America’s Trust Problem

civic engagement
(Old bowling alley sign on condemned building)

March 9, 2023

This article appears in Vol III Issue I: Republics

It has been 23 years since Robert Putnam’s magnum opus, Bowling Alone, was published and released to the masses. The iconic work, which eloquently details America’s decline in community and civic engagement, has, regretfully, been vindicated with the passing years. We are so unbelievably far removed from the Tocquevillian America of the 19th and mid-20th centuries. The idea of reviving a country even vaguely reminiscent of the one illustrated in Democracy In America is, at this point, unfathomable. 

Today, America is characterized by an unfettered libertarian ethos: “me, me, me” instead of “we, we, we.” The communitarian nature of the country with its “little platoons” is lost. Alan Ehrenhalt has rightly attributed this civic decline to an increase in choice. Americans today are inundated with choices from what to watch on television and whether or not to attend Sunday mass to who they want to associate with and what they’d like to do with their leisure time. Ehrenhalt, in his book The Lost City, describes a time devoid of choice wherein you had to mingle with your neighbors and take part in your community. Failure to do so would make you an outcast—weird, even! 

Putnam, of course, places a lot of the blame on television. The T.V., he posits, has made us more likely to stay home and less likely to engage in in-person activities with friends and family. Moreover, Putnam has argued that the actual content of certain T.V. shows have made people (kids especially) more inclined towards misanthropy and distrust of others.  

Trust, I would argue, is a central component here. If we do not trust one another, how on earth can we be expected to associate with one another? Social capital (a term popularized by James Colman and Robert Putnam but coined by L.J. Hanifan) is, without question, contingent on trust. Trust is the foundation; there is no Tocquevillian America without it. 

But today, we don’t trust each other; we sue each other. We don’t associate; we isolate. American communitarianism is no longer what it was. Francis Fukuyama in his book, Trust, articulates this better than anyone: 

The decline of trust and sociability in the United States is […] evident in any number of changes in American society: the rise of violent crime and civil litigation; the breakdown of family structure; the decline of a wide range of intermediate social structures like neighborhoods, churches, unions, clubs, and charities; and the general sense among Americans of a lack of shared values and community with those around them. 

Why exactly we’ve stopped trusting each other remains a mystery. The fact of the matter is that the social capital literature is long in description and short in prescription. 

What we do know, however, is that societies with trust deficits do not function well. Southern Italy is a case in point. In the 1950s, Edward Banfield coined the term “amoral familism” in reference to the Southern Italian ethos. This term aptly captures the underlying ideology of the average Calabrian or Sicilian citizen: trust no one outside of the immediate family. To the Southern Italian, everyone outside of the family is looking to take advantage or earn a cheap buck. Even the Catholic church, a place of worship, is looked at with leery eyes. 

Putnam, a few years before he published Bowling Alone, wrote Making Democracy Work, wherein, thanks to years of rigorous empirical research conducted by his team, he concludes that Southern Italy is far worse off than Northern Italy because of this lack of trust and social connectedness. Amoral familism was (and still is) a recipe for disaster. 

This kind of deep seated distrust, in short, is unconducive to a healthy community life. When society drifts into a sort of Hobbesian nightmare, characterized by a “war of all against all,” innovation stagnates, political participation wanes, and social connectedness dies. 

Though it sounds cruel, America should see Southern Italy as a cautionary tale of the darkness that ascends from the corpse of trust. By the same token, we should look to our own history as a recipe for success. When the federal government is minimal and individuals, through voluntary organizations, fill the void of social connectedness, we re-create the Burkian platoons: churches, youth choirs, charity associations, etc. 

While it may not seem like much, engaging with your community, even in a small way, may be our best shot at restoring the Tocquevillian ideal.


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