American Breakdown: Why We No Longer Trust Our Leaders and Institutions and How We Can Rebuild Confidence
By Gerard Baker
Twelve; hardcover, 288 pages; $30.00; available today, Tuesday, September 12th
Gerard Baker served as the Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief from March 2013 to June 2018. He is currently an Editor At Large at the Journal and writes the WSJ Opinion column "Free Expression," which is the basis for his podcast of the same title, where he speaks to leading writers, influencers, and speakers every week. He also was Dow Jones Managing Editor and hosted WSJ at Large on Fox Business until this past May.
In Baker's new book American Breakdown, he delivers a must-read account of how American suffers from a "trust deficit" that has weakened its landmark institutions and divided our society. That is evident from any recent poll of President Joe Biden, Congress, the Supreme Court, political leaders or the media.
This thought-provoking account, which reads like Baker's incisive columns, explores the way American have been let down and offers solutions for how to rebuild trust and reclaim purpose.
Baker dissects how, in the span of a generation, the pillars that sustained the once-dominant superpower have been dangerously eroded. From government to business, from media to medicine, the strength and security of the experiment that is America have been weakened by a widening gap between the elites who control these institutions and the public.
"This pathology of distrust across American society is eating the country away from the inside," Baker writes.
Millions of Americans have little faith in their country's future, and no longer seem to have trust in their leaders, in their important social and civil institutions. That extends to losing faith in their common values and ideals, or ultimately in each other.
The United States itself hasn't failed - instead, its people have been failed by inept and deceitful political leaders, one failed administration from both parties after another. Baker contends that where elites lay all the blame for the country's problems on Donald Trump, there was already a massive distrust in government by 2015 when he began his campaign for president.
The American people have also been deserted by predatory and cynical corporate chiefs, and above all else, betrayed by a cultural elite that has exploited the very freedom the country provided them in order to destroy it.
Baker writes in this excerpt of how he has viewed America throughout his life, "As it happens, this era of American breakdown has largely coincided with my own presence on these shores - I hope the two aren't connected. I came to America near the turn of the last century, when American prestige and power was at its zenith. Like millions of immigrants before me I was drawn by the irresistible allure of a country and a people forged in pursuit of a universal ideal they had succeeded spectacularly in achieving.
Of course America has had deep, scarring flaws from the nation's very founding - and long periods throughout its history in which its virtues sometimes seemed to be less of a match for its challenges. But time and again, it has been the country's demonstrated ability to meet and overcome these challenges, to continually reform and improve itself that actually makes America an even more admirable model.
I came of age in the Cold War, my formative years spent in a Britian in which, for all its proud history as a democracy and its outsize influence in forging a great civilization, there was much doubt about the future of what we stood for and defended. We were engaged on the side of the United States in another existential struggle for freedom, but there were many in Britain and Europe who were doubtful about whether the American system - which seemed to some like an unappealingly harsh form of freedom, with its taste for untethered capitalism and its apparently extreme elevation of individual rights - was really the best model for human civilization. Perhaps there were virtues in a more collectivist, even socialist approach; certainly, much of the European population seemed to believe so...
It was in the heat of these debates that I first visited the United States as a young man in 1986. As it happens, I had also just recently visited the Soviet Union for the first (and only) time. The effect on me of the contrast between the two experiences was life-altering: it was as though someone had turned a light bulb on in my head. America was vibrant, colorful, diverse, hopeful, and its people were busy creating things; building, moving, arguing, constantly examining their lives, their society, and always coming up with ways to improve it, even beyond the levels of prosperity and freedom already enjoyed.
The USSR by contrast was like a prison: gray, bleak, its people immmiserated and incarcerated in a system they had not chosen and could do nothing to change, cowed by years of repression, worn down by economic failure and the fear induced by the totalitarian system.
It was evident to me that America - for all its many faults - was not just a more successful country. It was a morally superior country - its system the closest we had, in many centuries of developing human dignity, to the best model the world had ever come up with.
Ten years later, in 1996, I was happy to call America my home - arriving here to take up a job in journalism accompanied by my small but growing family.
By then America had if anything reached a new zenith.
As the twentieth century ended, Americans could look back on it and reflect that they had won the Cold War, triumphed in two hot ones, helped liberate half the planet from history's most dehumanizing ideologies, advanced a free market capitalism that had led more humans out of poverty than any economic system ever devised, birthed new waves of technology that were changing the way people lived, worked, and communicated, and given the world the most flourishing bounty of intellectual, cultural, and scientific capital since the Enlightenment.
If you looked closely, sure, you could see the small cracks beginning to open in the edifice of success - rising political polarization; the steady creep of corrosive ideology through the nation's cultural institutions; a growing hubris about the country's ability to shape the world; but it seemed invincible and secure. Yet even as they acknowledged that their nation was a continuing work in progress, Americans could - and did - look at themselves and the country they had built with satisfaction, honor, and immense pride.
A quarter of a century later the cracks have opened into vast, corrosive seams, weakening the cohesion of American democracy and society, and threatening to break the nation apart altogether."