Politics & Policy

The Social Treasury Is Depleting

American flag display in Times Square in New York City (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
That’s what’s driving the turn toward nationalism and socialism.

There is a paradox afflicting our politics. It’s the thing I emphasize every time I’m invited to speak with a grandee in the political or business world. It’s the contrast between increasing standards of living and increased social anxiety and unhappiness. You notice it in the headlines every day. By the normal measures, the economy is roaring. Unemployment continues to dive. Wages are starting to creep up. The market is frothing. And yet as all these trends have gone in the right direction. your friends and neighbors insist that things are getting worse in America.

The U.S. keeps slipping in rankings of its self-reported happiness. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which is a United Nations initiative, explained the slide in rankings by noting that “social support networks in the U.S. have weakened over time.”

Because our age has a congenital aversion to statements about society that are untethered to statistics, here are a few. Marriage has declined rapidly in our lifetime. In 2000, 55 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds were married. Only 34 percent were never married. In the last few years, never-marrieds are getting close to overtaking married people in the population. The average number of people per household has shrunk from 3.33 to 2.57 since 1960. That doesn’t seem like much, but multiply it across an entire kin network and the effect is a dramatic shrinking of the number of people to whom you give, and from whom you expect, some familial loyalty and socializing.

Other surveys show massive increases in loneliness, with progressive generational declines in the art of friendship. On average, Americans have one fewer close friend today than a generation ago. Many men report having no close friendships. The youngest Americans, the ones using social media the most, are socializing the least “irl.”

Despite America’s reputation as the Western world’s most God-bothering nation, church attendance has been consistently dropping over our lifetimes. Barna now estimates that the population of “unchurched” people, 43 percent, has exceeded the population of active churchgoers.

One of the happiest and most upwardly mobile cities is Salt Lake City, Utah. This isn’t entirely shocking, because it has a hardy, respected religious institution at its heart, and the culture of Utah is infused with the spirit created by a coherent religious culture that nonetheless has the solidarity of a minority faith in its country. In more-reliable estimates, Salt Lake City is basically tied with Chattanooga for the country’s most churched city. On a basic sociological level, you might expect people who gather together week after week, and read passages about their duties to one another as brothers and sisters in faith, may have access to emotional and spiritual resources that arm them against America’s new trends of loneliness and disconnectedness.

Along with declines in the number of people hearing the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” there is a predictable decline in neighborliness itself. Fewer Americans know their next-door neighbors. Fewer still regularly interact with them. Personally, this is the change I’ve noticed most in my own life. On a larger level, there are declines in everyday charity and philanthropy, and declines in civic and ethnic organizations.

When I talk to people, I refer to these trends as the depletion and disappearance of a social treasury. GDP goes up. Incomes sometimes go up. Real wages tick up. But, at a basic level, people live in a world where fewer and fewer people owe them consideration, compassion, favors, tips for getting ahead in a career, or consolation for getting through life’s disasters.

This is the background noise behind our politics today. And it is unsurprising that the two insurgent ideological trends on the left and on the right — socialism and nationalism, respectively — emphasize shared burdens, our duties to one another.

It’s easy to see how the depletion of the social treasure informs the politics of the Right’s populists. It explains some of the contrast between the feelings of precarity that Trump voters report and the income stats that suggest they may be doing just fine, or better. And it partly explains the upsurge in socialism, as well.

But one of the under-remarked things is that America’s elites are not immune from these trends either. They may have the wherewithal, the talents, and the preexisting social capital to successfully navigate a world in which their communal life has been almost entirely displaced by a networking life. For a while, they often succeed more when liberated from a life that would impose obligations. They throw themselves more fully into careers and social milieux that run on a more disguised form of conditional favor-trading, rather than reciprocal duties.

Because politics has become one of the only arenas in which Americans can collectively discuss the quality of their social relations and their sense of morality, politicians will at least have to learn to address an America that is both wealthier and lonelier.

But it is precisely because they see so clearly how much their outcomes in life depend on the favors they put into and extract out of a network, that they dread their loss of status which they value most keenly. While leisure hasn’t entirely died among American elites, they constantly betray themselves as overworked and under-cultivated.

The decline of the social treasury is not easily amenable by political policy. Until Utah senator Mike Lee used his position on the Joint Economic Committee to pioneer a social-capital index, it was barely visible to them.

But because politics has become one of the only arenas in which Americans can collectively discuss the quality of their social relations and their sense of morality, politicians will at least have to learn to address an America that is wealthier and lonelier, that has higher standards of living but lives marked by quiet desperation, that works hard but doesn’t know why anymore.

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