TUNE IN: How to Fix Politics

If we’re going to salvage our politics, we probably have to shrink politics, and nurture the thick local membership web that politics rests within. We probably have to scale back the culture of autonomy that was appropriate for the 1960s but that has since gone too far.

By David Brooks - New York Times

In the middle of this depressing presidential campaign I sometimes wonder, How could we make our politics better? It’s possible to imagine an elite solution. The next president could get together with the leaders of both parties in Congress and say: “We’re going to change the way we do business in Washington. We’re going to deliberate and negotiate. We’ll disagree and wrangle, but we will not treat this as good-versus-evil blood sport.” That kind of leadership might trickle down. But it’s increasingly clear that the roots of political dysfunction lie deep in society. If there’s truly going to be improvement, there has to be improvement in the social context politics is embedded in. In healthy societies, people live their lives within a galaxy of warm places. They are members of a family, neighborhood, school, civic organization, hobby group, company, faith, regional culture, nation, continent and world. Each layer of life is nestled in the others to form a varied but coherent whole. But starting just after World War II, America’s community/membership mind-set gave way to an individualistic/autonomy mind-set. The idea was that individuals should be liberated to live as they chose, so long as they didn’t interfere with the rights of others.

By 1981, the pollster Daniel Yankelovich noticed the effects: “Throughout most of this century Americans believed that self-denial made sense, sacrificing made sense, obeying the rules made sense, subordinating oneself to the institution made sense. But now doubts have set in, and Americans now believe that the old giving/getting compact needlessly restricts the individual while advancing the power of large institutions … who use the power to enhance their own interests at the expense of the public.”

The individualist turn had great effects but also accumulating downsides. By 2005, 47 percent of Americans reported that they knew none or just a few of their neighbors by name. There’s been a sharp rise in the number of people who report that they have no close friends to confide in.

Civic life has suffered. As Marc J. Dunkelman writes in his compelling book “The Vanishing Neighbor,” people are good at tending their inner-ring relationships — their family and friends. They’re pretty good at tending to outer-ring relationships — their hundreds of Facebook acquaintances, their fellow progressives, or their TED and Harley fans.

But Americans spend less time with middle-ring township relationships — the PTA, the neighborhood watch.

Middle-ring relationships, Dunkelman argues, help people become skilled at deliberation. The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire company may have political opinions you find abhorrent, but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week. READ MORE