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Why Papal and Presidential Elections Can Be Hellishly Depressing

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The Sistine Chapel is prepared for the Papal Conclave, set to begin this week. The Sistine Chapel is prepared for the Papal Conclave, set to begin this week. Alessandra Tarantino/AP

The papal conclave is a gripping political story, and not just because reform-minded cardinals are pitted against old-guard “Romans.” The white-smoke watch resonates beyond the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics because the Vatican is emblematic of a 21st-century ill: the failure of social institutions to adapt to the times, and the public’s loss of faith in them.

The parallels leaped to mind while I read this sentence in The New York Timess outstanding analysis of papal politics:

“The next pontiff must unite an increasingly globalized church paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Let’s play Mad Libs with that sentence:For "church," substitute the name of almost any U.S. institution and for “pontiff” substitute practically any institutional leader. For example:

“The next governor must unite an increasingly globalized state paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Or.

“The next CEO must unite an increasingly globalized retail company paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Or.

"The next commissioner must unite an increasingly globalized sport paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age."

Or.

“The next board of directors must unite an increasingly globalized charity paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Finally, not to impugn the Obama presidency but to reflect polling that shows a majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track and consider their leaders to be generally less than trustworthy:

"The next president must unite an increasingly globalized nation paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age."

A year ago, I wrote a cover story for National Journal that documented the failure of national institutions through the eyes of an unemployed Muncie, Ind., man named Johnny Whitmire. "In Nothing We Trust," also explored what the trend means for the nation’s future: “People could disconnect, refocus inward, and turn away from their social contract. Already, many are losing trust. If society can’t promise benefits for joining it, its members may no longer feel bound to follow its rules. But is the rise of disillusionment inexorable? Can institutions regain respect? History offers hope, but Whitmire’s story, and the story of Muncie, say no.”

Sadly, I would write the same about my church. As a practicing Catholic, I want the next pope to use this inflection point to eliminate corruption (particularly the unforgivable protection of sexual predators) and to breathe transparency into Vatican banking and governing practices. But there is nothing in the Church’s past to suggest a better future.

It is the same in politics and business and charity and sports and virtually all walks of life. We are promised, and promise ourselves, that the next leader will change things and make things work. Perhaps we put too much faith in these men and women. Perhaps we need to do more ourselves, to demand better, and to change things on our own. After all, the Internet and other 21st-century tools make us the most empowered individual consumers in the history of humanity.

"Our institutions have in fact failed us," writes Nicco Mele in The End of Big, an chilling examination of how institutions are crumbling before the power of the individual. "Unless we exercise more deliberate choice over the design and use of technologies, we doom ourselves to a future inconsistent with the hard-won democratic values on which modern society is based: limited government, the rule of law, due process, free markets, and individual freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly. To the extent these values disappear, we're dooming ourselves to a chaotic, uncontrollable, and potentially even catastrophic future."

This week, I will watch for the white smoke much in the way that I await election returns on the first Tuesday in Novembers -- with great anticipation and little hope. Is there more we can do?

Ron Fournier

Ron Fournier is the Senior Political Columnist and Editorial Director of National Journal. Prior to joining NJ, he worked at the Associated Press for 20 years, most recently as Washington Bureau Chief. A Detroit native, Fournier began his career in Arkansas, first with the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record and then with the Arkansas Democrat and the AP, where he covered the state legislature and Gov. Bill Clinton.

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