brash, narcissistic tree.

If humans are resistant to change, institutions are positively hostile to it. Large, multilateral organizations with formal rules of engagement require a substantial amount of coordination to enact even the least controversial changes. Our workweek has five days and forty hours not because economists recommend this schedule, but because the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 mandated it and no subsequent law has repealed it. (The seven day week itself is an indirect product of ancient Babylonian astrology; its persistence speaks to long reach of history.)

This lean towards stasis is exacerbated by a hardy form of selection bias in the chain of command. As new members filter into an institution, they are trained and incentivized to obey existing standards and practices, reducing their change-making potential. Think of the college freshman who adjusts his persona as he pledges a fraternity, or the CEO candidate beloved by the board for having no major critiques of business practices. The power hierarchy within an institution rewards adherents to the status quo by promoting them to positions where they will be better equipped to maintain it.

As such, the world we inhabit is best understood not as an intentional work of engineering but as a gradual accumulation of values and technologies, with past and present layered like sediments in a stratigraphic column. A voter searches for the nearest polling booth on her smartphone, drives down roads paved for horses, past buildings forming a pastiche of architectural eras, to a historically black school that was never desegregated, where she casts her ballot by punchcard. And this is to say nothing of the candidates between whom she chooses.

Consider that, as late as 1942, the U.S. Armed Forces maintained a horseback cavalry. Decades after the first successful deployments of tanks in World War I, Chief of Cavalry John Knowles Herr insisted that horses were still superior: They were better suited for varying terrain and less prone to malfunction; they were in large part responsible for the Allied victory in World War I; the new machines had not yet passed “the acid test of war”; in all the traditional missions of cavalry, airplanes and motor vehicles could, at best, assist the men on horses.

How are we to understand Herr, this agent of stasis? Based on his writings and his colleagues’ descriptions, he was not a stick-in-the-mud so much as a zealot, an earnest champion for what he saw as the near-sacred bond between horse and man. This passion helped him rise to the powerful position of Chief of Cavalry; it also blinded him to any advancements which suggested that change was necessary. Long after his dismissal, in an age of nuclear arsenals and guerrilla warfare, Herr still believed that conspiracy and jealousy had caused his downfall:

That there was influence brought to bear by certain industries which would profit heavily by the production of the enormously expensive tank and other mechanized vehicles is almost certain. Then, there was the ever-eternal green-eyed monster of jealousy which had been aroused in the breasts of the other services, especially among soft and inactive officers behind desks, over the color and glamour attached to the cavalry, over the good times which the officers of that branch enjoyed in their sports at all the cavalry posts, and over the certain indefinable social prestige which the man on horse, the cavalier, the hidalgo, the gentleman, has always had over the man on foot. All these influences combined, and, amidst the excitement at the outbreak of war, managed to eliminate what they called an archaic branch.

This is institutional inertia: Powerful figures anointed under the old regime position themselves in opposition to the tides of change, not out of malice or self-interest but a genuine fondness for the existing arrangement. They protect the status quo not merely because they excel in it, as some cynics propose; rather, they both excel in it and seek to protect it because they consider it good. Those advantaged under a set of institutions see themselves not as beneficiaries of privilege but as the loyal heirs to a righteous system.

The 26th Cavalry Regiment faced a fully modern unit of Japanese tanks and machine gun-wielding infantrymen. Despite a resistance recalled by those present with the glamor-tinted nostalgia of an esteemed tradition in its twilight years, the horsemen eventually ceded the Bataan Peninsula to Imperial Japan. The highly competitive military was forced to correct its mistake, but our domestic government still employs horseback officers.

A government is more complicated than a branch of the military, of course, but the two institutions deal with similar matters of prioritization. Just as a branch chief must apportion funding and manpower, politicians must allocate their time and resources to whichever projects they deem most important. Informed political debates usually boil down to disagreements over the relative priority of various goals, ideals, or groups: rights of women and rights of the unborn, economic growth and economic equality, undocumented immigrants, police officers, Christians, working families, job creators, Palestinians, and so forth. At a glance, one’s political views reflect one’s personal priorities.

Interest groups, under this conception, are organizations of people with similar priority hierarchies — or, at least, similar disagreements with the existing priority hierarchy. Trade unions seek to raise the priority of laborers; the National Rifle Association seeks to raise the priority of gun-owners. For the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, the status claim is implied in the name: that black Americans have been deprioritized relative to their white counterparts, and that politicians should seek to rectify this inequity.

Understandably, many voters are most motivated by their greatest personally felt injustice. Whites are less likely than blacks to be involved with Black Lives Matter — even if they do believe that black lives matter — simply because they themselves do not bear the brunt of racial inequality. On the flip side, some blacks are single-issue voters for racial justice; some women are single-issue voters for reproductive rights and equal pay; some working-class whites near the Mexican border are single-issue voters for tougher immigration laws. Climate change, which occurs gradually and to no one in particular, is not yet the greatest personally felt injustice of any American, and we are unlikely to see progress on this front until it is.

Politicians, whether or not they care to admit it, seem to be broadly aware of these demographic patterns of prioritization. Consider Mitt Romney’s infamous remarks to a roomful of donors: “Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.” His core constituency was those Americans, predominantly white and well-off, whose greatest personally felt injustice is high taxes. His promise as a candidate was to prioritize their plight. (There are economic arguments for reducing taxation, of course, but Romney did not seem to have these in mind when speaking of his “message of low taxes.”)

All these individuals, interest groups, politicians and parties sum to the institutional whole of our polity. In the national tug-of-war over values, each player throws its weight behind whichever ragtag coalition generally supports similar shifts in priority.

But the weighty, idle grasp of institutional inertia is not neutral in this contest. Our current institutions carry an implicit prioritization hierarchy, and — like the fraternity pledge and the CEO candidate — each new generation of leaders is bred to support it. Change, even popular change, even necessary change, occurs slowly, countervailed by the disproportionate power of those who oppose it. This is the mechanism by which the past seeps into the present.

Those baffled by this election cycle, then, are simply missing the forest for one brash, narcissistic tree. This nation was built on institutions which reflected the values of their time; these institutions largely persist, despite cosmetic changes.

The 18th century, when our national mold was set, was an age of chest-thumping empires wherein the greatness of a people was measured in acres of land and tonnes of gold. The European discovery of a vast, fertile continent sparked a bloody struggle for dominion first between the French and Indian and English armies, then between colonists and overseas royals. After finally securing for themselves the great American bounty, the victorious Englishmen formed a militarized trust fund to ensure that these winnings could not be wrested from them or their descendants.

This is not revisionism. The Founding Fathers state in the first sentence of our Constitution that its intent is to “provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

This is the founding credo of our republic; this is the order our institutions were built to maintain. So long as we beneficiaries passively accept our inheritance, we are perpetuating this prioritization hierarchy. We are perpetuating an allocation of capital based not on the principles of free markets and equal opportunity but on the legitimacy of manifest destiny and “finders keepers” frontierism, on the notion that the low-hanging fruit of modernity should be the federally protected property of whoever got there first with a cow and a gun. So long as we lionize conquistadors and relegate their victims to the footnotes of history, so long as we teach our children that all wealth is earned and that we merit what we inherit, we are breeding each new generation to accept and protect the status quo.

There is (by definition) nothing new about these attitudes, but recent events have given us a fitting name for their latest incarnation. Birtherism is the implicit belief that the American bounty — the social, economic, and political capital reaped from this continent — is the birthright of “real Americans,” however defined, and that any attempt to expand this franchise is a betrayal of a righteous order.

Birthers regard with extreme skepticism the projects of affirmative action, feminism, and redistribution more broadly; they reject immigration and free trade for reducing the asset value of their American citizenship; they are especially wary to entrust their protective military apparatus to a commander-in-chief who does not — how to put this? — love America. Birthers resent the rising power of former out-groups nearly as much as they resent the “politically correct” cosmopolitan elites who have re-rigged the system to include them. They dismiss the progressive movement not by refuting its claims but by delegitimizing its claimants, as the social capital to have one’s grievances addressed is not rightfully theirs.

Most birthers, of course, would not subscribe to this philosophy in its fully elaborated form. It is not meant to be elaborated. It is not an economic or moral calculation; it is a confluence of sentiments and values gleaned from our shared culture. It is uncritical love for one’s country in its current form, preservationism couched in patriotism.

No career politician could articulate, let alone implement, a coherent vision of birther governance. Yet institutional inertia demands a champion, and so the American people have bypassed standard requirements of coherence and articulateness to simply elect the birther with the largest megaphone.

We are fortunate he is not an ideologue.

This is an abridged version of a longer essay I wrote in February.