A good friend likes to remind me that most major crises share a root cause: corruption of the culture. Whether it’s safety lapses at Boeing or PG&E, inspection fraud at Volkswagen, or customer manipulation at Wells Fargo, all share a common cause: the culture had broken.
At Boeing and PG&E, the safety culture was compromised for short-term gains (737 sales in the case of Boeing, investor returns in the case of PG&E); at Volkswagen the compliance culture was broken to gain market share in the U.S.; and at Wells, an ethical sales culture was abandoned to meet revenue targets and secure bonuses.
Our political culture is certainly at an inflection point. The antipathy toward Donald Trump is not so much driven by policy differences as it is by culture. Trump is an existential threat to the prevailing norms of political culture. Instead of deliberative, he is impulsive. Instead of deferential, he is narcissistic. Instead of patrician, he is a street fighter. He goes against the very grain of established political culture and is still somewhat effective. No wonder he is driving the media-political complex to stutter and gasp and pound the table.
Social culture, of course, is much broader and more dynamic than corporate or political culture because it includes many more powerful drivers: diversity, equitable representation, social innovation and dynamism, external shocks, and more. American culture is many things, but above all, it is resilient. The Founding Fathers were not just framing a nation of laws, they were framing a culture, and despite the many shocks to the system that our culture has experienced over the past 250 years, fundamental values such as personal freedom and the pursuit of happiness still endure.
The last great cultural shock to America was the 60s, which generated the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, personal liberation, digital innovation, even new ways to grow, prepare and eat our food. Fifty years later, those changes still shape our culture.
But culture changes in long cycles, and our time has come. We’re participating in the beginning of another great cycle that feels like it may redefine our culture in fundamental ways. We are at a visceral divide in American culture that we haven’t seen since the 60s and the only thing that’s clear is that no one knows which direction we will head.
Yogi Berra’s famous koan – “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” – seemed appropriate in the 60s. Either we were going down the road of personal and political liberation or we were going to maintain the set of American values that carried us through the first half of the 20thcentury. As Yogi advised, we did some of both.
Today, our culture doesn’t face a fork in the road. It faces a trailhead that branches into a thousand different paths. Each path is amplified across a thousand media platforms. Take this path toward a socialist utopia. Take this path and become an Instagram billionaire. Take this path and reclaim our national birthright. Celebrate gender fluidity! Condemn the patriarchy! Reinvent yourself! Build more bullet trains now! Build a wall! Save the planet before we die a watery, fiery, agonizing death!
All of these social imperatives are magnified by a media complex that has metastasized into a ubiquitous echo chamber of memes and images whose primary engines seem to be the forces of emotion and novelty. If Trump has succeeded at anything, it has been at harnessing these new drivers of our culture – emotion and novelty – with unrelenting ferocity. It may feel like a reality show at times, but it is in fact our culture – and our lives – that are at stake, so we always seem to feel a step behind, a little on edge, just a bit uncertain about which direction we are headed.
No wonder we are in a state of high anxiety. Consider this: the number of subscribers to traditional newspapers (print and digital) – whose purpose is to gather, refine and present information in a weighted, cogent way – is around 31 million. Users of social media – everything from Reddit to Facebook – worldwide is nearly 2.5 billion. Guess whose voice is louder and reach is greater.
In the land of a trillion voices, it’s incumbent on all of us to pay attention and take responsibility. Balance impulse with deliberation. If you question something, go to a second or third source. With information, be sure you contemplate as much as you consume.
It takes effort. But as my friend reminds me, it’s all about the culture. And the resiliency of our culture – its ability to retain its core values while adapting to change and progress – depends on us. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, when you come to an inflection point, be informed, be decisive and be brave.