Our body politic suffers a serious ailment: the failure of social cohesion. This virulent and increasingly publicized malady deserves careful diagnosis, and the current essay is an effort in that direction.
It is best to begin with some perspective. Concern with cohesion has a long history in political philosophy, and no one summarized the dilemma better than Bertrand Russel. He suggested every culture is subject to “two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition”, but also dissolution “through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible.”
We must have social connections, we’re built for them. We also must have independence; we’re built for that as well. The question is, how far can we move away from cooperation with others and still maintain society? Borrowing a metaphor from our cell phones, where do we set the social cohesion slider?
Approaches to the answer differ considerably by political orientation. These orientations differ in the pattern of divisive and cohesive forces they promote.
First, some of the divisive forces. In the U.S. both Leftists and Libertarians emphasize what might be called existential independence. That is, liberty for persons to choose or maintain their own beliefs, cultural values, and lifestyles. As these become increasingly non-traditional, of course, there is strain on the social fabric.
But economic policy can also decrease cohesion. Both Conservatives and Libertarians, for example, support a push toward the independence pole of such policy, recommending reductions in business regulations, taxes, and spending on social programs.
As for some of the cohesive forces, Leftists hope to balance existential independence with the bonds of an economic safety net. Conservatives seek to balance economic independence with the bonds of tradition, primarily religion. And Libertarians? For them there is not much balancing of the slider. They set it as far as feasible to the independence pole, both existentially and economically.
Thinking about the nature of cohesion is important because it is something we are steadily losing. Indeed for some years there has been a considerable weakening of social cohesion in the U.S. There has been a marked deterioration in so-called “social capital”, with measurably large increases in isolation and distrust.
Research suggests such distrust tends to be linked to rises in economic inequality. We have that in abundance, as everyone knows, and it is undoubtedly part of the problem. While some of the inequality is attributable to such factors as globalization and technological change, much of it has arisen from political choices made over the last few decades.
Economic policies favored by Libertarians and most Conservatives include the usual suspects: deregulation, privatization, tax cuts for the wealthy (in the name of that mythical beast known as "trickle-down" effects), and corresponding spending cuts for virtually every social program, be it education, health care, environmental protection, or retirement benefits. Whatever the rationales offered for such policies, their genuine purpose--let there be no mistake about this--is to make the rich even richer. And that they certainly have done, at spectacular levels.
Unfortunately they also have decreased the overall quality of our societal existence, and driven us increasingly apart. If this seems an exaggeration to you, consider just one example.
One of the holy grails of Libertarian/Conservative economic policy is the radical slashing of business regulations. This is proposed on the premise of increasing market efficiency, and thus benefiting everyone. What is not mentioned is that such regulations are an essential aspect of our social cohesion. They are one of the ways we prevent our system from becoming abusive. They are one of the ways we pull together as a group, and thus survive.
Although it should have known better on the basis of our country's economic history, the U.S. government recently decided to test the "efficiency" premise once again. Pressured by the big money interests who stood to profit--banks, investment firms, assorted billionaires and their think tanks--a number of important business regulations were abolished at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. The result? The economic collapse of 2008, resulting from a variety of unsound business practices and, of course, the outright fraud that flourishes in the absence of closer oversight. In the subsequent Great Recession about 7 million Americans lost their homes, and the U.S. economy, along with those of several other nations, was driven to the brink of collapse.
None of the major offenders went to jail, economic inequality continues apace, and our cohesion continues to suffer.
Inequality is not the entire explanation of the social cohesion calamity. We have been lashed by yet another storm: digital talk. Here indeed is a unique medium: anonymous, instantaneous, mostly uncensored. The confluence of these features promotes the electronic shouting and vindictive wrath that despoil so much of the digital world. It also encourages endless streams of falsehoods, growing exponentially, distorting every discussion, and clouding the value of truth.
But the medium promotes more than just lies and aggression. It also facilitates a kind of insularity. We all prefer to read opinions we agree with, and the internet is happy to help. Specialized platforms make it exceedingly convenient to indulge our confirmation bias. The resulting feedback loop, the endless idea circle in which each of us tends to live, has been aptly described as the internet's "echo chamber".
Now add to all of this a final major factor: national character. The notorious American penchants for magical, conspiratorial, and of course racist thinking, depressingly pervasive in our history, potentiate the other elements into a perfect storm. And so we break into hostile camps, wary, bitter, and cynical. Any accusation: true. All facts: contested.
Certainly here (as almost everywhere) there are no easy answers. We can’t simply delete the internet or quickly change national character. With sufficient political will we could decrease economic inequality, and that is a crucially important goal. (See another of my essays on this site, "The Iron Law of Oligarchy".) But in itself that might not be enough.
It behooves us, personally and culturally, to give more attention to broadening and strengthening social cohesion. It is easy to describe this in the abstract, but what it might mean at the grass roots level is more difficult to say. It will undoubtedly differ by persons and situations.
But giving the matter more systematic thought is something we all must do.