This weekend, the National Journal published, “In Nothing We Trust,” using Muncie, Indiana to illustrate the distrust that is eating away at the American social fabric.
NC readers can argue that Muncie is likely to be an extreme example of this phenomenon. It’s a Rust Belt city, hit by the downturn in manufacturing, and large enough to have a real distance between the government and the populace (by contrast, one of my brothers lives in a mill town in the Upper Midwest which has seen its population fall by 20% in the last 15 years, but it is small enough that the local officials are accessible and therefore the locals seem on the whole pretty well disposed toward them).
The story it endeavors to tell is that of a middle class whose expectations are no longer being met. One focus is that of John Whitmire, who mows the lawn of a home that he allegedly no longer owns because he otherwise runs the risk of being fined for failing to maintain it. That telling, of course, makes it sound like a Kafkaesque bad joke, when the story is simpler. Whitmire tried and failed to get a permanent HAMP mod after a job loss and declared bankruptcy. He moved out because he was no longer paying, but the house is still in his name. He does indeed own it, despite his belief otherwise, and it would be easy to miss when the article finally mentions that wee fact.
The institutions the story depicts as functioning well are the evangelical churches, which are downscale country clubs, and the local charter schools. The traditional churches are in decline, the public schools are falling behind, the City Council is discredited.
The article describes the result as a deserved or at least understandable loss of faith in institutions; the comments on the piece extol it as proof that government sucks.
But there is reason to think that the causality might run the other way: that trust and social bonds generally have weakened, and where that will show up most acutely is in institutions that have authority over us but over which we feel we have little sway. And this distrust, ironically, plays into the hands of the powerful, since people need to have enough faith in each other to be able to organize against vested interests to get their needs met. Napoleon was a big promoter of individualism, for he believed it made people easier to control.
For instance, the length of most contracts has gone up considerably. It wasn’t that long ago that a lot of routine business could be done on a handshake, with a letter agreement commemorating the arrangement (and then more to make sure that the two sides had heard each other correctly). The old saw is that a contract is only as good as the parties that enter into them. The common use of extremely detailed agreements reflects the fact that the parties to the agreement see the odds of litigation much higher than in the past and are spending more time papering up their agreements as protection against that event. In other words, they are going into business with people they don’t really trust to behave properly. And that is a valid concern. The norms of business used to be that if something unexpected happened, the two sides would make a good faith effort to come up with a fair solution. Now, too often, when Shit Happens, it’s often treated as an opportunity to wring more profit out of the deal.
Another factor may be that many people see their relationships with institutions as less durable, and hence it’s easier to abandon them rather than try to fix them. In his book On Value and Values, Doug Smith described how our traditional relationships had been place-based, while now we relate to each other through markets, networks, workplaces and other organizations, and of course through friends and families. Place based relationships are durable whether you like it or not (my family comes from coastal Maine, and families have reputations that go back generations: “Oh, you know the Rickers are ornery..”). And the fact that you will be dealing with the same people repeatedly gives everyone huge incentives to be pretty trustworthy and to work disputes out.
By contrast, our relationships to organizations are tenuous and elective. The relationship most of us want to be the most stable, that of employment, is fragile and typically short. The National Journal piece describes how people abandoned traditional churches for high service mega-churches and public schools for charter schools. The article thus takes the conventional view that the public no longer has faith in a whole long list of organizations, when in some cases, the decline of the organization is partly due to its some of its members withdrawing rather than pressuring it to shape up. And on top of that, since the Reagan era, government has been depicted in a negative light, which becomes a self fulfilling prophecy (fewer good people chose public service, budgets get cut which result in lower performance levels, justifying the negative views and paving the way for further funding reductions).
There are no simple answers to the loss of social cohesion depicted in the National Journal article. Other factors, like the supplanting of in-person dealing with shallower social media based relationships, also play into this dynamic and seem impossible to reverse. But its consequences are serious and will intensify unless we come up with new strategies for collective action.