In 2000 Robert D. Putnam provided an excellent description of the decline of “social capital” in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Bowling Alone documents the decline of social engagement and civic life in traditional community groups such as churches, Elks Clubs, PTAs, and bowling leagues. The precise cause of the decline is not clear, but it appears generational shifts, social upheaval, and increasingly technology, are major contributors.
In 2014 Marc J. Dunkelman built on the work of Putnam and others to produce The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community. Dunkelman takes a different approach and describes a shift from geographically based “townships” in which all manner of direct social engagement occurred with neighbors to “networks” facilitated by technology today.
When neighbors knew neighbors or had other direct engagement with them through community organizations it was much harder to classify them as “moonbats,” “haters,” and “deniers” when a disagreement occurred. They were decent human beings who worked hard, voted, cared for their children, attended your church, or participated in a civic group with you. These relationships allowed for disagreement without rejection.
Dunkelman describes our modern relationships in three rings that form a network. Family and close friends make up the inner-ring and are a bigger part of our lives today. The digital age has enabled greater connection in these nearest of relationships. The digital age has also advanced outer-ring casual associations across the globe with those with whom one shares interests. But middle-ring relationships like those of the town or neighborhood have declined precipitously, though pockets of days-gone-by can be found, particularly in rural areas.
In recent decades these changing patterns of life have enabled Americans to move further and further into isolated groups of self-validation. Watching, reading, and listening only to that which reinforces personally held political viewpoints are increasingly the norm. The institutions and patterns of life that once offset this behavior are largely gone. Establishment and reinforcement of middle-ring relationships, some through the evolution of existing institutions and others through new forms of civic engagement, will serve to better human health and well-being – and political discourse.
In God's Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America, E. Brooks Holifield relates a speech made by progressive minister and speaker Henry Ward Beecher to Yale seminarians in 1891. Beecher was trying to form communities by encouraging ministers to engage beyond the pulpit to “multiply picnics” and other “such little gatherings as shall mingle the people together and make them like one another.” It underpinned the development of many civic institutions by churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Maybe it is time for a revival that will multiply picnics and open more front porches. Call it a national day of neighborliness and encourage people to invite six neighbors they may not know for a brief social gathering to say hello. It reinforces consideration of the views of those with whom we may disagree on a particular topic if a social relationship exists with them.
It is a start.