The Brown Bear sent me this interesting article from The Economist. The article is, on its surface, a rumination about Ohio Governor John Kasich and his new book, Two Paths: America Divided or United, but the interesting stuff in the article wasn’t so much about the book as it was about our country. It’s one of those articles that leave you nodding a bit, as you find that the conclusions drawn square with your own experience.
The gist of the underlying sociological message in the article is this: Americans have become more and more confined and channeled in their interaction (or, more accurately, lack of interaction) with other Americans. It isn’t just that Americans spend more time in individualized pursuits, such as watching TV, tapping away on their smart phones, working out, or surfing the internet — it’s that their entire lives are being designed, shaped, and structured to limit their exposure to people with different backgrounds, interests, and views. In short, more and more people are living in their own personal silos.
One element of this phenomenon is that Americans now are much less likely to participate in joint activities — be it bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, churches, or community groups — than used to be the case. Alexis de Tocqueville noted, in the classic Democracy in America published way back in the 1830s, that Americans were unusually prone to forming associations and joining groups. That remained true for decades; Grandpa Neal, for example, bowled in the Masonic League in Akron for more than 60 years and was a member of the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and a host of other civic and fraternal groups. How many people do you know these days who are willing to spend their weekday evenings and weekends away from their homes and participating in such activities? I don’t know many — and I include myself in that group.
But the change is even deeper than that. The Economist article linked above notes that Americans now tend to live in distinct enclaves with people who share their political views and conditions. One indicator of this is voting patterns in elections. In the 1976 presidential election, some 27% of Americans lived in “landslide counties” that Jimmy Carter either won or lost by at least 20 percentage points. In the 2004, 48 percent of the counties were “landslide counties,” and in 2016, fully 60 percent of the counties in America — nearly two thirds — voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points.
What does this all mean? It suggests that many Americans now tend not to even engage with people with different perspectives. They don’t see them when they go home at night, they don’t talk to them, and they have no significant understanding of their thoughts, concerns, . . . or lives. When people are so cloistered, looking only at the kind of websites that mirror their views and interacting only with people who share those views, there will inevitably be a great divide that will become increasingly difficult to bridge. How do you get people who live in separate worlds, who don’t play softball or attend club meetings or participate in any interactive communal activities together, to understand and appreciate where people of different views are coming from, and why they hold those views in the first place? Facile social media memes and tweets that depict people of opposing views as dolts, racists, sluggards, communists, or any of the other names that have become so common don’t seem to be working very well, do they?
This, I think, is one of the big-picture issues that we need to address as we work to get America back on track — and like many big-picture issues, it’s not really being discussed or addressed by anyone, because these days we focus on the small things. I’m not saying, of course, that government should forcibly relocate people to achieve some kind of political or economic balance, or that government should focus on providing tax incentives to encourage people to join the local Moose lodge. Government didn’t need to do that in colonial America or in the America of Grandpa Neal’s day, and it shouldn’t be needed now. Somehow, though, Americans need to find a way to start actually talking to, and interacting with, each other again.