The central ailment of our body politic is a failure of social cohesion. This virulent and increasingly publicized malady deserves careful diagnosis. 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 must also 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 both in the divisive forces they support and in the 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-tradional, 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? In their case there is not much balancing of the slider. They set it as far as feasible to the independence pole, both existentially and economically. This has led some, including myself, to conclude they flirt with social dissolution.
At present there is considerable weakening of social cohesion in the U.S. There has been a deterioration in so-called “social capital”, with measurably large increases in isolation and distrust. Research suggests such distrust tends to be linked with a rise in economic inequality. We have that in abundance, as everyone knows. It is undoubtedly part of the problem.
But the current waters boil with an additional leviathan: digital talk. Anonymous, instantaneous, mostly uncensored, ubiquitous. The confluence of these features is tailor made to promote electronic shouting and vindictive wrath. It also generates endless streams of falsehoods, multiplying prolifically, snowballing, dulling the value of truth, straining the social fabric.
Now add to all of this the notorious American penchants for magical, conspiratorial, and of course racist thinking, and the perfect storm appears. A breaking up into irreconcilable camps. Hostility toward all people, and all thoughts, from outside. 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 an 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.