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What Ails Our Politics?

Many things, but perhaps the state of the American family most of all.
February 22, 2021
What Ails Our Politics?
A boy holds a "Save America" sign as US president Donald Trump speaks at a rally (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The obvious immediate cause of the assault on the U.S. Capitol was, as Mitch McConnell put it, the “wild falsehoods” that President Donald Trump fed his followers. But there were deeper causes, too.

In the weeks since January 6, writers and thinkers have theorized about the political, social, and intellectual preconditions—some pointing to the cult of Trumpism, others blaming the malign influences of QAnon and the pernicious culture of lies, credulity, and manipulation that pervades social media. Still others have suggested a rot induced by America’s celebrity culture is at fault. Our public education system has also been faulted for failing to equip multiple generations with even a cursory knowledge of civics and history—or, as some critics would put it, very little knowledge of any kind.

If it were a multiple choice test, we probably would have to choose “all of the above.”

Yet while each of these are tributary factors, none tells the complete story of why the January 6 crowd moved so quickly and easily from violent rhetoric, which is common in political speech, to violent action, which is extremely rare, at least in the United States. I’d like to propose an insight into these events that, in part, echoes the argument for education as a primary cause. Not the education provided in our schools, which is no doubt lacking in many respects, but the more basic and fundamental education Americans get—or more accurately, don’t get—in their homes and families.

To state it concisely, America has an early-nurture/childhood-trauma problem. The rising prevalence of single-parent homes has left growing numbers of kids at a heightened risk of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs). This catch-all term—coined in the 1990s and then widely adopted by researchers and clinical practitioners in medicine, education, government, and social work—includes anything from the death or divorce of parents to abuse and neglect, bad nutrition, domestic and community violence, racism, and even prenatal exposure to substances.

(Via the Colorado Professional Development Center)

What begins with childhood tends to follow people into adolescence and adulthood. The more “unbuffered” (i.e., without the protection of caring adults) ACEs a child experiences the greater the likelihood of poor adolescent and adult outcomes—like teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, educational failure, aggression, criminal justice involvement, and depression/suicide. We’re a little over a half-century into a massive social transition in American family life marked by high rates of divorce and single parenthood that has left multiple generations at greater risk of exposure to ACEs. It may be that the trauma that, in previous decades, manifested itself in educational dropout, substance abuse, and other social ills in the nation’s urban core is now showing up as new expressions of social alienation, economic deprivation, and political dysfunction everywhere else.

If you doubt the explanatory power of ACEs as a headwater issue of our social, political, and economic turmoil, check in with a few business owners about the problems they see in the workforce. In survey after survey, employers report that the biggest human resource challenge they face is finding workers with so-called “soft-skills”—what educators and economists call noncognitive skills, things like communication, teamwork, persistence, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. These social-emotional attributes equip workers to deal effectively with customers and coworkers and to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing development of the organizations that employ them. All of these skills are particularly important in a service-based economy like ours. A worker with good technical skills but poor noncognitive ones can get “stuck” in their jobs or fired, lacking the social capacities required to navigate workplace challenges or advance in job responsibilities. Noncognitive skills are also a lot harder to acquire and develop if one grows up in a life filled with instability and trauma. To some degree, then, this ACEs-induced, nurture-trauma problem is present all around us, affecting our society and economy in ways we often don’t recognize. It is the ugly wallpaper surrounding us, taken for granted, not even noticed anymore.

This brings us to January 6. A few weeks back, I reached out to a psychiatrist friend for insight into the source of the insurrection at the Capitol. In his view, the raw material of the riot was a psychology informed by broken family relationships and abuse—forms of ACEs—that left many in the crowd especially vulnerable to being whipped up into actual violence. The speeches at the event merely ignited the rage of a large group of already angry, emotionally challenged, and socially disconnected people. If this assessment is correct, the crowd at the Capitol, much like those in Seattle and Portland last summer, were enacting trauma-induced violence under the guise of political protest. The crowd of lonely people on the Ellipse, whether they knew it or not, went looking for a parent and, much to their misfortune, found a president who was all too willing to exploit them and their wounds for political purposes.

Again, no single factor can completely explain the insurrection at the Capitol. And to say that underlying childhood trauma was a major factor doesn’t absolve adults of moral or legal responsibility for acts of violence. What an ACEs-focused perspective provides us with is insight into the deep context of the challenge we face, one that can’t be corrected only by more stringent monitoring and control of social media abuses or better formal education.

We have some difficult times ahead of us coming to terms with the roiling crises of social and emotional formation in American society. Social media, conspiracy theories, a fawning celebrity culture, and public education all contribute to the problem—but dealing with them is only part of the solution. We can’t lose sight of the fact that this is not mainly an issue of “externals” that are wrecking our lives and our country, but how fractured families are endowing American society with millions of broken hearts ripe for conflict.

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he researches workforce development and criminal justice issues.