How fractured is our republic? That’s the question Utah Sen. Mike Lee is seeking to answer with his new initiative, the Social Capital Project. In a new report released by the senator’s office this week, Lee considers the roots of American association—the private ties that knit us together—and asks whether they still exist, or have frayed beyond repair.
The project’s introduction is worth reading in full. It features quotes from Alexis De Tocqueville, Robert Nisbet, Yuval Levin, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Putnam, defining “social capital” and telling us why it matters.
“Jointly pursuing common goals—prosaic or profound—draws people out of themselves, gives them a reason to get up in the morning, and to be responsive to the needs of others,” the report notes. “When people lack the meaning and purpose derived from strong bonds and routine social attachments, they are more prone to alienation and atomization.”
It will be interesting to follow Lee’s project in coming days. But we needn’t wait to discover that our society has become increasingly fractured, hostile, and depressed. We should be asking ourselves, as we review the trends Lee identifies, how we can live, worship, and work together again.
Social Capital Requires ‘Tangible Substances’
Geography matters. It’s easy not to think so in today’s world: interactions on Facebook and Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram may lead us to see geography as something easily defied or ignored. Our commutes—via train, plane, and automobile—may convince us that space and geography aren’t all that constraining or important.
Yet geography matters—because escaping our places, the rhythms and constraints of tangible space, eventually lead us to atomization and estrangement. The Social Capital Project points that out.
L.J. Hanifan first used the term “social capital” in 1916 to describe “tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of a people, namely goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse.” The word “tangible” here is vital: it can be substituted for “palpable,” “touchable,” “physical,” or “concrete.” In other words: you can’t build social capital on Facebook.
You may think that’s reactionary. An early-twentieth-century author couldn’t describe the realities we face now, you might argue. His definition of social networking shouldn’t be applied to our technologically advanced world. But I’ve got a quick test for you, to determine whether you’re right. Let’s say you’re working on dinner for your family, and suddenly your power goes out. Or perhaps your air conditioner breaks down on a 100-degree day in August.
In that moment, are you going to post a Facebook status asking for help, or are you going to run over to the neighbor’s, knock on his door, and ask if his oven’s still working, or whether he can help you repair the AC?
Our Physical Space Matters
Social capital depends on real presence. It’s the sort of instantaneous and spontaneous connection that only happens via geographic proximity. It also involves—importantly—fellowship between people who might never otherwise meet or spend time with each other, but who are drawn together by physical closeness.
This is how language and cultural barriers break down, how ideological and political fragmentation find repair. Sadly, in modern American society, the bonds of geography have grown weaker and weaker with time, turning us into a commuting culture that lives in solipsistic bubbles. We have our church bubble, our work bubble, our commuting bubble, our school bubble, and our family bubble (not to mention our various social media bubbles). Each is often geographically separate, filled with a separate set of people.
One friend, upon observing this social division, said, “If you fellowship with different sets of people, none of whom know or interact with each other, you can be an entirely different person in each space, and no one would ever know.” Are you one person at work, another at home, and yet another online? If so, you don’t just know what a lack of social capital looks like—you’re living it.
So what, you may ask, if we look to the Internet for friendship, work for empowerment, and the government for support? So what if we’re getting married later, or not at all? Why do we need neighbors or geographic connectedness, anyway? I’ll suggest five main reasons, although there are more.
1. Neighborliness Fosters Empowerment
Something important happens when a physical community surrounds and supports you. Community means you’re not alone when tragedy or unemployment strikes, you desperately need financial help, or could use an extra hand with the kids.
Robert Nisbet once warned that, in a society where community falls apart, the individual would increasingly look to the state for support and solace. That’s increasingly what we’re seeing. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both branded themselves as salvific politicians, men who could singlehandedly turn things around and ease the financial, cultural, and social burdens their supporters feel. They promised to soothe the pains of their constituents, and check every item off their collective bucket lists.
But this isn’t empowerment. If it’s anything, it’s a sort of nanny state: one which vests the state with immense powers in the hopes of greater ease of life. We don’t mind an encroaching federal government, if it means we won’t have to worry about tomorrow.
But social capital promises something different—something more grassroots, and therefore arguably more tailored and powerful. As Lee’s report notes, “decentralizing authority and decision-making capacity to our middle layers might go a long way to increasing America’s ability to address challenges incrementally through trial and error in ways that are much closer to the people and their varied situations.” Where you have neighbors, you don’t need the state—at least not to the same degree.
2. Neighborliness Teaches Us Empathy
Secondly, community fosters empathy because (as noted above) it often forces us into fellowship with people very different from us. Your neighbors may be of a drastically different age, ethnicity, religion, or political persuasion. That shouldn’t stop you from befriending them. Their proximity offers you the opportunity to build community and understanding. You may have nothing in common but your place—but that, in and of itself, matters. It matters more than almost anything else.
“Technology has also allowed us to interact less—either in-person or online—with anyone whose values or opinions are different than our own,” Lee’s report notes. Facebook fosters ideological bubbles: safe spaces cushioned from all political disagreement or rancor. In practice, this sort of separation breeds misunderstanding, stereotyping, scapegoating, and worse. It makes us less empathetic and winsome. It makes us hateful where we should be compassionate, dogmatic where we should be thoughtful.
3. Neighborliness Ensures Safety
Something happened when people stopped sitting on their front porches, Wendell Berry has noted: when they traded an evening sitting outside watching neighbors for an evening sitting inside and watching television. People grew less connected. They dialogued less, played together less.
The car furthered this trend: suddenly, you could walk from house to garage, from garage to car, without seeing or interacting with a single soul. The commuting individual separates herself from her communal fabric almost entirely.
This has consequences for community, but it also has consequences for safety. We don’t as easily, or as quickly, monitor each other’s property and wellbeing. We don’t have our neighbors’ phone numbers to text or call if we see suspicious activity outside their homes. And perhaps we don’t feel comfortable reaching out in the first place, because we’re strangers to them.
A scream in the night, the shouting or crying of an unknown person, will likely result in a call to the police. But will there be follow-up: ensuring that everything’s alright, and everyone’s okay? Perhaps we could help prevent and protect against domestic violence, or root out violent crime before it happens. But perhaps we’re just too shy to do so. In the end, we don’t just end up hurting our communities—we hurt ourselves.
4. Neighborliness Encourages Accountability
Community fosters accountability. How I tend my garden is often influenced by the appearance of my neighbors’ gardens. When I feel lazy and want to procrastinate, my neighbors’ gorgeous yard will remind me that I need to get the weeding done.
Neighborly accountability extends beyond landscaping. It can arise from the friendships we cultivate, and the virtues they help us aspire to. It may influence the way we treat our own families, pets, and possessions.
Accountability can also help abet or deter various minor neighborhood issues that otherwise would involve calling the police or the county. Small(ish) annoyances—blaring sounds or fireworks, property neglect or disarray—are often treated via an appeal to the state, instead of through personal petition.
It’s easy to see why: the latter is so much harder. We’d rather just avoid confrontation. But consider: let’s say you knock on your neighbor’s door with a plate of cookies in hand, and ask him to turn down the music so your baby can sleep. Or let’s say a cop shows up at their front door, and lets them know the neighbor called with a complaint. Which is more likely to foster goodwill in the future?
5. Neighborliness Builds Community
Community is the goal of all our neighborly striving. We hope our kids can ride their bikes down the street, or set up a lemonade stand on a summer afternoon, and know all (or most of) the adults and kids who pass by. We hope their music recitals and soccer games won’t just draw grandparents but maybe, perhaps, the next-door neighbor or their best friend down the street. We hope we’ll be able to do some good: to help the single mother down the street, or the elderly neighbor who needs someone to clean out his gutters. We hope we’ll never fear for our safety, or worry about our house when we’re gone, because our neighbors have got our backs.
We hope for these things. Perhaps we can achieve some of them. But to do so will require a radical reimagining of our daily rhythms, online habits, and evening pastimes. It will require looking at the social capital in our neighborhood, and asking ourselves whether we’re strengthening it or making it worse.
This is something Lee can assist through his Social Capital Project. But it’s also, importantly, something you can and should do today. I wish you success.