Alexis de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who became an astute and enthusiastic observer of American culture and government in the first half of the 19th Century. He was particularly struck by the tendency of Americans to voluntarily come together for different causes and purposes. He wrote, “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.”
In recent decades, writers have begun to observe a decline in such behavior. In 2000, Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” documented the decline of what he termed “social capital” in America – that term referring to the various non-governmental institutions and voluntary associations that bring people together. The title references Putnam’s discovery that while Americans still bowl in great numbers, bowling leagues have declined dramatically.
Many other writers have looked at this phenomenon in different ways – Jonathan Haidt, Jonah Goldberg, Sen. Mike Lee and others have written on the topic, using different terms such as “mediating institutions” and “civil society.” One of the most fascinating books on the topic is Timothy Carney’s “Alienated America.”
A conservative, Carney was nonetheless struck by the number of people who seemed to identify with Donald Trump’s statement that “the American Dream is dead” – particularly in a time of relative prosperity. He noted the sharp uptick in “deaths of despair” understood as death by suicide, drug overdose and alcoholic liver failure, particularly among working-class men in certain regions.
What he found was that people were becoming increasingly isolated and that people’s networks of social connections were falling away one by one. To be sure, there was an economic component to this – when a factory town loses its factory, civil society necessarily suffers – but his research showed that many of the people who believe the American dream to be dead were not suffering economically. Rather, they were from regions where, for reasons economic and otherwise, the institutions that bring people together were in decline.
Carney attributed this to a host of reasons: expansion of government as well as rampant individualism; centralization in some areas and atomization in others; globalization and consolidation of businesses as well as the gig economy. What most struck me from the book (though he does not say it in these words) is this: the American Dream is not really an economic construct. People derive meaning from meaningful participation in something larger themselves, whether that is a company, a church, a club or a nonprofit.
He notes the especially dire consequences of the decline of two fundamental American institutions – family and church. A hugely disproportionate number of the aforementioned “deaths of despair” were to people living alone. He found that people who regularly attended church were the happiest and most successful, but the unhappiest people weren’t atheists. Instead, they were people who said religion was very important to them but who rarely attend church.
I believe that much of the meaning people used to find in other institutions has been subsumed by political tribalism which offers a false promise of belonging on the cheap. The caricature of the isolated American is the underemployed person who spends hours consuming their preferred flavor of cable news from Fox or MSNBC and then shouting their tribe’s war cry into the ether of social media.
Fortunately, our own community offers many opportunities for people to build social capital. Sen. Lee and his staff compiled a social capital database of 2992 counties (the vast majority of all counties in the U.S.) for his study “The Geography of Social Capital.” The study catalogs the number of clubs, associations, churches, etc. per capita. In that database, Shenandoah County ranks in the 74th percentile of all counties; Frederick is in the 79th percentile; and Warren is in the 64th, as is Page.
We are lucky to have many clubs – Moose, Elks, Lions, Eagles, Rotaries, and Knights of Columbus, with missions ranging from social, to spiritual, to philanthropic. Shenandoah is home to the Shenandoah Community Foundation, the Alliance for Shelter, The Free Clinic, Family Promise, the Shenandoah Education Foundation, Response and many other charities. We have dozens of churches whose open doors promise community and salvation.
Humans are wired to seek meaning and belonging in something larger than themselves. As individuals, we are surrounded by numerous opportunities for such belonging in our community. As a community, we should cultivate and cherish these institutions of civil society that provide us social capital.