Crisis of Comprehension, Compassion, Competence

A nod to Jimmy Carter’s 1979 Crisis of Confidence speech. Today we find ourselves battling three dueling crises with three clear outcomes.

The major outrage of our time is that a sizable proportion of our elected leaders and electorate suffer from an often-willful lack of competence, lack of understanding, and lack of virtue. But these crises, as insurmountable as they seem, remain resolvable so long as we commit to compassion.

Those who know me best know that Jimmy Carter — the famed peanut farmer, Naval engineer, and humanitarian from Plains, Georgia — is my favorite U.S. President. Looking beyond notable critiques of his administration and the cascade of crises he faced, there is no U.S. president who has ever dedicated themself more wholly, even despite mounting problems and growing political pressure, to two core principles: honesty and humanity.

As President, Carter never shied away from delivering the unadulterated, messy truth directly to the American people. He was willing to pay the political price if it meant he could retain his personal principles. On energy, climate, and international affairs, he pressed forward in pursuit of environmental protection and secure human rights, often against the wishes of his party leadership (Speaker Tip O’Neill) and the status quo. There is perhaps no clearer example than when he delivered his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech in July 1979; amidst rising inflation, a severe Middle East-induced energy crisis, and a slow-churning recession, Carter led a 10-day series of focus groups with his fellow citizens at Camp David and across the nation. He emerged to deliver the uncomfortable truth to a national audience — if you wish to call it so, a diagnosis: that we had lost confidence in our future. If we continued to be guided by self-indulgence, consumption, and cynical apathy, he warned, then disillusionment would continue, and the failure of the American democratic system itself would be imminent. Instead, he called on us to sacrifice, to conserve resources, and to care for humanity as a pathway to success, and he it.

That he was criticized and perceived as weak for his compassionate governance speaks volumes to America’s general obsession with loud, often-dishonest, and power-hungry leaders, ones who will offer gilded half-truths to constituents, “thoughts and prayers” amidst crises they themselves have the agency to help solve, and boatloads of excuses in the face of accountability. It also speaks to numerous crises present in our democratic system today, ones that continue to persist uncured because of legislative stagnation, special interests, and the complete absence of compassion in the public sphere. As I sit here writing this article, we still reckon with the emotional and physical aftermath of senseless mass shootings in grocery stores, spas, and schools across the U.S., racially-motivated violence against Americans in the Asian community, Black community, and other communities of color, gender-motivated violence against girls and women across the world, and a global pandemic that has exacerbated social inequities, ravaged our mental health, and taken the lives of over people — greater than the population of downtown Chicago — each leaving behind friends, families, and communities of their own.

Why are we stuck in this mess — how can we explain what’s been going on? In the spirit of President Carter’s pursuit of honesty and humanity, here are my diagnoses: we are stuck in a nationwide crisis of comprehension, compassion, and competence. A large percentage of our elected leaders fail to effect popular change, understand social problems and moral ethics, and execute the basic duties of their offices. A large percentage of our national wealth is poured into re-electing them. A large percentage of our electorate continues to support them. These are the (often fatal) outcomes resulting from three distinct underlying causes: the dramatic fall of our education system, the prioritization of self-interest and greed, and the unfortunately-growing, reactionary closedmindedness of the American voter.

In 1990, one year before the fall of the Soviet Union and one year after the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush, a study entitled placed the U.S. education system comfortably in 6th place. By 2016, that same study showed that the U.S. had dropped 21 spots in the intervening years to 27th place; in that timeframe, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Federal education spending flatlined at about 0.7% of GDP (for reference, U.S. military spending currently hovers around 3% of GDP). By comparison, World Bank indicators show that Britain and Denmark currently spend about 4.1% and 7.8% of GDP on education, respectively, while maintaining military spending between 2–3% of GDP. The result of our prioritization of military spending ahead of Federal education spending is most damningly spelled out in the following: we spend more on our military than the next ten nations combined, but — according to a 2016 statistic — 21% of American adults read below a 5th grade level. In addition, Enrico Moretti’s highlights the fact that only 45 million out of 125 million American adults in the workforce have a college degree — a severe problem when it comes to promoting social mobility and remedying racial and social inequities.

In an education disaster this severe, it becomes clear why the U.S. is mired in a crisis of comprehension. I define comprehension as the ability to thoroughly understand issues and pick out fact from fiction beyond the surface level. As media outlets, social media postings, and news sources of varying accountability and factuality appear daily, the crisis in education and comprehension prevents a large swath of Americans from building up their ability to transcend the mud-throwing and emotional rhetoric and arrive at a fundamental of the facts. Indeed, psychological research now shows that lower literacy rates tend to drive people away from expertise, analytical thinking, and progressive change towards reactionary conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs. Monmouth University polls still show that nearly 1-in-3 Americans are persistent in their false belief that President Biden lost the 2020 election.

What happens next is a classic example of cause-and-effect: as more Americans are robbed of their ability to think beyond the surface level on issues and in politics, community groupthink and partisan tribalism grow. I theorize that social media, with its content “tailored just for you,” has helped further this trend: it has enabled the formulation of closed chambers of likeminded voters unable to change their often-misguided opinions. One metric illustrating this trend is the prevalence of a phenomena known as “straight-ticket voting,” where voters simply vote directly across the board for candidates of a single party without considering alternatives, even if those candidates are immoral, incompetent, or unqualified. Another 2016 survey found that, in 1990, 63% of Americans engaged in straight-ticket voting, while in 2016, about 100% of Americans in states that held a Presidential and Senate race simultaneously engaged in straight-ticket voting. This sharp uptick in down-the-line partisan tribalism reflects the increased partisan divide both among voters across all 50 states who cannot escape their partisan groupthink and among the representatives they then elect in Washington and across the country. It also reflects the ability of parties to nominate who supports their agenda, no matter their qualifications, in an area stricken by this partisan groupthink phenomena, a crisis of competence that is most clearly seen in the failure of many government leaders (especially on the GOP side) to understand the epidemiology and science underlying the solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his 1979 speech, Carter decried the influence of special interests in the political system, saying “you see every extreme position defended to the last vote — almost to the last breath — by one unyielding group or another.” Since then, the influence of both interest groups and wealthy corporate donors has only increased, especially in the aftermath of the 2010 decision, enabling the pervasion of near-limitless corporate donations into the political arena. Under the influence of various wealthy interest groups, the GOP-led Senate and House passed a 2017 tax cut that is estimated to decrease Federal revenue by 0.88% of GDP over ten years while slashing corporate tax rates, the estate tax, and other taxes aimed specifically at the well-off. But the growth that was promised never came; the richest people in America have profited off of both the pandemic and the austerity of the masses. Elected supporters of the tax cut padded their re-election funds, and the ultrarich emerged with an even tighter grip on the economic and political life of the United States. In other words, greed and self-indulgence were rewarded; good faith efforts to prevent inequality from spiraling out of control were abandoned.

The implication of such a policy is that greed is good: we ought to spend more on tax cuts for the ultrarich than on education for our youth. Nowhere else could one find clearer evidence of an elected party — and government — so morally bankrupt, so devoid of compassion. The crisis of compassion we find ourselves in today moves beyond spending; it spills over into policy action. Where is the empathy in the wake of mass shootings, racial violence, and a global pandemic? An empathetic leader faced with a painful wave of gun violence, one who — as Carter once said — “feels [the people’s] pain and shares [their] dreams,” would immediately look to pass common sense gun control measures to offer hope to families and communities— restricting assault weapons (as has been done with great success in New Zealand), closing loopholes, and instituting popular universal background checks. In our polarized and greed-rewarding system today, though, too many of our leaders are willing to abandon these common sense actions at the sight of a check from a special interest group like the NRA. And in an institution that apportions representation and power as unfairly as the U.S. Senate, many of those leaders so easily willing to capitulate to greed, self-interest (in re-election), and self-indulgence are swing voters on key issues.

Perhaps everything that Carter warned against throughout his time in the national spotlight has come true. But perhaps some of his and our common sense remedies will be solutions to this triad of crises.

We must educate our people again; education spending is a good first step. Government spending opponents might argue that raising education spending constitutes the classic “throwing money at a problem” paradox. However, boosting Federal spending on education can help cover the inequities in education created via the local and State education funding system. In addition, the counterargument neglects the common sense (and now research-backed) reality: no education improvement policy would be complete without boosting spending on teacher salaries to incentivize more qualified individuals to become teachers, investing in proper technological and physical resources so students can learn in a comfortable environment, creating universal Pre-K programs, and reversing the decades-long trend of ballooning college tuition. These improvements in education are key steps towards remedying our crises of comprehension and competence. An educated populace is essential for democracy to work; in order for our open opinions to remain tethered to reality, those who offer those opinions must have a grip on factuality.

Universities, as engines of growth and change in our society, are crucial in this fight. However, a change is needed in the way they train our political leaders. Out of the list of the top 10 political science undergraduate and graduate programs in the U.S. (Harvard, Stanford, Duke, MIT, among others), only 2 universities — Yale and UC-San Diego — offer major concentrations focused primarily on the human side of politics, including promoting compassion and ethical understanding on issues of race, gender, and other humanistic topics. Most programs require no coursework in ethics, morality, or human behavior. If we are looking to move towards a society that prioritizes compassion and empathy over greed and self-indulgence, instilling those favorable, human traits in our future leaders is a crucial step towards reversing our crisis of compassion. Universities should pay closer attention to bolstering the humanity of their graduates: their mental health, their capacity for compassion, and their ability to empathize with others.

Lastly, in the short-term, we must trim these crises down to a manageable size both in legislation and in lifestyle. Our elected officials whiffed on a major opportunity to effect real change by overriding the Parliamentarian on the $15 minimum wage issue; it is much easier to make a case for your re-election (and maybe even grassroots DNC support) when you support making people’s lives better and lifting Americans out of poverty rather than having to explain to your constituents why you decided that they were only worth a starvation wage. In the next round of budget reconciliation, our leaders must pursue an all-of-the-above strategy to change the culture of America: more compassion, a decent wage, a strong public infrastructure, and a robust education and healthcare system that encourages the wellness of every American.

It is incumbent upon us — this generation of Americans — to regain our national will, spirit, and drive. We must recommit ourselves to the core tenets of honesty and humanity. If you are skeptical of the capacity of compassion to drive out our national problems, one doesn’t have to look further than how it has worked out for Jimmy Carter since he left the White House. He has emerged from a slate of damning crises and national outrage to become a respected and revered post-presidential leader, staying true to his core values, recommitting himself to human rights and justice for all people, and winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Perhaps we Americans, too, can emerge from our crises and have our moment of rebirth. The major outrage of our time is that a sizable proportion of our elected leaders and electorate suffer from an often- lack of competence, lack of understanding, and lack of virtue. But these crises, as insurmountable as they seem, remain resolvable so long as we commit to compassion.

Cornell '23 | Political takes informed by economics, psychology, urbanism, and empathy.