WASHINGTON — We’re communicating nearly constantly on social media and email these days, so it might seem that we’re drawing closer together as a society. And yet every day you hear about polls that show a large majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.
We hear that we’ve become a very polarized nation, and most of the time our political institutions get the blame.
But a new book argues that our inability to compromise and solve problems goes deeper than that: We no longer know our neighbors.
Marc Dunkelman, the author of “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community,” recently told WTOP’s Shawn Anderson and Hillary Howard that the recent inability to get things done on Capitol Hill is a symbol of a larger problem: Our new means of communication have strengthened ties with our families, as well as with people we have one connection with, such as a favorite team.
But we’re losing what calls the “middle-ring connections” critical to our ability to find common ground. Those are “The connections between people who are familiar but not intimate,” Dunkleman says. “This is a different kind of community.”
He says surrounding ourselves with people of the same view can limit our ability to understand each other: “If you don’t know people are who friendly but not intimate, who have different points of view, who you’d borrow a proverbial cup of sugar from even if you don’t share the same politics, it’s pretty hard for you to support a member of Congress who’d reach across the aisle.”
These middle-ring connections are a unique facet of American society, Dunkleman says, and losing them puts a lot at risk.
“It’s where political collaboration comes from; it’s where economic innovation comes from; it’s where our social safety net came from. And unless we adjust to this big change, in the way we govern ourselves, the way we drive new jobs, the way we help those who need a hand up, we’re really going to be in a tough spot.”
Dunkleman’s suggested solution? Expand the opportunities for which people can meet each other. “Build out national service, so you have young people from all over the country coming together in service, in a common cause.”
He says we also need a good old-fashioned dose of “American grit”: “Make it so that Americans are better able to withstand the impulse to lash out, or turn away, when they meet someone who has a different point of view.”