Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)
By: Sid Salter
Pew Center Research reflects a widely shared belief in this nation that distrust of the federal government and distrust among fellow Americans is a fundamental obstacle to finding meaningful solutions to the problems that confront our country.
The Pew findings showed that 75 percent believe that trust in the federal government is shrinking and likewise that 64 percent believe trust in fellow Americans is also shrinking. At this same time, respondents believe by 64 percent that low trust in the government makes problem-solving elusive, while 70 believe lack of trust in each other is the culprit.
This decline in civic confidence is something neither new nor invented in the 2020 election cycle. Twenty-seven years ago, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam published a 1995 scholarly journal essay entitled “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” He argued that, unlike the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Americans stopped doing as many things as possible together.
Five years later, in 2000, Putnam expanded that essay into a book entitled “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” The book broadens the scholar’s scope of study and comment but does not depart from his thesis.
Group participation and interaction are declining in America – from civic groups to church to associations to neighbors across the fence, we are spending less time together and more “virtual” time together.
One piece of evidence Putnam offered was that in the first two-thirds of the century, Americans bowled in organized leagues but that by the 1970s, a growing majority dropped out of the leagues and bowled alone. Hence the title of his writings.
But a less fanciful observation came in the realm of voter participation. Putnam noted that 62.8% of the voting-age population voted in the 1960 presidential election, while only 48.9% voted in 1996. In the century that began in 2000, voter participation rates increased from this historic 1996 low by rising to 58%, then dropping to 56% in 2012.
Putnam wrote that between 1952 and 1998, Americans rated their fellow citizens as “people who can be trusted,” while today, that number has fallen to 35%. Is that driven by genuine distrust or a growing withdrawal from public life? Sound familiar?
The 2020 elections saw a sharp increase in voter participation, but the price of that was a bitterly divided nation from both partisan and philosophical standpoints. Political scientist and two-party system critic Lee Drutman described the 2020 turnout growth this way in The Washington Post:
“While the all-or-nothing high-stakes hyper-partisanship of 2020 might be good for a high turnout, it is not good for American democracy. Closely contested winner-take-all elections make losers extremely dissatisfied and thus exacerbate polarization. This is especially dangerous when party allegiances divide along urban-vs-rural lines, as is currently true.
“This binary divide generates a kind of ‘pernicious polarization’ in which winning becomes everything, and partisans will look past, or even actively support, democratic transgressions and power grabs in order for their side to win. Sometimes, tight elections are how democracies die,” Drutman wrote.
To be sure, Putnam likewise was observing the American civic engagement that existed before Vietnam, before multiple political assassinations, before Watergate, and before scandal after scandal after scandal rocked public confidence in public figures and institutions in this nation.
Putnam’s observations also came well before technology created so many individual diversions from group activities and before the nation’s media devolved into the cacophony of toxic social media and so-called “fake news.”
Chillingly, Putnam argued that by choosing individual activities over group interactions, we were putting at risk America’s ability to build social capital and undermining the nation’s character.
Facing crippling inflation and supply chain issues, the global balance of power conflict with changing and emerging hegemons, and a pandemic that will not entirely go away, Americans would be well-served to rediscover the verities of bipartisanship, compromise for the common good, cooperation, and old-fashioned civility in sincere efforts to restore a necessary modicum of trust in our government and each other.