Things have been going wrong in America for some time. Men have been dropping out of the labor force for decades. Drug overdoses began their ascent in the 1990s. For as long as many of us have been alive, the upper and lower classes have been slowly breaking away from the middle, while religious life and other community bonds withered as well. In ways big and small, Americans are increasingly isolated and alienated.
These trends didn’t go unnoticed. But it took the ascendancy of Donald Trump to make them seem urgent. So we should hope that Senator Mike Lee manages to provoke more than just a congressional hearing with his office’s new report on social capital — though there will be such a hearing today, featuring social-science heavyweights Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, Yuval Levin, and Mario Small.
The report is the opening salvo of Lee’s Social Capital Project, and it serves primarily to summarize the basic facts. Those who’ve kept close tabs on social and economic trends — or devoured such tomes as Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Murray’s Coming Apart, and Levin’s Fractured Republic — will already be familiar with the gist. While America was once rife with “mediating institutions” between the individual and the state, from families to churches and from neighborhoods to nationwide civic organizations, these bonds have crumbled of late. The report’s title is “What We Do Together,” an apparent jab at the liberal cliché, propounded in various wordings by Barney Frank and Barack Obama, that government is another name for “the things we do together”; it’s a saying that seems to forget the very existence of these mediating institutions.
The document focuses on four areas in particular: family, religion, community, and work. In each there are unmistakable signs of decline that can be summarized with basic statistics.
Family has become less central to American life in ways both benign and troubling. Because adults are getting married later (if at all) and have become more likely to divorce, they are less likely to live with family than they used to be. Among those 18 to 64, the number was 79 percent in 2016, down from 92 percent in 1973. Kids have been hit harder, as almost by definition they depend on family more than adults do. Last year 31 percent of kids lived with a single parent or neither parent, up from half that figure in 1970.
Religion is headed downward as well. More than half of Americans went to church weekly in the 1970s, but just 44 percent did so last year, and an increasing share fail to identify with a religion at all.
More than half of Americans went to church weekly in the 1970s, but just 44 percent did so last year, and an increasing share fail to identify with a religion at all.
Then there’s community. Americans socialize about as much as they used to, but today they are less likely to do so with their neighbors. One reason is probably that as women have gone to work, the focus of social life has shifted away from the home and children — though it hasn’t shifted toward the workplace itself, as people spend less time hanging out with co-workers as well. Friends who are neither neighbors nor co-workers seem to be gaining in prominence.
Meanwhile, surveys reveal that Americans have become less trusting, both of each other and of major institutions ranging from the government to the press. Voting rates have slipped over the past few decades, too.
As for work, I’ve noted above that men are leaving the workforce (women too, since the turn of the century) and that co-workers are socializing less. Also worth pointing out is that unionization has cratered.
Why does all this matter, and what’s the role of government in fixing it? The report tackles the first question, noting that mediating institutions give “meaning and purpose” to Americans’ lives and provide a “useful means for discovering solutions to problems.” (Research indicates, for example, that kids are more likely to succeed if they grow up in neighborhoods with high levels of trust.) But it’s silent on the second.
There is little the government can do, of course, to directly encourage Americans to form deeper relationships with the people around them. Churches and civic organizations already enjoy tax-free status, and further cajoling or subsidization (especially of churches) could run afoul of the First Amendment, for good reason.
But that’s not what conservative and libertarian thinkers such as Levin and Murray propose, anyhow. They suggest that civil society has fallen off because the government has taken over functions that people once spontaneously worked together to perform. The answer is subsidiarity: Get the government, especially the higher levels of it, out of the game, and people will again work together to do what needs to be done in their local communities. They might well do it better than the government did. And in working together, they will rediscover the sense of belonging that they’ve lost.
It’s a compelling vision, but one that runs against decades upon decades of governmental expansion. A report and a hearing may be the first steps toward making it a reality, but they will hardly be the last.
— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen
Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.