Politics & Policy

America’s Social-Capital Problem Is America’s Political Problem

Protesters recite the National Anthem during competing demonstrations in Portland (Reuters: Jim Urquhart)
We feel the need to win others to our coalition, even when we’re not well-informed ourselves.

There was a remarkable detail, scarcely commented upon, in the executive summary of the debut report from Senator Mike Lee’s Social Capital Project. In 1972, 36 percent of Americans reported that they followed “what’s going on in government and public affairs,” while 32 percent said that they had tried to persuade someone else to vote a particular way. By 2008, the share of Americans who followed public affairs had dropped almost a third, to 26 percent. Yet, remarkably, the share of Americans who had tried to persuade someone else to vote a particular way had increased about a quarter, to 40 percent. Even under the very most charitable assumption — that everyone who considers himself well-informed is politically active — some 35 percent of the politically active are, by their own reporting, not politically well-informed. What’s going on?

Jonah Goldberg wrote two weeks ago about the “lifestylization of politics.” Goldberg argued that the collapse of traditional sources of identity — “traditional religion and other mediating institutions” — had left partisan affiliation as a major source of identity. “When politics becomes a secular religion,” Goldberg cautioned, “a source of meaning, or simply a ‘lifestyle,’ politics will be less about arguments and tradeoffs and more about wearing ‘ideas’ on your sleeve.” As politics becomes identity, everything becomes political — Goldberg cites the case of a novelty Twitter account endorsing Planned Parenthood — while politics itself loses any substance.

The decline of civil institutions over the last 50 years has been a well-documented phenomenon. Many have focused on the drop in religious adherence, which has been on the horizon since the early 1970s and was unambiguously underway by the late 1990s. But the changing landscape of American society is broader than religion: Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone noted that community organizations across America, from B’nai Brith to the Red Cross to the Freemasons, have been losing members since the 1980s. More people were bowling by 2000, when Putnam’s book was published, but bowling leagues were sparser; America had taken to “bowling alone.”

These and other trends were chronicled in Mike Lee’s project, which noted, for instance, that since the early 1970s, Americans have become less likely to report that they were raised in a religious tradition or that they trust organized religion. Americans also spend less time with their neighbors, trust each other less, vote less, and spend less time with their coworkers.

Against this backdrop, it should be somewhat surprising that more Americans have become more likely to try to change the way others vote. It’s particularly surprising given that the increased engagement in the partisan politics of canvassing for votes has not been mirrored even in other political domains: As mentioned, fewer Americans vote and fewer keep abreast of politics. Fewer Americans attend political meetings or rallies; fewer Americans have worked for a political party or candidate.

There is perhaps no better illustration of this broader phenomenon than the fact that volunteering has actually increased slightly since the 1970s, while involvement in traditional volunteer organizations has fallen. How is this possible? Lee’s report quotes the political scientist Theda Skocpol: “Professionally managed advocacy groups and institutions have moved to the fore, while representatively governed, nation-spanning voluntary membership federations . . . have . . . faded from the everyday lives of most Americans.” Volunteerism has survived where it has become assimilated into hot-button political issues; where it has remained a form of community engagement, it has withered.

This all amounts to a considerable body of evidence for Goldberg’s proposition, and it is worrying indeed. Politics has become a substitute for the rich network of social affiliations that formerly structured American life, and in the process, political engagement has become something both more and less than politics. Something more, because it takes up a much larger role in the public sphere than politics itself does, as evidenced by the growing body of people who believe they have a responsibility to assimilate others into their political coalition even if they are not themselves well-informed. Something less, because politics to most Americans has little to do with the structures that have historically organized political involvement and mediated America’s democratic impulses: political involvement, for a growing body of Americans, no longer entails deference to party organizations — as can be seen in the democratization of party primaries that brought us our current president — and is increasingly divorced from the complicated coalition-building and groundwork that takes place behind the scenes. Tocqueville wrote in 1835 that “in no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America,” but modern-day America has come to rely on the associations of political parties as little more than a proxy for the tribal groupings that animate our politics.

Politics — more specifically, partisan politics — has turned into something of an identity for a large and increasing body of Americans.

Politics — more specifically, partisan politics — has turned into something of an identity for a large and increasing body of Americans, in the way that most Americans used to find identity in their synagogue, their neighborhood, their union hall, their bowling league. And so it shouldn’t be exactly shocking that all of American life has become a referendum on politics; if political affiliation is a legitimate identity, then it makes sense that everything becomes filtered through politics, from the type of entertainment you enjoy (theater and HBO, or Hollywood and network television) to the food you eat (how rare do you enjoy your steak?).

The consequences of all this — the creeping politicization of the apolitical, the growing hostility between political camps in America, the death of the belief in a shared American future that transcends political divide — are plain enough. But a ready solution seems far at hand. The political crisis America faces is at its heart a crisis of identity, a crisis of belonging. Many Americans find themselves divorced from traditional ways of finding meaning — whether through God or through the Rotary. Unless they can find their way back again, there will likely be no resolution to our political dysfunction.


We’re Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce

Can a Divided America Survive?

America’s Second Civl War: A Fight over Basic Values

— Max Bloom is a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago and an editorial intern at National Review.

Max BloomMax Bloom is an editorial intern at National Review and a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago.


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