Why Liberalism Depends on Neighborhood Dynamics

Creating a better political discourse must come through revitalizing local communities and institutions

Community Engagement: Positive social change must take place primarily at the local level. Image Credit: SDI Productions/Getty Images

In recent years, American politics and civil exchange have exhibited rising polarization and declining accommodation for difference. Our tone is shrill and our divisions evident. Meanwhile, the civic habits and practices that underpin liberalism have diminished. These include things such as proactively participating in public service and communal institutions, being willing to listen, acting in a socially responsible manner, volunteering to help others and balancing individual interests with the common good. The pursuit of civility is about much more than civil exchange, depending also on civic habits and the social institutions and norms that nurture them.

Analysts concerned with recent trends have looked at various national-level dynamics for answers, with some emphasizing the importance of economics (rising inequality), others the importance of institutional design (congressional districts, the electoral college) and still others the role of a changing media (Facebook, Twitter). But few have examined how civility first emerges from local relationships, neighborhoods and local institutions. National trends may reflect these relationships, but they do not create them, and national remedies certainly cannot repair them when they have become frayed.

Civility and a healthy respect for different opinions or beliefs do not appear from nowhere. They emerge from repeated interactions, consistent civic habits and a posture of gratitude for one’s immediate community. This socialization process works best when it occurs in person among various types of people on a regular, even daily, basis and when it is structured constructively by social institutions and norms. Neighborhoods and local institutions are our first and foremost incubator because they embed us in a set of long-lasting relationships involving repeated interactions. When this interpersonal dynamic is supplanted by Facebook feeds, sports competitions, entertainment and national campaigns around various causes, a different type of socialization process occurs, and the institutions and codes nurturing civility lose their influence.

Three specific crises are occurring simultaneously at the local level: First, the country is seeing a decline in local engagement in every community. Second, elites have become disconnected from much of the population, moving to their own enclaves (or rotating among multiple homes) and living mostly separate from the rest of us. Finally, family and social breakdown is accelerating in certain neighborhoods. These three crises all find their root in the deterioration of our formative and bridging social institutions and the norms these produce.

Only initiatives that reinvigorate or renew our formative and bridging institutions at the local level are likely to have an impact on these three crises—and thereby restore the civic habits that underpin liberalism and contribute to civility.

Decline of Formative Institutions

Dramatic changes in American culture and the global economy over the past half century have triggered a series of changes in social institutions and norms. These changes have ushered in both prosperity and calamity.

Greater freedom from many historically imposed constraints has arguably yielded more opportunity and equality for women and minorities; more freedom to explore new ideas, lifestyles and places; a more competitive and dynamic economy; and a more inclusive, democratic and competitive political system. Though the benefits of increased autonomy and self-expression are often touted in politics and popular culture, the less desirable consequences connected to these same changes are rarely noted. Tradeoffs are generally not acknowledged, and in some quarters it is unacceptable to suggest that some bad outcomes may be mixed with the good.

Many of these bad outcomes are related to personal norms of behavior. Freed from traditional constraints, people are less willing to compromise on personal goals for the sake of others, less likely to follow authority and less tied to a particular place and group, all of which reduce cohesion and increase inequality. And we often fail to see the link between daily decisions and larger dynamics. Writing in “The Lost City,” Alan Ehrenhalt says,

[T]he worship of choice has brought us a world of restless dissatisfaction, in which nothing we choose seems good enough to be permanent and we are unable to resist the endless pursuit of new selections—in work, in marriage, in front of the television set. . . . Stable relationships, civil classrooms, safe streets—the ingredients of what we call community—all come at a price. The price is limits on the choices we can make as individuals, rules and authorities who can enforce them, and the willingness to accept the fact that there are bad people in the world and that sin exists in even the best of us. The price is not low, but the life it makes possible is no small achievement.

Community is produced when members of any city, neighborhood or marriage are committed to the relationship (Ehrenhalt’s “price”), invest in it and stay devoted during tough times. Such commitment, especially from leaders, is essential to maintaining the strength of that city, neighborhood or marriage when alternative opportunities present themselves or particularly difficult conditions appear.

The deterioration of the social institutions that have historically played a formative role in nurturing constructive norms has created a vacuum into which a set of novel destructive norms—or anti-norms—has flowed. This is particularly so when “the embodied feedback cycle of human interaction” is replaced by what L.M. Sacasas describes as “the idealized frictionless quality of online actions, particularly in the absence of the body.” Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen observed this phenomenon during her Senate testimony:

[W]hen you and I interact in person, and I say something mean to you, and I see [you] wince or I see you cry, that makes me less likely to do it the next time, right? That’s a feedback cycle. Online kids don’t get those cues and they learn to be incredibly cruel to each other and they normalize it. And I’m scared of what will their lives look like, where they grow up with the idea that it’s okay to be treated badly by people who allegedly care about them? That’s a scary future.

In a performative, self-interested culture, values such as responsibility, generosity and honesty are prized less and less. For example, in recent decades there has been a significant decline in the proportion of people who think unlawful acts—such as accepting a bribe in the course of one’s duties, cheating on taxes, wrongfully claiming a benefit and avoiding a public-transit fare—are never justifiable, as Paul Howe has shown using data from the American portion of the World Values Survey (WVS). These trends run counter to proper civic habits and can only weaken cooperation and cohesion—whether nationally or locally.

Decline of Bridging Institutions

Working in tandem with formative institutions, bridging social institutions once brought people across social and political divides together and taught them how to tolerate differences. These institutions are essential in any diverse society to ensure that cleavages along religious, ethnic, class or ideological lines do not appear or are kept limited in scope. But whereas local social institutions—everything from churches to community associations to school boards to local media—used to unify Americans (though not always across racial divides), today they have decayed beyond recognition. The neighborhoods that people inhabit are far less politically and socioeconomically diverse than they used to be. Richard Reeves describes how

dwindling participation in the community organizations that used to bridge social gaps means that Americans tend more and more to interact exclusively with people who are like themselves. This ‘silo effect’ is widespread, but the social chasm has grown particularly large between the upper-middle class and everyone else.

Today, public institutions (e.g., the courts) and processes (e.g., elections) are the main bridging mechanisms, and these are increasingly being politicized. Why? Because public institutions—including laws, regulations and tax codes—have limited influence when societies do not provide a social ecosystem with formative and bridging institutions.

Politicization of public institutions, then, reflects a failure of the social ecosystem—a weakness in the social institutions and norms that undergird political action. Many poor countries have very similar laws and government bodies to rich countries but lack the social mechanisms and capacity—what Russell Kirk called the “social reality”—to ensure that these function as they should on paper. Corruption, cheating and deception thrive without the necessary ecosystem.

Similarly, policies in the U.S. aimed at fighting poverty, strengthening education, increasing social mobility and so forth do not work as expected without the local social mechanisms to support them—in this case, robust families, supportive communities, strong schools and constructive norms and institutions. As Anthony Bryk and his colleagues conclude in “Organizing Schools for Improvement”: “The neighborhood served by a school may offer significant social resources, or it may create formidable barriers to sustained development of the essential supports necessary to improve student outcomes.”

 The Crisis of Community Abandonment

The decline of formative and bridging institutions has led to three crises at the local level. Remedies for each also start at the local level.

First, our society has seen a major decline in the commitment to our communities over the past six decades, a trend documented and detailed by Robert Putnam in “Bowling Alone.” The U.S. has moved from a “townshipped” society in which neighbors regularly communicated and collaborated with each other to a “networked” one in which local neighborhoods, schools, churches and civic organizations are unimportant and weak. This has undone, as Marc Dunkelman wrote in 2011, “the bonds that long defined American villages, neighborhoods, and suburbs.”

Americans are abandoning community. Our focus on inner-ring (nuclear family and closest friends) and outer-ring (acquaintances from work, political campaigns and Facebook) relationships is not community, only a limited substitute for it. Technology is not a substitute for connection, as the rise in loneliness data and teen suicide attests. “The Quest for Community,” in the words of Robert Nisbet, continues unabated, but it has been redirected from local to national affiliations, with predictably negative effects on the neighborhoods we inhabit, our civic habits in those neighborhoods and the national politics we are now too invested in.

Given the lower likelihood that neighborhoods and groups will organically build geographically based communities from the bottom up today, more intentional alternative approaches are needed. Community Renewal International (CRI), for example, takes a “greenhouse” approach and tries to systematically grow and intermingle a wide variety of programs, workshops and mechanisms to bring together all the elements of community on its own. It trains residents to strengthen relationships on their block and become community leaders. Its Haven Houses lead a “coordinated neighboring” network that organizes around individual streets. Friendship Houses serve a larger area, providing tutoring for children, character-building exercises, life-skills programs, mentoring, conflict resolution and family support.

The Crisis of the Disconnection of Elites

Our second crisis, the growing disconnection of elites from society at large, affects the great majority of neighborhoods across the country and sets the tone for cultural attitudes nationally. This disconnection is evident in norms of civic engagement: Whereas once they viewed themselves as stewards of society and community—with all the responsibilities that this entailed—elites today are geographically disengaged and economically self-interested. They habitually highlight their willingness to “check their privilege” and help the marginalized, while purposely eschewing the responsibilities that their privilege ought to bring. Elites may give money or promote good causes but rarely act on a personal level in a way that strengthens society. They rarely support policies that would constrain their choices or limit their gains (for example, restrictions on trade, business monopolies and tax avoidance). And they rarely move to third-tier cities, compromise their career prospects or put their children in underperforming urban schools.

Elite disconnection has had an especially large impact in places where elites have completely disappeared and where even upper-middle-class households are rare. This phenomenon leaves places such as eastern Kentucky suffering from brain drain and neighborhoods bereft of the models, mentors, authority figures and financial backers that used to sustain them socially and economically. These neighborhoods have seen the most precipitous decline in constructive norms and institutions because those most able or willing to uphold them have exited.

Government, elite grooming institutions (e.g., schools, clubs, social activities and internships), the media and so forth should make a much more concerted effort to bolster bridging mechanisms and embed elites in local communities. This requires creating mechanisms and incentives that ensure that different classes either live in the same broad areas or intermix on more than a perfunctory level. It also means ensuring that gains and risks from globalization and technology are more evenly distributed. This would make elites more knowledgeable, more responsible and better incentivized to address the challenges that the country and its common people face. (Warren Buffet’s success may have more to do with his humble lifestyle and local embeddedness than is generally appreciated.) The closer the social ties—the more personal the information, relationship and sense of obligation—the greater the noblesse oblige. And without investment, cohesion depletes. Social cohesion must be continuously pursued, especially by elites but also by leaders and influencers at every level of society.

The Crisis of Deteriorating Social Norms

This brings us to the third crisis: The exit of elites (and the upper-middle class), combined with an overemphasis on autonomy and choice and harsh economic conditions for the less educated, has opened space for the emergence of the unconstructive norms that produce social breakdown in a growing number of neighborhoods across the country. Concentrated economic disadvantages are exacerbated by the social disadvantages that unconstructive norms produce (as well as the lack of social connections to other parts of society), imperiling anyone living in these places.

Whereas African Americans used to be the main group facing these challenges, a growing number of lower-class white areas are also experiencing them today, such as in Appalachia and parts of the Midwest. The opioid epidemic is not a national crisis as much as a series of local crises. Family breakdown is much more severe, joblessness is much higher and incarceration much more common among the poor and less well educated. These Americans are clustered in particular neighborhoods far removed from where wealthier and better-educated people live. Children growing up in these neighborhoods will be severely disadvantaged for the rest of their lives.

Relocating families to better neighborhoods can have a substantial impact, as shown by the Moving to Opportunity experiment run by Raj Chetty and his colleagues. But this kind of program couldn’t work at scale for the millions of children at risk. What does it take to improve places instead? Coordinated investments—possibly backed by tax incentives—in both the material and social spheres. For the former, housing, schools, libraries and other wellness amenities can transform struggling neighborhoods into mixed-income areas. Purpose Built Communities did this in a part of Atlanta, and the organization has now developed a network replicating its model in some 20 other cities.

For the social sphere, some sort of incentive (matching grants?) should be offered to any philanthropy, nonprofit organization or religious body that establishes new programs or chapters and meets two criteria: (1) located in areas identified as significantly disadvantaged from social breakdown or as especially low in social capital and (2) seeking to build social connectedness and cohesion and to bolster constructive norms. This effort would parallel attempts to attract business investment into poor areas, but with a focus on social rather than only economic impoverishment.

Reversing Course

With the above specific suggestions in mind, reinvigorating the social ecosystem—essential to addressing the three social crises—requires a cross-cutting, sustained and broad effort to bolster our formative and bridging social institutions, especially at the local level where they have the largest impact.

Not all social institutions are in decay. In fact, associational life in America remains rich, just not in the way it used to be. Problem-driven organizations (e.g., those tackling hunger, healthcare and college access) and political groupings have grown tremendously. But the entities that shape character, instill commitment to nation and place, and bridge class and political divides have declined substantially. These formative and bridging social institutions need help. Rebuilding these institutions is a common prescription, but we will need local, in-person, interpersonal change for such efforts to stick. What are some mechanisms for this kind of change?

Let’s start at the household level. A strong marriage, the most important character-forming social institution, provides basic family stability, affecting a wide range of social outcomes as it imbues men, women and children with meaning and moral obligation. Marriage positively influences health, incomes, social mobility, poverty rates, inequality, happiness, crime rates and the physical, emotional and academic well-being of children. It contributes to stronger neighborhoods, better schools and greater attachment to neighbors. The unattached are at greater risk of adopting destructive patterns and suffering from the ills of loneliness. Although strengthening family stability is immensely difficult, a church-based organization known as Communio has proven successful by partnering with churches and using the latest big data and marketing techniques to target those most in need of help. It is building out a network of local affiliates across the country.

At the neighborhood level, we could consider how community forms character and connects people across political and socioeconomic lines. There are at least four ways to strengthen community in the face of various forces working against it today: (1) Bolster the social infrastructure and institutions that make organic community building more likely; (2) systematically establish a wide variety of programs, workshops and mechanisms that can grow social relationships and institutions in the expectation that this will produce a community (as in the CRI example); (3) create platforms that work in a more top-down fashion to accomplish some community goals; and (4) restructure government around neighborhoods in order to encourage their better self-governance and thus community orientation. These approaches offer promise that a healthy and dynamic social ecosystem will grow.

Stepping out the front door and surveying the streetscape, we might next consider the role of religion. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell quantify in “American Grace,” those who frequently attend a religious service are more likely to donate money to charity, volunteer, help the homeless, donate blood, spend time with a person who is depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity is a better predictor of altruism and empathy than education, age, income, gender or race. Why? Tocqueville posited that only religion can reach into the “habits of the heart” as well as the “whole range of ideas that shape habits of mind.” Faith organizations have a uniquely wide presence across the American landscape; at their best, they serve both formative and bridging roles in their local communities.

Expanding our view to the city level, we can see the importance of schools and other public institutions, which used to also play a major role in character formation while helping to unify people across political differences. Those selecting and grooming the elite have a special role to play preparing them for stewardship. The overemphasis on merit and achievement (and wealth) has reduced the importance of character and virtue among elites, undermining the values and norms that once predominated across society, with a clear impact on everything from the political arena to the financial markets to the dating scene. This requires transforming how young adults are trained and evaluated.

Youth are the most vulnerable to the breakdown in social institutions, but they are also the most open to change and thus are a natural entry point for any effort to revitalize society. Political leaders could develop a national service program under which everyone who turns 18 works for a period of time (say, for example, one year) doing a variety of public service work. This could be patterned after programs such as Teach for America or military service, with some preliminary training followed by time working to enhance specific neighborhoods in a holistic manner with people from different backgrounds.

Such a program could start with work close to home (to avoid the startup challenges of housing huge numbers of people) and eventually be transformed either into something that encourages participants to explore a different part of the country or simply a way to learn about other parts of one’s own region. Universities could offer credit or even require student participation in some form. The more the national service program forced people to work across social, economic and political divides—whether nationally or locally—the more it would help heal some of the divisions that have increasingly plagued the country.

A Place-Based Agenda

Tocqueville concludes that “[l]aws are always unstable unless they are founded on the manners of a nation; and manners are the only durable and resisting power in a people.” Even though rising polarization and declining accommodation for difference are national problems, they have their roots in how relationships have dramatically changed at the local level. Previously, elites were deeply enmeshed in mixed-income local communities and regularly reached out across political and class divides. This made them better prepared to build coalitions and act as stewards nationally—and to contribute locally to the kind of vibrant communities that concomitantly limited social and family breakdown. Stronger bonds yielded better norms, and vice versa. Those bonds and norms were nurtured neighborhood by neighborhood.

Today, we need a place-based agenda to narrow the gap between parts of cities, between cities and rural areas, and between different parts of the country. Too often, economic dislocation has occurred in ways that undermined social ties without any steps being taken to minimize the former or bolster the latter. Aid is aimed at individuals, but little is done to help places. If the government, businesses and philanthropists invested in mechanisms to boost the places most affected by economic dislocation—technology schools, local banks, middle-income housing, vocational programs, convenient transportation and various tax breaks—it would reduce the negative impacts that our highly efficient but socially disruptive economic system brings.

While national leaders can take steps to advance this agenda, ultimately local political, religious and civic leaders must take the lead. Ideally these local institutions would partner with each other, with ample support from the latest marketing and communication techniques to advance their causes and monitor their progress. Only such efforts are likely to revive places such as Baltimore and central Appalachia. As Lee Jeter, who runs a housing nonprofit in one of CRI’s neighborhoods in Shreveport, says,

People now say, ‘This is our community, and we’re going to take charge.’ If you can take a place that was in decline and decay like Allendale, and revitalize it from the inside, then if it can happen in Allendale, it can happen in any community in the United States.

We can all play a role addressing the three social crises explored above. If we can “plant ourselves” by intentionally recommitting to our geographic community and investing in key formative and bridging institutions—and encourage enough of our neighbors and local institutions to join us—we can change both habits and discourse. Civility will emerge as a natural fruit of our efforts, and liberalism will once again thrive in our country.

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