Returning to a Less Fragmented America

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What is fascinating about the phrasing in the advertisement is that it takes the social fragmentation as a given and proposes that an activist government can meet the American people halfway and patch together America’s social fabric.

Even a competent government that is stacked and overflowing with experts cannot raise children better than healthy families can, or fulfill our human need for social capital—trust, generosity and shared values.

When the crumbling of our social institutions leads to hardship, our inclination is to run to government activism to save us from the bad consequences. But in doing so, we must be careful that we do not seek for the government to take on roles it was never meant to assume.

During the Democratic National Convention of 2012 in Charlotte, the convention host committee ran a TV advertisement:”We are committed to all people. We do believe you can use government in a good way. The government is the only thing we all belong to. We have different churches, different clubs, but we’re together as a part of our city or our county or our state and our nation.”

The italicized line sent shockwaves through the ranks of the conservative media, and many Republican politicians latched onto this hysteria to blast Democrats that election season. Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) declared during a fundraiser that “President Barack Obama absolutely believes we belong to him. He believes that we are just pawns to be moved around his giant chessboard of government.”

Although Mr. Christie’s retort may be straw man that does not follow context, the advertisement nevertheless reveals two ideas on the Left about government and society. The first is the emphasis that government, if done right, can achieve great good in society. The second has to do with the concept that government is what ultimately binds us together as one community. Our different social circles and affiliations may be the dividing lines in our social fabric, but government is what brings us together.

The vision these ideas seem to imply is one of the government being a sustaining and uniting agent in our society. While this explains a lot of the policy goals of the Left and the desire to expand the government’s role in the lives of individuals, it fails to recognize the importance of the civil institutions that form our social fabric. This is all taking place as an increasing number of people become unmoored from these institutions.

One of the most foundational pre-political institutions is marriage. Marriage is the ideal environment for sustaining a family and raising children in a stable and nurturing environment. In America, having children within marriage rather than out of wedlock after age 21 is one of these criteria, according to a study by the Brookings Institute, that together produce a 98% chance to live above the poverty line and a 75% chance to reach the middle class (as defined by earning more than $55,000 a year as a household). Meanwhile, the negative effects of being born into a single-parent home and growing up with unmarried parents are numerous and heavily documented.

Although the divorce rate in America is at nearly a 40-year low, this is not because American marriages are stronger and more stable; it is because America’s marriages are vastly fewer. Marriage rates between the ages 18 and 32 have precipitously dropped from 65% of the silent generation to 26% for the millennial. The number of out-of-wedlock births in the United States has soared amidst a decrease in birthrate.

Many of these trends occur simultaneously with the characteristics of the millennial generation. According to a Pew report, Millennials are very ethnically diverse and socially connected, but are also, more than any other generation, averse to organized religion and distrustful of other people. Pew reports that “in response to a long-standing social science survey question, ‘Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,’ just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.”

Although these currents forecast a dour future for America, the news isn’t all bad. Charitable giving in America, for instance, continues to rise steadily as it has been for decades (excluding years of recession). But it doesn’t change the fact that the social capital in America is altogether shrinking; Americans are investing themselves less and less into social institutions that are essential for the thriving of society.

What is fascinating about the phrasing in the advertisement is that it takes the social fragmentation as a given and proposes that an activist government can meet the American people halfway and patch together America’s social fabric. The way that the government would do this is by filling in the gap left by eroding social capital and institutions.

But I think there is something fundamentally wrong with this approach, and its critique comes from the idea of subsidiarity within Edmund Burke’s brand of conservatism. This thinking suggests “that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.” If this idea were to be diagrammed to represent social institutions, it would place the individual as a dot within concentric circles, these being the family, various communities (from churches to neighborhoods to clubs), and local, state and federal governments. It becomes the job of the exterior institutions to protect, uphold and enable the interior entities to thrive.

What this also means is that each of these institutions has a unique role in promoting human flourishing that exterior institutions cannot relieve. Even a competent government that is stacked and overflowing with experts cannot raise children better than healthy families can, or fulfill our human need for social capital—trust, generosity and shared values.

When the crumbling of our social institutions leads to hardship, our inclination is to run to government activism to save us from the bad consequences. But in doing so, we must be careful that we do not seek for the government to take on roles it was never meant to assume. And in the long run, we must consider how to strengthen our institutions so as to withstand changing tides.

Addison Merryman is a student at Duke University. 

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