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How To Build Neighborhoods
Seth Kaplan speaks with Ben Klutsey about cooperation, social entrepreneurship and why our society is too focused on politics
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Seth Kaplan, author of “Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time,” about social poverty in the midst of material prosperity, the need to practice relationships, the importance of local institutions, civic creativity and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Our guest today is Dr. Seth Kaplan. We at the Mercatus Center’s program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange have had the great pleasure of working with him as a visiting fellow. He’s a leading expert on fragile states, political transitions, conflict prevention, political risk assessment, state building, governance and human rights.
He’s a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, senior adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions, and consultant to multilateral organizations, developing-country governments, think tanks and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. He has co-authored and authored several books, including his latest one, “Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time,” which is the subject of our conversation today.
Thanks, Seth, for joining us.
SETH KAPLAN: Thank you so much, Ben.
Nigeria and Japan
KLUTSEY: You lived in Nigeria and Japan after college. How did this experience inform your interest in studying fragile states?
KAPLAN: A few things. First: I, from an early age, was very tuned into the way my surroundings worked. When I was in these countries, I just didn’t live in these countries: I studied these countries. I studied relationships, I studied society, I studied government. I almost did this instinctively. I lived with families. I read novels; I read history. I looked around.
I think the contrasts between these two countries are enormous. Nigeria, for all of its energy, all of its diversity, all of its—it’s sometimes a joy. I find Nigeria—such energy, such a joy to spend time with Nigerians. But it’s so diverse. The government works so-so, if not worse. Corruption, misgovernance and a lot of ethnic, religious tension that drives politics and drives very much everything.
Then you switch to Japan. Japan is easily the most cohesive large country in the world: 120 million people. No outside immigration for at least 1,400, 1,500 years. Incredibly homogeneous, cohesive. There’s no ethnic, religious divides. There are political divisions at times.
But if you contrast these two countries, you can easily come to the conclusion that cohesion, ease of bringing people together against an external threat, ease of bringing people together to cooperate, build consensus and build institutions, develop your economy, can matter a lot to the destiny of states. I think where these two states have ended up over the last many decades, if not century or more, will show you why that is the case.
KLUTSEY: You went to these countries, and it sparked something in you, wanting to study fragile states across the world. How was your journey from there to now?
KAPLAN: Well, first—I think there’s a few points. First is the personal journey. I very much felt distant. I didn’t have the easiest childhood. I was bullied, had a very difficult time in school, middle school, high school. I somehow developed a sense that I very much liked warm cultures. I very much liked places where there was a sense of interdependency, a sense of togetherness.
On a personal level, spending time in Nigeria, in Africa, in the Middle East, in South Asia: all these places—Latin America, to some extent—they’re very warm. People are more aware of each other, and they have thicker relationships than we have in the West and particularly the United States. There’s that whole aspect of it.
On the other hand, it wasn’t just Japan and Nigeria: I wandered. I wandered around Africa. I wandered around all these other continents. I read, and I thought really hard. I was in business, but what was keeping me up at night was, why are these states working better than those states?
I would read a lot. I was very dissatisfied with the answers. Mostly, people look at the problem of why states succeed or fail in a very technical fashion. Yes, they focus on institutions, but they think of them in a very narrow sense: formal government institutions and things like that, the nature of what institutions are doing. They look at them in some sort of functional manner. I thought that this whole way of thinking was missing a lot.
I gravitated toward fragile states first because of great curiosity, great affinity for the people, great interest in the diversity, the warmth, the excitement. Even if things weren’t working well, there was always something about the interaction of people that was always really interesting, stimulating. Then eventually, when I studied things, it became somewhat of an obsession. What is it about these countries that are not working, and why are all these books on why nations succeed or fail—there’s even a book called “Why Nations Fail.” What do I find missing from these analyses?
It basically led me to say, “This is what I should be doing. I should be spending my life focused on studying societies, particularly fragile societies, and coming up with practical ways to make them better.” That’s basically what I’ve done for the last 20 years.
KLUTSEY: Yes—very interesting.
Now, one of the insights in your book that I find very interesting—and I guess people know this intuitively, but you spell it out so clearly—is the idea that you can be rich and socially poor, and that upward mobility can be an engine of isolation and alienation. You use a quote by Mauricio Miller that says, “Being friendless is the deepest form of poverty.” Can you unpack that?
KAPLAN: Well, I think we assume that poverty only is economic, and we assume too often that success is only economic. A flourishing person is more than the material. I think you can see this in—any religion will very clearly say that from happiness to success or everything, it’s not just bread alone. It’s not just the material.
But I think if you look around—just look at the United States. Some of the places that are most socially rich—think of the Amish, think of some immigrant communities, think of some parts of rural America. But you also can find some very wealthy places. I live in Washington: Chevy Chase is very socially rich. A lot of local institutions, a lot of things going on. So I think what you can see from this, on the one side, is that you can see that social richness or poverty is not really material.
On the other side, you can certainly see poor places that are socially poor. They’re held back by the nature of relationships. But you can see in America a lot of neighborhoods, a lot of places where the houses are beautiful, there’s no social interaction. People feel anxious. People feel vulnerable. People feel a lack of attachments, a lack of places to go to when they’re not feeling right.
It’s clear the amount of drug use (legal drug use, illegal drug use), deaths of despair, depression, mental illness—just the data that we see in America on health of the population is clearly telling us that something is wrong that’s not material. We are the wealthiest large country in the world. (There are a few countries wealthier that are small.) Yet our lifespan, average lifespan—the gap between us and other developed countries has been growing for 40 years, long before COVID.
What we’re seeing is that there’s something about our society that’s isolating us. Even as we’re becoming materially well-off, we’re becoming relationship-poor, and it’s affecting our health, our well-being, on many levels.
KLUTSEY: So when you look at the United States—you take your experiences studying fragile states around the world and you bring this experience to the United States, and you look at all of the United States and you say, “We seem to be fine at the macro level. Institutions are working fine, but we are incredibly socially poor.” That’s your conclusion?
KAPLAN: Well, let me connect it. This is a podcast about pluralism. I think most people, when they think about pluralism, they’re looking for some macro answer. People are not trustful; people are polarized. Is there something wrong with our electoral system? Is there something wrong with how we’re talking to each other? Is there something wrong with some policy? What is the macro answer for this macro problem that we’re seeing?
I will tell you that I think those—nationally, we have great institutions. We have great companies, great innovation. Our government may not work great at times. I myself want to pull my hair out looking at how the government is working sometimes. I live in Washington, and we’re all fighting over the government. But the biggest problem is, it doesn’t work as well as it should or could.
But I would say that the biggest problem is not at that level. It’s the decline of our relationships, the decline of our institutions, the isolation, the lack of practice. If you’re not practicing being in relationships, you’re not practicing working in institutions, you’re not practicing being involved with other people—it’s not only friends. It’s actually, more importantly, relationships. If you don’t have those relationships, you don’t have that practice, too much of your focus will be on politics. You will easily be more mistrustful of other people because you don’t have a lot of experience in trusting relationships.
I argue in my book that what we’re seeing in terms of the decline of pluralism, the increase in mistrust, the increase in alienation all lies downstream to something that has changed in our relationships. I do believe there’s economic and other factors and national factors, but I think the biggest factor that we are missing is that we simply don’t spend time with each other. We don’t practice.
If you’re a young person, you may have 100 connections on social media. How many friends or how many relationships—how many people do you play with on your block and in your neighborhood? Very few, and that has to have some impact on how you see the world and what you think about politics and what you think about society and what you think about the future of a country.
Cooperation and the Wild West
KLUTSEY: Yes, it’s really interesting.
One of the things you do in the book is that you challenge the “rugged individualism” narrative, and you indicate that the journey West was an incubator of cooperation. I guess we seem to have lost a little bit of that. Why is this understanding relevant for our thinking on how we improve neighborhoods?
KAPLAN: First we have to think about a couple of points. Human flourishing: There are individuals who can go to the desert island or the island in the middle of the ocean and be Tom Hanks in that movie, and they can survive by themselves, and maybe they would flourish. There are individuals like that, but there aren’t too many of them. Most of us are healthier, happier, in relationships. So let’s first think about that.
Also, going back to your question, and so there’s something fundamental about human flourishing here—but if I’m going to the West and I’m going without a government, often without roads, without anything to protect me, without any ways to deal with danger, into this very high-risk environment, you better believe people are not traveling alone. People are traveling in groups. They’re finding people. They’re having to learn to decide who’s trustworthy and who’s not trustworthy.
When they settle in a place, they’re cooperating to build institutions. They’re cooperating to build some type of local government even if there’s no federal, national, distant government. They’re doing a lot of things on a cooperative basis. Basically what that experience is—it’s incubating lots of institutions, lots of cooperation, lots of ways to manage conflict. Any group of people, to thrive, must have those things to succeed. Those things are cutting across individuals, cutting across households.
The connection with neighborhoods: Neighborhoods are not quite the Wild West, but neighborhoods are a similar type of, let’s say, island that each of us live in. Currently, today, they have very little meaning. You live in a place—we’ve built the placeless society, and you have very little interaction with people. But the way life used to be, and the way life still is in those thriving neighborhoods, there’s a lot of the similar dynamic going on that you would have seen in those towns in the Wild West.
Clearly, it’s different. We don’t all walk around with guns, and we’re not riding horses, but we are cooperating; we’re helping each other. To be very specific with a story: I live in a flourishing neighborhood. I can give you a couple of quick examples. My daughter’s best friend recently underwent chemo: 11 years old, underwent chemo. That family, believe me, does not want to be alone in the Wild West.
We have a community school; we have a lot of neighbors. I know the family; other people know the family. Neighbors, schools, everyone in the area comes together and supports the family so that the child and the family is being uplifted instead of feeling that they’re alone and isolated: Just one example.
I can think of the example of the kid, about two weeks ago in front of my house (about a couple of houses up), on the street—six years old, on a scooter. That would normally be great. I encourage kids to be on scooters all the time, except he was six and he was right around the corner from—he was basically in a spot where cars often turn in and not see who’s on the street, because it was off a busy street. My wife jumps out of the house, runs down, chases the kid back to the house, eyes on the street.
I can think of the story where my daughter dropped her younger brother on the cement a few years ago: bleeding on the bottom of his chin. You can imagine what that’s like. My wife just picked up the boy and ran down the street, didn’t even let us know where she was going. Where was she going? She was going to the closest nurse, which is about three blocks away.
The point of all these stories is, if you live in a flourishing neighborhood, you feel like you’re being supported. It is all these things going on where people are talking to each other. People know each other. It’s not about friendship: It’s about lots of relationships. It literally can be hundreds of relationships in a neighborhood.
People come together to solve this problem; people come together to solve that problem. I’m at 910: 903 is this woman, maybe in her mid-50s or something. You wouldn’t think she was very powerful, but she’s extremely powerful in terms of how she knocks on the door of people who live alone, does it every week; how she creates volunteer teams. We volunteer to clean parks. She creates volunteer activities for nonprofits. She’s constantly doing something. The point is, if we all feel a stake in where we live and we all feel close to our neighbors, we are constantly doing things to support each other, and they’re supporting us. And the dynamic around you is completely different.
I think it was somewhat akin to those towns in the Wild West, so to speak, where they had to support each other and they had to know each other, but it’s also how most human life has been since time immemorial. We were supporting each other by necessity, but it simply creates a different feeling: a feeling of joy, a feeling of support.
Most Americans have none of that. They’re just alone, isolated. All they can do if they have a problem is use their phone and get an app to help them. That maybe works sometimes, but there’s a lot of times it’s not going to help you.
KLUTSEY: I imagine you get this question a lot: What is a neighborhood? You’ve talked about some of the characteristics of it. I think sometimes people talk about zip codes and counties and municipalities and so on. In the book, you say only the people who live there know what their neighborhood is. It seems like the definition is a little fuzzy. Why is that?
KAPLAN: I would say if you live in a proper neighborhood, it’s not fuzzy at all. If you live in a proper neighborhood, the neighborhood will have identity, like a brand—like “this is the name of our neighborhood.” It will have boundaries. I think that’s one of the things people most miss. It should have boundaries. It should have a center. My neighborhood has a center: three restaurants, supermarket. Not beautiful, but we know it’s the center. It’s where you’re going to meet people by accident. It has a pharmacy, things like that.
A neighborhood has places where people are regularly meeting. It could be houses of worship, could be civic associations, could be parks. Again, it could be these restaurants. A neighborhood is going to have its own institutions. Could be local businesses. It could be some civic associations. Again, it could be churches or houses of worship. The key thing is there’s a lot of things that make up a neighborhood.
I would think that most listeners, if they’re listening in the United States, they’re going to find that they live in a neighborhood, or they live in a place that’s not quite a neighborhood, that doesn’t have most of these things, that doesn’t have regular places where they can meet other people. A proper neighborhood would have a lot of these institutions: formal, some of them just informal—your neighborhood parent associations or whatever they are, informal things, where you’re regularly meeting different people in your neighborhood.
It just builds a type of trust, cohesion, togetherness, sense of common destiny. If you have enough of these things, it all just happens organically. If you have none of these things, at best you’re going to know one or two neighbors because you’ve met them or you’ve talked to them, but you have no way to bring these people together toward a common goal, which is bettering the neighborhood.
Neighborhoods and Institutions
KLUTSEY: Is this an issue about neighborhoods, or is this really about institutions? Schools, churches, local associations, marriages and so on. The examples you use, from Life Remodeled to East Lake Foundation—and all these are examples in the book—they focus on these institutions that then have implications for neighborhoods. One might ask, what should the focus be? Are we really thinking institutions are what we have to place our efforts in? Or is it really neighborhoods?
KAPLAN: Well, I would say there’s two levels here. First, ideally, America should be physically landscaped around neighborhoods, so people all feel that they belong to a particular place with those items I mentioned previously: a center, a name, some institutions, some places to meet, something unique about the place.
If you go to Italy and you look at the cities, they’re all originally designed neighborhood by neighborhood. I think you would find that in France; you’d find that in a lot of older cities: that literally the physical landscape is built so that each neighborhood has its own identity, might even have its own—if you go to Italy, it probably has its own church. This is the church of the neighborhood, and so on and so forth. Think of what the parish—the idea of the parish, what did that mean historically? But even the way government was organized neighborhood by neighborhood.
So there’s a physical element, but ultimately the most important element is the institutions. Our relationships depend upon institutions. America used to be a country—think of the de Tocqueville vision of America: lots and lots, an abundance of local institutions. Those were not national advocacy organizations. Those are not distant universities or distant companies. They were local: local associations, local houses of worship, local businesses, everything.
As recently as 60 years ago, we had dozens and dozens of organizations that had chapters all over the country: literally 15,000—10, 12, 15,000 chapters. That’s not just cities. That’s not even just big, medium—that’s neighborhoods or towns or counties had all these associations, like the American Legion or the Grange, and they were all bringing people together, creating streams of volunteers across class, across politics.
The great divides in our country, which are political and class as well as racial today, these institutions in the past—they did not address the racial; if anything, they divided the racial. But they addressed the class and the political divides because they brought people together regularly to cooperate in a way that’s simply not happening today or not possible today. And they were everywhere.
Ultimately, it’s also institutions: strong marriages, strong interfamily networks, I would say community schools. Things like that are very important. The more we’re able to have a lot of local institutions and have a physical place that clearly is a neighborhood, and we feel that is our neighborhood, the more likely all these things will just occur organically and we will be supporting each other.
Today, most Americans, they’re alienated and mistrustful because they’re not experiencing life any other way. They’re experiencing life not like, I would say, people in Washington with their thriving institutions for the most part. If you’re going to most of America, people are alone. People are vulnerable. They belong in maybe no—they have a network or no network, or they have a network that’s not very helpful. Of course they’re going to be mistrustful and alienated. It’s almost natural. For us not to understand it that way, I think it means that we’re not experiencing life as they are.
Lack of Civic Creativity
KLUTSEY: On the point about how there used to be thousands of associations in America, you say in the book that “our modern era is not the first one in which the US has weathered rapid social change, but it’s the first time we have endured it without the kind of social innovations needed to mitigate the ill effects of that pelting change.” You also said that the late 19th century was an extraordinary period of civic creativity, and you were citing Theda Skocpol’s “Diminished Democracy” work. I’m curious: Why don’t we have these innovations and civic creativity to deal with the social problems that we’re facing, like we did before?
KAPLAN: I’d say that the country has undergone two waves of great social change. The first was the industrialization, urbanization, mass immigration of the late 19th century. The second is since the 1960s, when we’ve basically moved from a place-based society to a network-based society, with cars and shopping far away and all that stuff.
The reason why the first and the second—I think certainly one reason is, is that the government played a much lesser role, and social activism was very focused on institution building.
Today, in recent years, we have an enormous amount of nonprofits, but for the most part they’re not focused on local institution building. They’re not focused on bringing people together across—just on a regular basis. (They may have a goal, but the end result is they’re bringing people together locally. They’re embedding people in lots of institutions.) Much of our nonprofit world is focused on servicing people because of their material wants, or it’s focused on advocacy. They’re often distant. They’re not based in neighborhoods. They’re not based in places.
I would say there’s a few things. First is, the cause of this is the source of money has changed. I would say the money used to be coming locally, serving locally. Now it’s coming from other sources, and it’s not connected to local. Two, the role of government has changed. I would say, three, something about how we think about these problems has changed. We could be doing more of what we used to, but we’re spending much too much time thinking that policy is the answer.
A lot of smart people come to Washington thinking, “I’m going to make the country better.” And they focus on policy. My argument—or they focus on politics. And I think politics is too important, plays too important a role in our country. I think the idea that there’s a policy to fix these problems is much too important in the eyes of smart people or ambitious people about how they want to spend their lives. I think we would be much better off if those people, instead of going into politics or worried about politics or going into policy (because the two are connected), they would go to places and actually roll up their sleeves and actually make places better.
This is what we used to do. We wanted to do something for our country: We tried to make our place or a nearby place—and specific people, we tried to uplift them. Today, we have this notion—I think it’s probably because of the fact that everything is somehow nationalized in our mind.
Also, probably because universities—people go to university now, and they’re trained in university to think very abstract instead of very practical. Something about how we’re being trained, something about the ambitions of people. This is why I love the organization Lead for America (if I can call it an organization). They tell ambitious people at top universities, “The best way you can help the country and the ambition you can have for yourself is go back to your towns, go back to your small cities, and be ambitious there.”
I think if we had a lot more people stop being fixated with politics and policy, and they became fixated on places and actual people, our country would be far better off. I think the polarization itself would also go away or be lessened.
Now you say that the way to address this problem is not through a top-down approach or a bottom-up approach, but it’s a horizontal or sideways approach. What is this approach?
KAPLAN: It means two things. On one level, it means relationships. Instead of someone doing something to somebody, it basically means we have to work across. I work with you; we bring in other people. We have—I don’t know if you want to call it a coalition, a partnership, a bunch of friends, a bunch of relationships (don’t even have to be friends) come together to do things. That’s very horizontal.
But a second level also means across places. There’s many neighborhoods, but there’s also between neighborhoods. What you might think of bridging the divides in our society by working horizontally: Top-down is either governments doing things to people or big nonprofits doing things to people. Bottom-up is good, but bottom-up often means a very specific problem in a specific place; it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s relational, and it has a challenge scaling up because it’s very siloed.
For me, much better if we’re cooperating on changing the social dynamic and the relationships as a foundation for broader change in a place, and then working across the landscape, across places.
The Role of Politics
KLUTSEY: You also liken this to systems thinking. You say that this can be done in a politically neutral way. I wonder if it’s possible, given that every facet of our lives is saturated with politics. When you go into a local area, you’re trying to work with people—whatever your political leanings are, and whatever signal you give off would indicate to people where you are and will foster a way of dealing with you or working with you. Do you think this can be done in a politically neutral way?
KAPLAN: Think—in my neighborhood, we do not have, for the most part, political signs on our lawn. I ask you or ask our listeners, in your neighborhood, are people putting politics before relationships?
In my neighborhood, for the most part, I don’t know the politics of my neighbors. It comes up: There’s individuals who like to talk politics, like to mostly complain about other people’s politics, to be very honest, more than anything else. And that’s nice small talk in the street. But for the most part—I mean, I’m on the board of a nonprofit for a special-needs school. Politics never comes up.
We bring together—the executive director is brilliant at getting really smart people. I’m on, I think, the board and then two other committees. We have lots of meetings, probably at least once a month if not more than that. Politics never comes up. The most it comes up is, the government has a policy; how can we take advantage of that policy? That only was true during COVID, where we needed some money from the government. That is the extent that politics comes up.
For sure, if you’re doing something local, the key point is we all want to make the place better. The problems tend to be very practical. How do we get better lighting? I know in my neighborhood, a big deal recently was we had to change—there was a red light, a light that people had to cross that street often; it’s to get into the main shopping area. People didn’t like the light. I don’t know who did it, but a few people teamed up and they changed the light. The light now works differently.
If somebody wants a stop sign or they want to make the park better or whatever it is, they’re doing lots and lots of little things. They’re doing things together. It’s all about making a place better. The more you’re working with people in a practical manner and you’re knowing them, the less politics matters.
When you’re just coming together, trying to deal with your political differences, and you have no relationships behind you, and you have nothing that you’ve ever done with that person, that sounds really hard to me. It sounds much easier that we’re actually working, solving problems, and politics is not even on our mind. It becomes mostly an afterthought. Not that it’s not important, but it becomes an afterthought.
Then the politics that actually begins to matter is not national; it’s local. How do we get the government to add in busing? How do we get the government to provide more money for our school for this problem? How do we get the government to renovate this park? That becomes politics. Politics becomes highly practical, highly local. There are things that, for the most part, no one disagrees with, everyone wants to cooperate on. It’s a completely different dynamic. For sure, we can work together and not have politics involved.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Now, as I was looking at the 10 lessons that you draw from the examples that you give in the book—and they seem great—whether you’re strategically challenging or channeling resources where they can have the broadest impact or establishing early warning systems and make ample use of the right kind of data, I see the role of these social entrepreneurs as being incredibly important.
And I was wondering whether we’re not extrapolating too much from the organic changes that only emerge when a social entrepreneur decides to address a problem. I wonder whether it’s possible to follow a script. I guess you’d say it’s not a script, but it’s a set of principles.
KAPLAN: Those 10 lessons, I call them “operational lessons.” You could be a volunteer in your neighborhood, and you could be thinking, “What can I do?” You look at those 10 lessons, and you can draw upon it. Are you a social entrepreneur? If you’re simply a volunteer dedicating your time: a social entrepreneur.
I talk about five social entrepreneurs. Those five social entrepreneurs are people who have built organizations, some of them quite substantial. You could go that way. You could just be a volunteer. You could just be someone who gets involved with some organization and plays a leadership role. You could be the person down the street who’s going on knocking on doors. There’s a lot of things that we can do ourselves.
I define social entrepreneurship very broadly. I think any individual who’s listening to this, you can be somewhat of a social entrepreneur in your neighborhood. You don’t have to build an organization. It’s just a question of you taking the initiative, looking for things that make your place better, ideally reaching out to other people, ideally possibly joining an organization or taking the leadership role in an organization.
The more we step up, the more we’re able to institutionalize what we do and bring other people into it, I would say the bigger impact we will have. Again, social entrepreneurship is small, big—it’s all great.
KLUTSEY: Are you optimistic that we can get this done? That we can get to a place in our country where people are focusing on neighborhoods, taking some of these lessons and moving forward with them and trying to build flourishing neighborhoods?
KAPLAN: I want to be optimistic. I surely see great hunger. Just in the lead-up to this book, it’s incredible the hunger and the amount of people who have reached out to me wanting to learn lessons or see what they can do. I know there’s a great hunger.
I think the bigger question is, are enough of those people going to step up? Are leaders in our society going to make this a priority? There are some structural constraints to making this happen. Part of it is that we’ve designed the physical landscape and we’ve designed an institutional landscape that, in my opinion, isolates us from one another. If you don’t have a place to go in your neighborhood, if the zoning doesn’t let you start a cafe or open up a business, if the streets are all so wide that you feel distant even from the people across the street, if schools are designed that you have to drive far away, if there’s no local associations, there’s no identity for your neighborhood—all of this becomes harder.
Clearly, all of us can do something, and it’s wonderful. But the more we think about our country, about how do we design the country on every level to encourage this dynamic, I think the more likely it will occur. It surely can occur with very strong institutions in any place. We see it in places that physically or in terms of other things are not designed for it, that you can build those strong institutions. But I would say it’s harder to think that can happen across 330 million people if we don’t think much harder about how we actually make our landscape nurturing of relationships and not isolating people from each other.
I think now there’s too much about our landscape that literally isolates us from one another.
How Not To Build Neighborhoods
KLUTSEY: Based on your research and from your experiences, what do you think has been one of the most overrated ways of people trying to build up neighborhoods or even bridge divides in light of the polarization that we’re seeing in our country?
KAPLAN: I think that’s two different questions. The first question is, there’s certainly been attempts to make neighborhoods better, going back over a century. A lot of times it’s about too much focus on the material, which often means housing. Often it’s a lot of money, very top-down. I don’t think those have proven very successful. Yes, money can be helpful—making a park better, making lighting better. You can think of a place like Detroit, where one of my chapters is focused on, that—certainly a lack of resources can really hold back a place because you can’t even do basic infrastructure.
Some of that matters, but I would say the biggest mistake is a very top-down approach, very focused on material objects, material things, in particular a focus on housing and things like that. Neighborhoods with lots of housing for the poor tend to be very unsuccessful. You have to think very strategically about what you focus on and how you do things to work.
In terms of the polarization aspect: As you know, Ben, there are hundreds and hundreds of organizations trying to deal with polarization in America. I would say there’s a couple of general, I would say, things that I see over and over again that I think are not so helpful.
First, you have to ask, are these organizations generally neutral? If you are going to depolarize, you have to separate your values from your work at depolarization. Values can mean a lot in terms of advocating for things, but advocacy work and depolarization work are not the same. From where I stand, about 95-plus percent of this work on depolarization is not neutral, and people have a very hard time separating their values from their genuine interest in depolarization.
I don’t think any of this is intentional. I just think it’s subconscious or unconscious. That’s certainly one very important—if I look at an organization in this field and I cannot see separation from values or advocacy and the work that they’re doing, I don’t think that they are going to be very useful because, if anything, they could be polarizing in their effort to depolarize.
A second thing we need to be asking is, what is their penetration rate? This is something that’s so rarely asked. If you’re just bringing together a relatively small number of people for conversations, what parts of society are you penetrating into? What are the numbers of people you’re penetrating? Are you penetrating at critical levels? People working, for example, at the high school level, people working at the university level—I like that because at least, first of all, you can measure your penetration rate relatively easily. Second, you’re getting people at critical junctures in their life.
I appreciate that work. But again, are you penetrating deeply into those spaces? Are you only skimming the surface? Are you reaching the parts of those little societies and high schools and universities that most need to be reached? Are you creating anything more than one-off effects? How are you creating a sustained effect?
So I would say the neutrality, the penetration rate: If you’re dealing with adults, in terms of dialogues, how is that penetrating deeply into society and then in terms of who you’re reaching? I would say this third thing about, is your effect sustained? Is it a one-off effect? Is it a longer-term effect?
I think if you just look at those three things: the first, neutrality; the second, the penetration rate; and the third, the sustaining of it. The sustaining of it has something to do with the institutionalization of processes that are going to be recurring and not just a one-off. The more we’re able to penetrate in terms of numbers, the more we’re able to create some sort of institutionalized process that’s sustained—and I would say, I guess, the fourth (related to something I said) is reaching critical groups in society.
I would say those would be four markers I would quickly come up with. I bet if we thought more, we could come up with more, but those would be four markers I would quickly use to judge any program focused on depolarization.
A Call to Action
KLUTSEY: Thanks, Seth. I think that is incredibly useful.
Now, as we bring this conversation to a close, is there a call to action that you want people to take from reading this book?
KAPLAN: Yes. First is, everyone who listens can do something. It could be just reaching out to neighbors. It can be volunteering for something. It can be looking for partners or other people in your area. We all—first of all, everyone can do something.
Second, if you’re a social entrepreneur, are you strengthening relationships in a place that’s somehow achieving some scale? That would be my question. Social entrepreneurs and social impact investors in various forms—they have grown enormously in recent decades, and yet, in parallel, our social problems have multiplied. You have something going on that’s very ironic: A lot more people are called to action, and the problems are getting worse and worse. Why is that?
My call to those who are—everyone can do something, but if you’re a social entrepreneur and you’re running an organization, or if you have a chance to do something in an organization as a leader or as some contributor, ask yourself, “What are you doing to create these recurring, sustained relationships in a place, in some scale, such that you’re having some sort of cascading effect on a neighborhood?”
If you’re just delivering services, if you’re just satisfying some material need, if you’re just having some sort of transactional (even if it’s helpful) relationship with your customers or clients, that could be useful, but it’s not having the kind of impact on our society that we need. We need people to think about place, think about people, think about institutions, think about somehow scaling up the impact on how people are reaching each other and dealing with each other.
The more we’re able to do that—I have those 10 operational plans that show how—the more people focus on place and institutions that bring people together in various forms, I think the more we will address issues like deaths of despair, issues like homelessness, issues of social mobility and all the other problems that we have—inequality. These are all downstream from the problems that are occurring in our relationships close to where we live.
KLUTSEY: Well, Seth, this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. I’d encourage folks to pick up a copy. The book is “Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time.” Thank you very much, Seth.
KAPLAN: Thank you so much, Ben. And thank you for everyone at Mercatus. Appreciate it so much.