In recent decades several aspects of our social existence have brightened. To cite just one well known example, crime is down considerably. No one has quite been able to fully explain this decrease, but nonetheless the change has been welcomed.
In some other ways, however, the social picture has darkened. For many years now there has been a substantial weakening of social connectivity in the U.S. Our cohesion has declined. There has been a marked deterioration in what has come to be called “social capital”, with measurably large increases in isolation, polarization, and distrust.
More people live alone now, over one in four. But more importantly, more people are lonely: from the 1980's until the present, the percentage of U.S. adults reporting loneliness has doubled, from about 20 to 40 percent. We are less likely to interact with our neighbors. Reported distrust of other people--people in general--has grown considerably, along with distrust of every major American institution. And of course those who hold different views on political or cultural issues increasingly view one another as outright enemies, as existential threats.
Why the great disconnect? What's going on? Primarily three things, I think.
First, research suggests an important factor may be the extent of our economic inequality. We have that in abundance, as everyone knows, more than most developed countries. It is undoubtedly part of the problem. For more than forty years resources have flowed to the top, while the bottom has languished. In 2016 the wealthiest .1% of Americans held nearly as much wealth as the entire bottom 90%. Many Americans now work longer hours for stagnated wages, living from paycheck to paycheck, with low job security and uncertain prospects. It is a formula for envy, resentment, and suspicion.
But before moving on, let's drill down a little on this. What accounts for the inequality? Some would have us believe it is attributable only to such factors as globalization and technological change. In fact, much of it has arisen from political choices made over the last few decades.
Look to the vast increase of well-funded lobbyists pushing economic policies favored by the affluent, such as deregulation and privatization. Look to their invocation of mythical "trickle-down" effects as they secure tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals. Look to their influence in the extension of intellectual property rights and the relaxation of antitrust laws. Look to their victories in the decrease of unionization and the insertion of non-compete clauses into worker contracts. Look to their achievement of unlimited campaign finance. And of course add in their opposition to government support for virtually every social program, be it education, health care, or retirement benefits.
Whatever the rationales offered for such policies, their actual purpose--there can 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 social existence, and driven us increasingly apart. Their effect has been relentless, and sometimes disastrous. If this seems an exaggeration to you, consider just one example.
One of the holy grails of Conservative/Libertarian economic policy--so dear to the moneyed interests steering our republic--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 that 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? A financial sector run amok, and the economic collapse of 2008. It resulted both 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 over nine million Americans lost their homes, and almost nine million lost their jobs. 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.
Although hugely significant, economic issues are certainly not the entire explanation for our disconnectedness. For nearly sixty years, longer than the period during which our economic inequality skyrocketed, there has been a resurgence, in various forms, of our country’s most problematic issue: race-related conflict. It may not have led to another civil war, but it has clearly contributed to strident polarization and political deadlock.
In the twentieth century prior to the mid-60’s, the Democratic and Republican parties were more internally diverse. Democrats, for example, included not only civil rights liberals but also southerners committed to maintaining Jim Crow suppression of blacks. Such internal diversity resulted in more overlap between the parties, and therefore, in general, they were more cooperative with one another.
However, when the Democratic president Lyndon Johnson finally secured the long overdue Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, things began to change. Newly enfranchised southern blacks streamed into the Democratic Party. Southern whites began to abandon their longtime home with Democrats for a new place among Republicans. Steadily Democrats became the party of civil rights, and Republicans of racial conservatism.
At the same time another racial and ethnic issue began to brew. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the immigration quotas in place since 1921. As a consequence immigration from several parts of the globe began to swell, increasing the percentage of nonwhites in the population. These nonwhites aligned primarily with Democrats, further exacerbating the schism.
For many whites the increased visibility of minorities was an affront, an imposition, a chronic irritation. And perhaps more seriously, it also became a focus of blame. After all, the percentage of nonwhites increased at the same time the middle class stagnated. In the minds of those so inclined, this meant the former caused the latter. Although such a notion is demonstrably false, it has had a seductive and poisonous appeal.
With a kind of ideological magnetism that would only deepen the divide, the parties already sorted by perspectives on race began, especially during the Reagan administration, to sort by religion as well. Evangelical Christians increasingly identified as Republican, and Democrats became increasingly secular.
What could make things worse?
Well, what if we could invent a new machine? Something people could use to argue from the solitude and anonymity of their own homes, instantaneously, and without censorship. Would that step up the contention?
Indeed. The third factor in my explanation is the leviathan of our age: digital talk. It acts to potentiate, or multiply, the strength of the divisions already discussed. The nature of its operation promotes the unprecedented savagery of our discourse. 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, listening happily to things we endorse. The resulting feedback loop, the endless idea circle in which each of us tends to live, has been aptly called the internet's "echo chamber".
And so we break into hostile camps, wary, bitter, and cynical. Any accusation: true. All facts: contested.
That said, the effect of the internet extends well beyond its promotion of conflict. For a technology that leaves us more connected in some ways--information, commerce, art--it ironically leaves us less connected in the most important way: face to face interaction. It is this kind of interaction proving most important to our psychological and physical health, and it is this interaction the digital world erodes.
The effect is most clearly seen in our youth and young adults. The more time sitting before the screen, the less time out in the world, making actual friends. Not to mention the parade of (apparently) perfect lives among one's acquaintances on social media, leaving many younger persons with that hazardous stew of envy and self-loathing.
So what to do?
Certainly here (as almost everywhere) there are no easy answers. The situation is unyielding. We can't quickly reduce racism or religious intolerance. We can't simply delete the internet.
With sufficient political will we could decrease economic inequality, and I believe this is the place to start. It may not be as hopeless as it seems. For example, there was surprising support for the policy proposals of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 campaign. Given anticipated demographic changes going forward, such proposals are likely to become even more popular. They are perhaps our most strategic areas of focus.
But beyond public policy, I think it may be necessary for most of us to make some changes in our day to day lives. In particular, I think we need to make more effort to exchange ideas, face to face, with those who differ from us on important issues. To talk, but also to listen. Respectfully.
Seldom do any opinions change after such a dialogue. Occasionally, however, something else does change. Every once in a while someone walks away with a greater sense of shared responsibility.