Commentary: American society seems to be collapsing, but one thing still binds us

There is a word for what Americans are experiencing, what we have been experiencing for the past few years. There is a word for the division, the economic upheaval, the loss of faith in institutions, the erosion of the rule of law, the collapse of social norms and the despair so many of us feel. The word is anomie.

The concept of anomie was developed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century to describe the state of an individual disconnected from all social norms or rules. While Durkheim wrote chiefly about the impact of anomie on the individual, other thinkers have applied the term to societies that experienced a collapse in laws or values. There is some comfort in having a word for what America is facing, though, based on Durkheim’s analysis and historic experience, the outlook is grim. Some individuals experiencing anomie are prone to suicide, and nations, to violence.

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Perhaps this explains the rising rate of suicides in America, up 35% in the past 20 years, according to the CDC, and in particular it may explain the mass shootings that end in suicide. Anomie might explain why this nation elected a president who has pledged to tear down many of our institutions, and it may explain why so many people consider street protests to be the best chance for change. It might be why many Americans embrace conspiracy theories and myths, to try to make sense out of the disorder. And it may explain why our elected officials, even the ones who are smart, decent people, cannot get a foothold in leading us. The ground keeps shifting.

Durkheim in the late 1800s fretted that industrialization would create separations in the labor force that would leave people feeling disconnected from the fruits of their labor and, worse, disconnected from each other, each performing a repetitive task that seems to have no relation to an outcome or another human. What happened since Durkheim’s writing was an eventual breakdown of the hold on the economy these industrialized corporations had and the rise of a gig economy as well as extreme wealth disparity. And what he couldn’t have foreseen is what would ultimately separate us into ever-smaller groups, technology that was supposed to make us more connected through a World Wide Web would give us a tool for enhancing division: social media.

Americans have lost faith in once-rock-solid institutions that bound us to one another and the world. From the local police department, school district, chamber of commerce and family doctor to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Catholic Church, the Federal Reserve and the World Health Organization, there are few institutions left that have a deep level of trust among Americans.

So when COVID-19 began to spread rapidly, it was hardly surprising that many people refused to believe the news was serious or take precautions for themselves and others. In a few places people even showed up at open businesses armed, in protest against ordinances to stay at home. The president cheered on the protesters, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott joined the Free Shelley chaos, promptly changing his ordinances when protesters demanded the release of a salon owner who had illegally opened her shop.

It was stunning to observe officials undermine the laws they themselves created, folding to the protesters. Then came whiplash, as the president, who just weeks ago expressed solidarity with a resistance to being in lockdown, threatened martial law to halt peaceful protests of police brutality against minorities. Where Americans once supported both freedom of speech and the rule of law, suddenly, those values seem to ebb and flow depending on the politics and color of the people involved.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the destruction and violence in the wake of the protests has been nationwide and has lasted for days. It also shouldn’t be surprising that hooligans on the far right and far left seem to have used the opportunity of peaceful protests to hurt and destroy, antagonizing police and further angering protesters. Anomie.

The word describes other times in our history, too. Author James Michener used the term to explain the sentiment in Texas ahead of the revolution. At the time Santa Anna failed to implement what the Texicans, Anglos who settled in Texas under Mexican rule, considered a good and fair constitution. The end result was that many felt that Mexican authorities failed to uphold the rule of law. People in Texas were left on their own to police their property. Many looked to the U.S. in anticipation of eventually joining the union. But first, they would face a deadly fight against Mexico and years of economic malaise before President James Polk ushered Texas into the U.S. To Durkheim’s point, several prominent leaders of the Republic of Texas died by suicide, including President Anson Jones and attorneys general James Collinsworth and Peter Grayson, both while campaigning for president.

And surely many of our ancestors experienced a degree of anomie during the American Revolution. At the time, there was a grand debate about what laws to follow and whether the king himself had opened the door to lawlessness by not respecting basic rights.

It’s also fair to ask if there was a sense of anomie for people on the frontier, in Kentucky, the Ohio country or later farther west. Without any organized society, settlers would almost certainly have such a feeling. Durkheim’s concern about a collapse of social norms and laws isn’t just that nobody wants to live in a social wasteland. He wrote that in a state of complete freedom, without laws or social expectations at all, one does not experience fulfillment. Rather one feels despair.

What got our people through these periods was a shared faith in God and, for many, hope in the American values outlined in the Declaration of Independence and imbued in the Constitution. Can Americans in 2020 do the same? Unlike the colonists, pioneers and Texicans, we do not share a common faith in a higher power, and we do not all learn the stories of the Old Testament or Greek mythology as a cultural foundation. For early Americans, their time in the wilderness alone may have forged a common experience, a solidarity against common problems and supporting common joys. What our Constitution does is frame a way to sort out our differences, or at least live with them. Can we at least agree on that much?

There is a light of hope. Those protesting the lockdown and those protesting police brutality continue to use the language of our founders and the Constitution to make their cases. They point to their First Amendment rights to congregate and protest peacefully. They point to the right to due process of a black man under arrest, the right to survive an arrest in order to make his case before a judge, the right to face a jury of his peers rather than being killed by a police officer.

Protesters explain their positions using various clauses in this part of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These words brought this country through even more divisive times, providing abolitionists and civil rights leaders arguments to frame their demands and dreams. They used the founding documents to show that the founders were wrong about women and people of color, and we can do so again.

If we Americans still agree that these words are the foundation of our democracy, then we are not on the verge of a revolution designed to burn down America and replace it with something else. Instead, we are on the verge of an all-encompassing transformation designed to stretch the impact of the words to all Americans, to fulfill completely the ideas that the founders originally applied too narrowly to white men.

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This change will not be comfortable. But the need for change is self-evident.

Elizabeth Souder is the commentary and Sunday Opinion editor and editorial board member for The Dallas Morning News.