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'll disagree and wrangle, but we will not treat this as good-versus-evil blood sport.” That might trickle down.
But it’s clear the roots of political dysfunction lie deep in society. For real progress, 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.
But starting after World War II, America’s community/membership mindset gave way to an individualistic/autonomy mindset.
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.
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 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.
Middle-ring relationships also diversify the sources of identity. You might be an O'Rourke and an Irish Catholic, but you are also a citizen, importantly, of the Montrose neighborhood in Houston.
With middle-ring memberships deteriorating, Americans have become worse at public deliberation. People find it easier to ignore inconvenient viewpoints and facts. Partisanship becomes a preconscious lens through which people see the world.
They report being optimistic or pessimistic depending on whether their team is in power. They become unrealistic.
We’re good at bonding with people like ourselves but worse at bridging with people unlike ourselves.
With fewer sources of ethnic and local identity, people ask politics to fill the void. People put politics at the center of their psychological, emotional and even spiritual life.
This is asking too much of politics. Once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor. If you put politics at the center of identity, you end up asking the state to eclipse every social authority but itself.
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.
If we make this cultural shift, we may even end up happier.
The highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization, is actually connected to the lowest level, group survival. People experience their highest joy in helping their neighbors make it through the day.