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Institutional Amnesia 

Threading the needle between reform and revolution

We live in revolutionary times, with change coming in all shapes and sizes — and thanks to technology, we're hyperaware of our world like no generation before. Social progress is coming in leaps and bounds, as well. Gay marriage is the law. Cannabis is legal here in Washington. Some cities are enacting a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

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People are struggling to keep up with it all, and so are the institutions that are the hallmarks of American life. Sometimes it's just that times change — the Grange halls and Odd Fellows of yesteryear had their moments. But even Congress, a fixture of American life, seems paralyzed in new ways — it can't help a crippled Supreme Court, grapple with climate change or even agree on how to fight Zika.

Some things are changing too fast, some not fast enough. It's both disorienting and exhilarating. Entire industries are being torn down; job sectors can vanish. It's creating winners and losers — and volatile politics. Institutions like government are taking the brunt of it.

With the Brexit vote, the United Kingdom just ripped apart the European Union, which created an era of peace and prosperity rarely seen in European history. Although imperfect, the EU was tarred and feathered for a range of crimes it did not commit. Voices put in England's head by nihilistic media and opportunistic politicians preyed upon this disoriented state of mind. As the economic damage is becoming clear and once-firm campaign promises are evaporating, regret mounts. Thus the question asked the day after any revolution: Now what?

Many have wondered whether the vote to leave the EU is a harbinger for our own presidential election. The dynamics are comparable, as we, too, live in a purgatory between allegiance to institutions that have served us well and a restlessness to somehow do something — to rage against injustices real and imagined.

That's the kind of impulse that has driven revolutions throughout the centuries, but the history is written by what comes after. It feels great to topple those statues that used to mean something, but what do you replace them with? Should you rebuild those atrophied institutions, or start over? The first into the breach usually don't think that far in advance.

And our institutions have it coming. Although few would agree that "This country is a hellhole," as a certain Republican presumptive nominee for president told FOX News in May, something's not right. Of course Congress is Exhibit A, but too many of our institutions have lost their way and fail us. There's too much student loan debt. Too many costly wars. Too many examples of our business sector run amok, from gouging on prescription drugs to price fixing on everything from oil to air travel.

Still, it's times like these that make institutions all the more necessary. Without them, we are untethered and alone. Institutions are selfless enterprises — human creations that allow a group to do something bigger and better than any individual. The American military won World War II. Alexander Hamilton's Treasury Department built our capitalist system — the greatest economic engine ever created. Our institutions of higher education, both public and private, have enlightened millions, enabled innovation and continue to improve our lives every day. When we give up on institutions, or work to destroy them, we lose the perspective of history.

We can't forget that institutions are the bulwarks of our enlightened world. Republicans have been harping on how bad our government is for a few generations now, attacking everything from public K-12 education to Social Security to any and all regulations on business. More recently, they've railed against health care for all citizens, the recently created Bureau of Consumer Protection (designed to save Americans from financial predators) and the presidency itself, which has been systematically undermined for nearly eight years now.

This kind of behavior takes a toll, and it's easy to forget all that's good and right about those things we do together. We tear down our institutions at our own peril.

Some of us want to live in the world we imagine existed in better days gone by — before everything got so complicated. Others are impatient for the world of their hopes and dreams — peaceful, open, free from want. Some say we can get there by reforming the institutions we have; others argue that we need to blow it all up — to make sweeping, Brexit-sized changes.

Voters will need all the wisdom they can muster to understand that Congress, the institution, is still central to our success. Meanwhile, they also need to push for real reform: A lot of the people squatting in the Capitol need to go.

Much of the oxygen in this election has been sucked up by a pair of revolutionaries, pushing all the hottest buttons. On the right we (still) have Donald Trump; on the left, it's been, until recently, Bernie Sanders. That leaves Hillary Clinton, a status quo candidate in a year when many are allergic to the idea. Maybe if she picks Elizabeth Warren as her running mate, she can embrace enough of a reformer's streak to fit these times. Or maybe she can make a convincing argument for grappling with this ever-changing world the way America so often has when seas grow stormy — with a level head and a steady hand. ♦

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