Headlines describe an America in decline. Our better angels seem absent, and every vice that can be labeled uniquely American is on full display. Our United States of America feels anything but united. We seem separated — even isolated.
We know that increasing acts of violence, aggression and even mass murder are driven by isolation, among other factors. We should take note when Psychology Today reports that “we are getting lonelier.” And many of the things we turn to for connection are making things worse. Technology experts say social media isn’t all that social: People who use social media more than two hours per day “have twice the odds for perceived social isolation.”
Our traditional gathering places are changing too. According to Dr. Steve McSwain, pluralism and changes in demographics are diminishing the traditional associations that come from regular church attendance. And strident voices in mainstream and social media are shaking our trust, causing us to retreat to our own isolating bubbles of bias confirmation.
It was not always this way. In fact — here is a “uniquely American” phenomenon — Alexis de Tocqueville wrote with admiration about our American inclination to form associations. He viewed these as “critical to our democratic experiment.” He wrote, "In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together … (and) from that moment, they are no longer isolated."
There are the key words — “no longer isolated.”
From his aristocratic vantage point, Tocqueville saw this unifying trait of association as one of the most powerful characteristics of our new American experiment. And as with other principles of freedom — once honored and now discounted — we should re-examine how we might overcome the building sense of isolation so counter to the concept of a “United” States of America.
Is it naive to consider that the remedy to our increasing isolation may be found — as it once was — in our local churches, nonprofits and neighborhood associations?
There is hope in that these associations are still thriving. It is within our power to once again make them a focal point of the American experiment.
There are more than 1.5 million charitable groups in the U.S. addressing all sorts of critical needs. There are still more than 300,000 religious congregations serving their communities. Our nonprofit sector is supported by around $400 billion in donations every year, and 70 percent of that giving comes from individuals. That makes us — as a nation — a grass-roots army for good.
We encounter this army every day, and you are likely already a part of it. Perhaps it is time to invest greater trust in this army — these great minds and hearts, some 62 million Americans strong — who believe in giving, helping and volunteering. And today, we can fortify this long-standing army by adding the passion of a new “special forces” unit of entrepreneurs who believe in being socially responsible and know how to innovate and solve problems.
When everything around us points to our failings, we must remind ourselves of all that we do right. And despite government gridlock, partisan predictions of impending doom and a focus on division, there is an army — and a history — already in place, poised and perfectly positioned at the community level to take on our most difficult challenges.
This conversation is not intended to suggest the irrelevancy of government. It is a tribute to — and endorsement of — the power, agility and creativity of communities, neighborhoods and families. It is an endorsement of the concept of “localism,” where ideas can be tested, refined and shared. Former Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield said, "We as Americans must return authority to vehicles such as the town meeting, the voluntary organizations, the PTA, the neighborhood association.”
Communities in America have always led the way. It was not government, but communities, that drove civil rights and suffrage. Our Founding Fathers envisioned states as the “laboratories of democracy” — not as what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis lamented as “mere field offices of the federal government.”
This return to localism and self-confidence as communities requires new thinking. And it requires trust in … ourselves. It is a bipartisan notion necessary in a nation as diverse as ours. We need to remind ourselves of this local power, not only to compete with the frequency at which our decline is predicted but also to grow confident in our abilities.
We can make ourselves “no longer isolated” by recognizing isolation as a reversible pattern.
We can set aside partisan rancor and unite locally to solve problems. We can take to heart that we as organizations, communities and families are able to act of our own accord and take on tough challenges. We need not wait for government to solve our most local problems, but instead we should act as Americans always have … without government intervention.
Matthew Dowd wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that we need a politics that puts country first and not party, that we need a system of governing that looks out for all and not just a few, that we are free to reimagine structures and create new ones that serve the country and not special interests, and that we as a nation are reignited through an entrepreneurial spirit and we come together in a community of trust and innovation.”
These attitudes are worthy of the sacrifices made for our freedom — and worthy of a United States of America.