Research-based perspectives from MIT 

Resilient institutions or power games | Susan S. Silbey 
Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology and Anthropology

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Perspectives for the 2022 Midterm Election
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Susan S. Silbey holds the Leon and Anne Goldberg Chair in Humanities, Anthropology and Sociology, and is Professor of Behavioral and Policy Sciences in the Sloan School of Management where she teaches in the programs in Work and Organizational Studies and Economic Sociology. From 2017-2019, she served as Chair of the MIT Faculty. Silbey is interested in the governance, regulatory and audit processes in complex organizations. Her current research focuses on the creation of management systems for containing risks, including ethical lapses, as well as environment, health and safety hazards. In addition, for fifteen years, she has been part of a team following a national panel of engineers from college to the workplace.

The January 6th congressional investigation laid bare an assault on institutions that are foundational to a democratic republic. This assault — led by the former president and waged through a campaign of lies — now threatens the midterm elections. Long-established political norms are suddenly at stake. This serves to remind us that resilient institutions can nonetheless be quite fragile, that they exist only as we enact them, and thus depend on all of us acting in good faith and believing that our individual actions matter…because they actually do.

The 2022 midterms may well prove a turning point: If the fictions and false narratives spun by Trump and his allies increase public support for authoritarian candidates and policies, the institutional practices sustaining democracy and the rule of law in the U.S. may shatter.

History provides plenty of examples of other democratic nations shifting into authoritarian governance during similar culturally polarized and economically tumultuous circumstances. The fall of the Weimar Republic is often cited as the paradigmatic example.  Despite very different traditions, such examples nonetheless invite serious thought about the way institutions work. Institutions are simultaneously the foundation of social coordination and continuity and also amazingly insubstantial and fragile.

Understanding the forces that make some institutions resilient and others fragile helps to elucidate the present moment.  


Normative plurality

Legal institutions, which are much older than representative democracies, evolved in tandem with the rise of science (which is also much older than its modern professionalized practices). Modern institutions evolved into the often stable and reliable entities they are through social networks and communities that, together, coordinate public decisions and knowledge claims.   

Though they are distinct, science, knowledge, and the rule of law are produced through similarly orchestrated processes of membership and participation, designed to collectively and publicly assess truth claims and the rightfulness of action. Participants in these institutions (of law and science) do not always get things right; we regularly make mistakes, but we rely on the institutions themselves to self-correct through processes of critique, review, revision, and repair. 

Over time, a society governed by such self-correcting institutions develops habits of action and decision-making that rest on whatever is at the moment the best empirical evidence. Belief in and reliance on these processes of self-correction and iterative decision-making produces authoritative, publicly embraced institutions built on and through organizations on which we have come to rely, be they governmental, scientific, or legal.

At their core, social institutions provide continuity across disparate events and actors; they are comprised of the actual behaviors that adapt the formal organization to produce routine practices. Organizations coordinate for particular goals, such as voting procedures and rules of evidence. Institution is the concept used to describe observed patterns across multiple organizations, practices that reflect the local adaptations to achieve goals and values, such as democratic selection of office holders and trial by jury. While organizations are observable material and human entities in the world — such as law courts or scientific labs — institutions, like cultures, are known of and about only through reflection and analysis. 

What makes institutions stable also makes them flexible, subject to both incremental and discontinuous change in the routines, artifacts, and communications of everyday life. Those operate at multiple levels, from the general and vast to the specific and local, from parochial forms of speech and dress, patterns of marriage and family organization, to national laws and constitutions as well as transnational markets. Despite their variety, the diverse local patterns share general purposes — in law to achieve justice through self-governance, in science to produce knowledge, and in markets to distribute material resources.

Institutions are more resilient and durable when they actually encompass multiple and sometimes competing norms and values, making space for interpretive and human variation, allowing differences to be resolved internally.  They become fragile when one thread of the complex institutional plait becomes so dominant that it threatens to wipe out the normative plurality. 


Attack on legal institutions

This is what is happening in the U.S. today with regard to legality. Americans often think of the law as a rule-governed system of disinterested third-party decision-making established to resolve disputes and manage conflicts. We have been witnessing this in the extensive litigation concerning the 2020 presidential election and the National Archives efforts to secure control of classified documents.

But Americans also think about the law as a game, played by crafty, skilled, often economically advantaged players pursuing whatever their self-interest seeks. The first story celebrates the law’s history, precedents, abstract generalities and universal aspirations — “the rule of law” — while the second brings it to ground, making it available for anyone to pursue any need or aspiration — “there oughta be a law.”

Either way — sacred or profane, a god or a gimmick — legal institutions would eventually self-destruct if one-sided and unable to contain multiple norms and perspectives.  (This is a general model of how institutions are sustained over time — by incorporating multiple norms, whether we are talking about law, medicine, sports, the family). The tensions between the defining accounts strengthen the institution because the limitations of each are entwined within the institution as a whole.  

Think about this: If the institution valorizes only abstract, ahistorical generalities and conceptual consistency — "a government of laws and not of men,” it is that much more fragile. Any empirical observer would see the account as inaccurate, which is the story Trump-supporting Republicans are telling — the system is rigged, the government does not serve us.

Similarly, if law is conceived of as only a game played by resourceful strategic, self-interested players, it would be difficult to generate legitimacy. It would be no different than a market or war, where each is out only for himself, committed only to strategic ends (e.g. holding power) rather than the rules and norms of the game (those universal aspirations of disinterested, generalized decision-making) that organize and channel the pursuit of power.


Winning at any cost

And here is the connection to the midterm elections. President Trump has succeeded in colonizing popular discourse with an account that treats the government and the law as just a game being played to the disadvantage of ordinary people. A consummate illusionist whose career is built on artifice and dishonesty, Trump has helped forge a culture that cannot differentiate reality from fiction. In his account of the law, there are no principles of equal access, fairness, flexibility, disinterested decision-making, or empirical evidence for that matter.

MAGA devotees, including those now running for congressional office, tell a story of people ill-served by a government filled with elites (the deep state). Congress does not represent the people but is under the control of more endowed players and crafty lawyers.  For them, the law and our institutions are only a game to be won at all costs, and Trump has already shown that he is a better player at this game.

What is at stake in the midterms is whether the former president and his acolytes can sell this one-sided account and get voters to join the team. If they do, they will have succeeded in eroding democratic institutions and sidelining the many accounts, often less noticed, of representative democracy (including the times when not only the crafty players and big corporations but the little guy has won). 

Scholars need to attend not only to the overt attacks on our institutions, but also to the more insidious erosion, promoted by the MAGA crowd, of these institutions’ most fundamental and sustaining properties of plural, multiple normativity. Trump is asking the voters to be members of a team rather than a republic.



Suggested links

MIT Anthropology

Susan S. Silbey's MIT webpage


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