Boy Scouts and the loss of faith in American institutions
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Contemporary American left wingers tend not to be huge fans of the Boy Scouts. My own experience is probably pretty typical. My Dad grew up in Oklahoma in the 1950s and is a proud Eagle Scout. I grew up in the Cleveland suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s. I gave up after reaching Second Class.

The allure of the stash of marijuana that the older scouts were alleged to have couldn’t compensate for the fact that it just wasn’t cool to be seen wearing a Boy Scout uniform. A few years ago, my son tried our local chapter in Massachusetts but lasted less than a couple of years. We found it frustrating to navigate the religious politics of the organization and to fit Scouts into the mix along with all of the other after-school activities. It is perhaps not surprising that Boy Scout leaders are easier to find at Republican Party conventions than at Democratic ones.

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One of the defining features of the first six months of the Trump administration has been the assault on American institutions like the Boy Scouts of America. One of the biggest surprises has been the broadening of what Americans think of when we think about institutions. When liberals lament the decline of institutions, they usually mean the New York Times.

 

When conservatives talk about declining institutions, they tend to refer to churches. When political scientists talk about institutions, they are usually talking about easily defined parts of our government (the courts, the bureaucracy etc.), or about what we call “mediating institutions” — political parties, interest groups, the media, and other organizations (such as the Boy Scouts of America) that play a role in politics even if the Constitution does not explicitly acknowledge or require their existence.

We have known for a long time that these institutions are crumbling, and their decline began long before Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJuan Williams: Trump gives life to the left Kennedy retirement rumors shift into overdrive Pompeo to outline post-deal strategy on Iran MORE came along. Our political parties, for instance, have been in decline for some time.

Public approval of the two parties was collapsing well before the 2016 election, in part because of changes in the law and in part because of missteps by the parties themselves. The role of the mainstream media has similarly declined, in part because the public has come to perceive almost all media outlets to have some sort of ideological bias, and in part because the major news outlets have been losing market share to upstart online competitors for the past decade.

This all brings us back to the Boy Scouts. Perhaps the Boy Scouts play a different role in society than they did in the 1950s, but they are still an American institution. The tenets of the Boy Scout oath, the process of receiving merit badges are rules that most Americans know about, whether or not they have served.

We can criticize these rules, argue that they need to be updated, or argue about whether they are sufficiently inclusive. But this sort of thing happens within all democratic institutions. Even if the Boy Scouts tend to be better organized in Red America than in Blue America, we all get that they are really not supposed to be partisan.

This is what made Donald Trump’s speech on July 24th to the Boy Scout National Jamboree stand out — even during a week characterized by so many other absurd things. The details of this speech, including Trump’s derision of his former opponent, his attacks on President Obama, and his discussion of an R-rated (or X-rated) yacht trip, have already been recounted elsewhere.

When Trump signed on to Steve Bannon’s plan to smash the administrative state, who knew that the traditions of the Boy Scouts were going to be in the line of fire? Who knew that this group of kids, many of whom might aspire to public service, would be counseled by the president to avoid the “sewer” that is Washington? It’s not as if children’s organizations can’t be used for political purposes (as anyone familiar with the Soviet Young Pioneers can attest), but that’s not supposed to happen here.

The lesson here is clear: When you pick a leader who has announced his hostility to political institutions, you can’t pick and choose which side’s institutions get undermined. The same forces that undermine our political parties are those that weaken our civic associations, our churches, our kids’ after-school clubs. At least since the 1990s, political scientists like Robert Putnam have been discussing the decline of civic organizations.

But there are still things Americans can do to slow this decline. Recognizing a shared interest in a healthy pluralism — one that transcends party lines — is one way to do this. Recognizing and speaking up against the the harm that a rogue presidential administration is doing to American rules and norms is another.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.


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