by Samuel Pence, columnist
During his acceptance speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, candidate Joe Biden outlined his sales pitch to voters, offering Americans a chance “to heal, to be reborn, [and] to unite.” Yet since those words were spoken in August, many of the well-worn divides endemic to modern America have grown even wider. Today, in the wake of violent mobs storming the Capitol to protest verified election results, it’s hard for most Americans to recall a time when the prospects of such healing, rebirth, and unity seemed bleaker.
The events of the past year, while shocking and significant in their own right, are just the latest cracks in a long-fragmenting American cultural edifice. For decades, those cracks have lengthened and deepened through the seismic forces of identity politics, digital echo chambers, and a culture of hyperindividualism run amok, among others. Present-day symptoms of this national sickness include a precipitous drop in public trust, more people living alone than ever before, and near-epidemic levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide. To make matters worse, levels of civic participation have been in decline since the 1970s while political polarization stands at an almost all-time high.
A Strong Social Fabric Matters
While the concept of social capital – measured by civic participation rates, number of active organizations, self-reported trust levels, and other similar metrics – has drawn limited scholarly attention, studies suggest that our social fabric could have far greater impact on our lives than once thought. When we are less connected to each other and our communities, research from across the globe shows that we’re less healthy, poorer, and oftentimes less productive than our more socially-anchored peers. Turning to the public sphere, we find that a weak social fabric isolates and alienates people, pushing them to the margins of society and widening the appeal of extremism.
Conversely, a robust social fabric has been linked to benefits ranging from the emotional all the way to the macroeconomic. When our sense of community is stronger, we tend to be happier, more creative, and more optimistic about the direction of our lives. Social capital has also been found to influence economic output. In 2000, a 34 country study examining data from 1970 to 1992 found that social capital was at least as strong a determinant of economic growth as human capital or education. The study also concluded that high levels of social capital provided the same economic boost to developing countries as their ability to adopt technological innovations leveraged by their richer counterparts.
Viewed against today’s divided American landscape, such findings ought to prompt a renewed effort to repair our nation’s social fabric. Luckily, there’s never been a better time to do so.
A True People-First Approach
Whatever faults might be found in the new Biden/Harris administration, a lack of ambition cannot be counted among them. From addressing racial injustice to mitigating the impacts of climate change to putting America on the road to recovery from COVID-19, the Biden/Harris political agenda appears to be at full capacity. But far from hindering their progress, building a more resilient social fabric across America’s communities would complement and sustain these efforts, perhaps for generations to come.
Take racial justice. After a year in which citizens took to their streets in the tens of millions to spotlight structural injustices harkening back to America’s origins, it would be naïve to assume that such injustice can be rooted out by government action alone. The Biden/Harris administration’s plans for police reform and targeted support to underrepresented entrepreneurs, while certainly part of the solution, can only go so far. To complete this work – that is, to transform the beliefs and attitudes that prevent genuine change from taking root – it’s essential that Americans gain a sense of commonality and responsibility to their neighbors near and far.
Climate change, while involving more technical solutions, demands a similar bottom-up approach. In recent years, climate activists in both the public and private spheres have run up against resistance from critical actors whose profit-first approach prevented a collective curbing of greenhouse gas emissions. To avoid this “tragedy of the climate commons,” our most powerful global institutions must recognize and respond to our interconnectedness as humans. This begins with stitching a strong social fabric at home and letting that ethos of cooperation filter up to our partnerships abroad.
A closeness to one’s neighbors is perhaps most important on the road to sustainable pandemic relief. When masks, lockdowns, and other social strictures were imposed in consideration of society’s most vulnerable, some viewed these measures as an intrusion on their freedoms. This response would likely have been unthinkable in a society with a tightly-knit social fabric in place. Similarly, it’s likely that small, local businesses would not have been hit as hard as they were if Americans had been more invested in their communities and the workers who call it home prior to COVID-19. As we work to overcome this pandemic, we must ensure we are equipped to weather the social and economic demands of a future one; this begins with intentional, local relationships.
Stitching Ourselves Back Together
While social capital will never flow directly from government action, certain policies may enable everyday citizens to adopt the radically mutual mindset that lies at the core of strong communities. If the Biden/Harris administration is serious about fostering the national unity of which they speak, therefore, they must move beyond soaring rhetoric and enter into the political arena.
One pro-community policy the Biden presidency might consider is a national service program similar to the one Pete Buttigieg proposed during his recent presidential bid. Such a policy would expand service opportunities offered by programs like AmeriCorps; encourage greater solidarity between Americans of different income levels, identities, geography; and reaffirm service to one’s fellow citizens as an expectation in American society. As a byproduct, the program would help widen the average American’s real-life social networks, which act as invaluable assets to job seekers, a finding supported by a 2016 study at the University of California, Berkeley.
Another possibility is for the Democrats’ to use their new legislative majorities to increase funding to local news organizations. Local journalism is a key ingredient of a healthy democracy, helping us cultivate deeper awareness of and engagement with our immediate surroundings. Over the past 15 years, however, the number of “news deserts” – that is, counties with one or fewer local newspapers – have exploded. One way to slow or reverse this trend would be to take the fines levied against social media entities for antidemocratic behavior, such as Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, and reroute those funds to local newsrooms. As a more modest measure – and to avoid the risk of government funding jeopardizing a free press – politicians could consider some long-overdue tax code changes that favor local media.
Lastly, it’s imperative that the Biden/Harris administration lead by example on the path to national unity. A fantastic way to do this would be to ensure diversity – not simply of color or creed, but of thought – among administrative personnel by appointing conservative figures to positions of leadership. If executed properly, this unorthodox act would demonstrate that people of good faith can still reach common ground and achieve results despite differing political beliefs. It would also serve to illustrate an important truth: that the enemy of the common good in American society is not any party or person, but rather a stubborn, willful blindness to the needs and experiences of one’s neighbors.
For these policies to have any purchase, however, it’s crucial that Americans are willing to engage with those they have – whether consciously or unconsciously – labeled the “other.” Luckily, tolerance for differing viewpoints is a muscle we can exercise. On the other hand, the virtual and real-world echo chambers in which most of us exist place few demands on that muscle. It’s therefore essential that we seek out opportunities to challenge our assumptions and change our minds.
One way to do this is by purposely exposing ourselves to honest, respectful disagreement. Initiatives like the “Different Together” project from GLIDE Memorial Church, which currently hosts regular discussions via Zoom, are good places to start. So are books, which allow us to exercise our atrophied empathy muscles by walking in unfamiliar characters’ shoes. Both kinds of experiences make us better bridges between opposing sides, inviting others to exert their own dormant muscles. Fortunately, we don’t have to go far to initiate these interactions, as there are plenty of ways to contribute to a sturdier social fabric within our own communities.
Whatever direction we choose on the path to national healing and unity, we cannot ignore the role of relationships in our lives or the health of our nation. While some might view “trust” and “relationships” as vague, intangible concepts without serious consequence, the reality is that the absence of these things has wrought real hardship on American communities. If we continue to dismiss their significance, these hardships – and the vicious cycles they perpetuate – will only grow.
The shape of the Biden/Harris political agenda, and the presence of Democratic congressional majorities required to execute on that agenda, means that a commitment to stronger American communities could pay dividends on a scale seldom seen in American history. Of course, a more resilient social fabric cannot be stitched overnight. Nor will agitation from any one segment of society ignite a sustained movement towards national unity. Instead, change must begin with an intention in the heart of every American to view their fellow citizens as passengers of the same ship, and it must culminate in efforts from the top-down and the bottom-up to keep that vessel afloat. That means holding elected officials accountable – but it also means the job is just as much ours as it is theirs. And that job begins now.