As most of Washington was readying for partisan and ideological warfare over walls, abortion, and federal taxes, a handful of scholars and writers in D.C. last week after the State of the Union address were telling a story that was more local and more cheering — on the surface, at least.
Scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, where I am a visiting fellow, interviewed more than 2,000 Americans, asking probing questions about community. They went far deeper than the typical questions about the direction of the country and hope for the future. The AEI Survey on Community and Society asked Americans for their views of their own community, their involvement in their community, their relationships with their neighbors, and not only their views on the plausibility of “the American dream,” but also their definition of it.
The good news: “Americans of all stripes still believe in the goodness of their communities, neighbors, and institutions close to home.” Most people still believe in the American dream, and they don’t define that simply as material well-being but as self-actualization.
“All in all,” the pollsters asked, “how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the way things are going in the country as a whole?” Only 43 percent were satisfied. But when asked about “the way things are going in your local community,” a full 73 percent were satisfied.
A full 80 percent of Americans described their neighborhood as a good or excellent place to live. Three in four Americans said people are willing to help their neighbors.
This paints a picture of Americans feeling sour toward national politics and warm toward their local communities. In disheartening times, that’s a heartening picture, especially for a conservative.
But the AEI survey went deeper than feelings, and that deeper story is far less cheering.
Americans' fond feelings for our local communities and harsh feelings toward Washington may flow from a fundamental misalignment. We may expect too little from our communities and too much from the nation. The data in AEI’s study bolster this unhappy thesis.
Civic engagement is low, as Robert Putnam famously told 20 years ago in Bowling Alone. Only one in five Americans reports having “been an active member in the past 12 months” in a religious organization, AEI's study found. For all other types of organizations, the numbers are far lower — 11 percent for cultural or hobby activities, 13 percent for volunteer public-service groups, and 6 percent for a social or fraternal organization.
On a more granular level, the same detachment appears in the data. People like their neighbors, which is good, but that isn’t the same as neighborliness. Real neighborliness is work. It’s labor and time invested in building trust, norms of reciprocity, and building a social infrastructure that functions as a safety net, a source of modeling, a support system, and that provides a sense of purpose. That work isn’t being done, the data suggest.
Only 28 percent said they have tried to get neighbors working together on community improvement. Nearly two-thirds say their neighbors help each other rarely or never. Only 31 percent would call on a neighbor for moving or pet-sitting or similar work.
Our local institutions of civil society are hollowing out. Americans are leaving behind the work of supporting families, catching those who fall, and building communities to others.
This isn’t true across the board. In elite enclaves — where most adults have college degrees and where median incomes are high — these institutions are strong. They help parents pass along their best practices of education, employment, marriage, and community involvement. Many tightly knit religious communities enjoy these same institutions, mostly rooted in churches.
These institutions, foreign to so many Americans, are what facilitate the work of community-building and neighborliness.
Lacking connection to these robust institutions, most Americans don't even know to miss them. They don't even think they're supposed to get their support, security, and purpose from the little platoons around them. They think the federal government and national politics are supposed to provide access to the good life.
The result is Americans who expect too little from their communities and too much from a distant central power.