‘Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.”
When French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he came away fascinated with the non-political community organizations Americans had created:
Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.
These groups, clubs, and organizations, de Tocqueville noted, played a role in society that was unique to the United States. While other countries relied on the government, Americans relied on each other.
“Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States,” he wrote.
That grand tradition of forming associations and building strong communities continued for more than a century. Americans created organizations such as Kiwanis, supper clubs, Shriners, churches, bowling leagues, the PTA, the Elks, ladies’ associations, and countless others.
Each year, groups like these raised thousands of dollars for local charities and volunteered countless hours. They met needs and worked for change far more efficiently than any government program ever could. Associations were essential to limited government, as de Tocqueville pointed out.
They also brought politically diverse individuals together to form close-knit communities. It’s hard to believe that everyone with different political views than your own is evil when you go bowling with some of them on Friday nights.
It’s hard to believe that everyone with different political views than your own is evil when you go bowling with some of them on Friday nights.
But attend one of those clubs’ events today and you’ll immediately notice something: Their members are getting older, and no one is replacing them.
Since the height of social clubs and civic organizations in the 1960s, membership has more than halved. The Elks boasted 1.6 million members in 1976. By 2012, there were around 800,000 Elks nationwide. In 1964, the Parent Teacher Association boasted 12 million members. By 2016, membership had plummeted to fewer than 4 million.
Political scientist Robert Putnam first raised the alarm about this trend in his 2000 book Bowling Alone. He named the book after discovering that participation in league bowling had dropped 40 percent in just over a decade.
Putnam conducted exhaustive research on Americans’ socializing habits, and his findings are deeply concerning. Americans, he concluded, are isolating themselves.
In the 25 years before Putnam published Bowling Alone:
‐The number of Americans who had attended a club meeting had dropped nearly 60 percent.
‐The number of people who had family dinners had dropped more than 40 percent.
‐The number of people who had friends over had dropped by more than 30 percent.
Our communities are coming apart at the seams, and for freedom-lovers, that should be alarming. Community is one of the key institutions in society, along with government, business, and education. A healthy, vibrant community of connected individuals is essential to freedom.
When voluntary community associations begin to fail, government grows. Tocqueville believed that if government steps in to play the role communities once did, “it will exercise an insupportable tyranny even without wishing to.” But an ever-growing government won’t be able to effectively replace the “innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day.”
This fracturing of community organizations has helped increase political polarization. In the past, neighbors with competing political views could meet at the Elks Lodge for beers, come together on the PTA to raise money for the local school, or worship together in church.
Today, most Americans have few or even no friends with worldviews that differ from their own. Distrust and even loathing of people with opposing political views is rapidly growing, and people are reading and watching their own side’s news almost exclusively.
People cut friends and family members out of their lives because of their political views. The communities we do join — such as social-media groups and political clubs — are filled with people who think, act and live much like us.
Sharing freedom and changing hearts and minds, which depend on forming real relationships with people who disagree with us, is almost impossible in a climate like this. You can’t convince people that freedom is the answer if you don’t know any of them.
As 2018 approaches, let’s make a recommitment to our communities. Let’s find that social club, civic organization, or bridge game, that PTA or softball team, and make an effort to step outside our comfort zone and build relationships with the people who live down the street. After all, being together is so much better than bowling alone. And it just might help you build a stronger community and save the country.
— Slade O’Brien is the vice president of Grassroots Leadership Academy, an organization dedicated to equipping people to fight for freedom in their communities. Learn more about GLA here.