It’s time to take a brief break from President Trump. Whatever you think of him, there’s no denying that he dominates the news cycle. We seem to assume that the nation’s future depends on Trump’s fate, for better or worse. The reality is otherwise: The nation’s future also hangs on larger economic and social trends that no president can shape.
A new report from the congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC) reminds us of this. The report examines the nation’s “social capital.” Now, social capital is an obscure academic term that, essentially, signifies the ability of people to work and play together — to cooperate and connect with others. The stronger a society’s social capital, the less isolated and powerless people feel. The news here is cautionary; our social capital is depleting.
The JEC study assessed social capital in four realms — family life, the workplace, religion and community — and found it weakening in all four. Here’s a brief summary of the report’s conclusions, which are based on scholarly studies and public opinion surveys.
●Religion: Fewer Americans feel loyal to organized religion. In the early 1970s, about seven in 10 adults were members of a church or synagogue, and slightly more than half attended services at least once a month. Now, only slightly more than half (55 percent) belong to churches and synagogues, and monthly attendance has dropped to about 40 percent.
●Community: There’s been a broad erosion of public trust. In Gallup polls, only 36 percent have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, but that rating is higher than for schools (30 percent), banks (27 percent), newspapers (20 percent), big business (18 percent) and Congress (6 percent). In addition, the share of the voting-age population that actually registered fell from 72 percent in 1972 to 65 percent in 2012.
The institutions that provide social stability and personal contentment seem to be in retreat. The fact that one-third of children are raised by single parents cannot be good. Neither is the loss of confidence in major institutions. As private institutions weaken, pressure mounts on government to fill the void, but the effect is to place more demands of government than it can meet, contributing to its unpopularity.
Remember, however, that some of these changes have also created huge benefits. Women’s entrance into the paid labor force has both raised household incomes and provided satisfying careers for millions. We must also guard against exaggerating adverse effects. The JEC study reports that parents still spend the same amount of time with their children as before, despite the pressures of balancing work and family. Similarly, some types of volunteering have increased since the 1970s.
Perhaps slightly faster economic growth and higher wages would alleviate some social and economic tensions. But economic growth is not a panacea for all of our problems and worries. Indeed, paradoxically, greater wealth and affluence are the causes of some of our discontents, as the JEC report acknowledges.
“The increases in dual-income and single-parent families reflect the rising affluence of our nation, not growing hardship,” it says. “Technological innovation reduced the amount of time it took to maintain homes. . . . Even the growth in single parenthood reflects rising affluence. More women are able to support children on their own . . . due to their increased earnings. So too, the public safety net for single parents, while by no means allowing a lavish existence, is sufficiently generous to facilitate single parenthood.”
To some extent, the future of the United States depends on Trump. But it depends even more on how these social and economic trends evolve — how we cope with them and whether we become a more cohesive society or a more contentious one.[JB emphasis] Trump is not destiny. For better or worse, we are.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."