On a long summer’s day in Philadelphia, year 1787, a passerby asked Benjamin Franklin what form of government the Constitutional Convention devised. Franklin responded, “[a] republic, if you can keep it” [emphasis added].” Over 200 years have passed, and Franklin’s iconic quote nonetheless remains etched in many Americans minds.
After a tumultuous year, America remains an unfinished project of what the Framers envisioned some 200 years ago. America lies here battle-tested and bruised from centuries of political, ethnic, and racial strife. We looked to the 2020 election as a time to reckon with our different interpretations of America’s common creed. The election became the battle for the soul of America.
As we struggle to keep our republic amidst extreme polarization, we also struggle to keep the bonds that unite Americans. Over the course of many years, we have depended on our federal government to solve our divisions, only to see them deepen. As Americans look toward Washington D.C. to settle our disagreements and make ever harder compromises, we neglect our own communities, our own neighbors.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, stated that, “politics is filling a void of the hollowing out of national, local traditional tribes.” For decades, Americans built their identities based on their neighborhoods, workplaces, spiritual groups, and families. People now look to politics for a shared identity instead of local communities.
In the 2020 election, 90% of Biden voters stated that the reelection of President Trump would cause “lasting harm” to the country, and almost 90% of Trump voters agreed with the reciprocal. To add to that, 73% of Republicans and Democrats claimed that voters diverge not only with respect to politics but also in their belief in “basic facts.”
This profound disagreement and distortion of perception of the other party stems from the loss of our sense of community. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam shows that societal connections have trended downwards since the mid-1970s. Studying community engagement trends from the mid-70s to the mid-90s, community leadership in organizations or clubs went down 42%, political party employment was also down 42%, and work done for local committees or organizations decreased by 39%.
Putnam invokes the idea of social capital, which he defines as “the connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." Not only are political divisions worsening, but our social capital is falling as well. In 1980, Americans had roughly 3.2 friends, compared to 1.8 friends in 2018.
It is no wonder that the health insurance company Cigna considers loneliness a top concern in America; over 60% of Americans are lonely. There is a correlation between the loss of community ties and greater social media usage.
As Senator Sasse argues in his recent book Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, loneliness leads many Americans to seek ways to fill the voids caused by the loss of personal social capital. Unfortunately, Sasse would contend, Americans look to politics to find deeper meaning in our lives. This often leads to splitting into our Red versus Blue camps.
According to Sasse, “we act like political differences are... core anti-identities for people. Until you have things that you are for first, you are not going to be able to figure out what we are trying to do together in politics.” In our divisive political nature, too often we split people into their ideological camps and assume we know all there is to know about them.
When searching for deeper meaning in our politics, we lose out on the happiness we used to find in our communities. As we silo ourselves into our political tribes, we forget what Americans are collectively for, instead focusing on what differentiates "us" from "them."
With most issues, we look to the federal government to take on broad policy debates. As we do so, national politics become overwhelmed, and the heart of the issue becomes hard to solve. State and local governments, though, have a history of creative policy solutions.
In the early 1900s, local activism led to the rise of universal high school in communities across America. This legacy has persevered as states continue to devise innovative solutions to pressing issues. As Colorado miners began to experience layoffs, the state and a private tech company worked to improve broadband access to Delta County. This “fiber-optic boom” improved the hard-hit economy by providing new jobs and potential for future growth. In its fight against opioid abuse, Indiana has prioritized expanded treatment, substance use disorder counseling, and an increased focus on underserved communities.
While these may seem like smaller issues solved in our grand political scheme, they are nonetheless problems solved and lives impacted. Pushing more issues under state control allows for states to cater solutions to the needs of their people. Further, states need to balance their budgets annually, which can foster compromise. As states contend with issues, parties must meet an understanding in order to pass a balanced budget.
To cool off heated political debates, communities have spearheaded local gatherings centered around discussing issues and local solutions. In Duluth, Minnesota, local leaders formed “Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project” in order to determine ground rules for civil community debates.
Localities across the country have looked to Duluth as a model for community discourse. The town of Sisters, Oregon began a similar project in 2016 and found it useful in 2020 to discuss local relations with law enforcement. To go a step further, Sisters began a program that connected both citizens and law enforcement in order to engage the two in conversation.
Of course, these examples are not one-size-fits-all, but they are worth fighting for. Even though the old phrase “think globally, act locally” is cliché, it still rings true. Taking our passions of national politics and turning towards state and local affairs can ease the national tension we still hold from the last four years.
As we have new conversations in our communities, we must remain open to new perspectives, open to new realities and ways of life. But most importantly, we must begin these conversations with what we are for first, instead of highlighting our divisions.
We seem to forget that common principle that binds us, that common creed that gave birth to our republic: ideas like self-government, religious freedom, and the self-evident, unalienable rights which are endowed by our dignity as human beings. As then-Senator Obama said in 2004, “[i]t is that fundamental belief, I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, that makes this country work.” Let’s revive that call to service to our brothers and sisters.
As we navigate these troubled waters, and as we attempt to patch our divisions, know that disagreements are natural; know that it is okay to be friends with people of rival parties. That is how we listen and learn from one another. Do not switch off when you hear someone’s party identification. Engaging in conversation does not have to be combative. Find the areas of agreement first. But also recognize that there is more to life than the theatrics of Washington, D.C. We live in communities that are calling for our help.
You may have noticed my common use of “we” throughout this piece; that is because this is our common project as Americans in our current time. I am not a professor lecturing you on right from wrong. I am your neighbor, asking for your attention, for your help. Our communities need us.
And I ask you this: reckon with your current views on the world, but never let them hinder you from new friendships. Understand that we as Americans face immense challenges. But the solutions to those challenges begin within our communities, with our friends, our families, and our neighbors.
I want to leave you with a piece of Amanda Gorman’s touching inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb”:
"The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it"
American communities are calling on the benevolent, the brave, and the bold. Be that light they so desperately need.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.