The social group has long been one of America’s strongest cultural hallmarks; in 1831, French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville praised its strength during his evaluation of the American experiment. Although we have traditionally been a very individualistic society, this habit of forming groups for all kinds of purposes has stuck throughout the years. This is due to our culture highly prioritizing “social capital,” or networks, trust and social norms that allow society to function. On a societal level, this underlies high political engagement, tolerance of diversity, organized labor, philanthropy and many other signs of connectedness. However, the amount of social capital in America has been heavily decreasing. As people become less connected to others, by being less trusting and putting their ambitions over those around them, America becomes incapable of handling the complex social issues plaguing society. While we still can, it is critical to notice the danger of unrestrained individualism in an America where people care for and trust people less.
This trend has been very pronounced throughout the past century, with similar results shown by multiple different measures of social capital. For starters, two measures of levels of trust, both in institutions and the general public, show a generational decrease of 25% from the beginning of 1900 to 1965, and individuals reported less group membership by 20% over the same time period. This trend has only continued with diverse ranges of organizations, with any group from unions to bowling leagues reporting decreases of 25-50% from the 70s to 90s. The Joint Economic Committee found further evidence of this trend as recently as 2017, saying that on a national level, “The connective tissue that facilitates cooperation has eroded.” As for the effect of COVID-19 on social capital, there has not been heavy empirical research into this topic yet; however early studies show a negative effect on institutional and social trust.
The causes of this have been debated heavily throughout the years, with some conservatives offering up the expansion of the federal government social policy as the culprit. Historically, however, voluntary groups have expanded the most in times of great government expansion, like in the New Deal era. Rather, it is the promulgation of individualist ideals that is hurting social capital the most. For example, a large majority of today’s children are reporting that personal achievement is much more important to them than caring for others. It is the idealization of these values that poses a danger, as they overtake care for “the fellow man” and are overtaken by the capitalist mindset to amass power and wealth. The same trend can be seen in other facets of life, like how corporations have forgotten the social duty of their organization and instead focused solely on relentlessly pursuing more profit. This effect trickles down to the average workplace as well, as they become less focused on staff community-building and well-being, leaving this crucial area of life to be something more and more workers are disconnected from and disillusioned by.
Now, the effects of declining social capital are very pronounced in some of the biggest problems of American society today. In terms of the political system, the decreasing participation and increasing anti-democratic sentiments are symptoms of decreasing social capital. As trust in institutions and other Americans goes down, it becomes impossible to put faith in others to direct the nation’s government. On a more personal level, there has been a noticeable trend in Americans becoming more mentally unwell and unhappy, something especially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social capital is both an important factor in happiness generally and is specifically shown to be important in preventing stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic. In terms of both mental health in normal life and during crises, the decreasing social capital in America has a detrimental effect.
As college students, we understand what it means to have a community. The ties that bind us all together through icons like Jonathan the Husky, Paige Bueckers or the shared experiences of all-nighters at Babbidge give us a special sense of social capital with thousands of others. This is the same effect that we’ve had all our lives in high school or elementary school, where school served as a community center through which we centered our existing relationships and was crucial in finding new ones. Yet, what happens once that ends? For those who are graduating soon, or those who never went to college in the first place, ending your education provides one of the most drastic social changes anybody will ever face. The transition from living as part of a more cohesive community like the University of Connecticut to becoming simply one fish lost in a huge American ocean is jarring.
The decreasing sense of community and social capital in America is something that everyone will have to reckon with in one way or another. Whether it will come in the form of personally facing a lack of community in the place where you live, or society as a whole failing to come together in future crises, this decline will be relevant to everyone. So for the sake of us all, and the betterment of each of us individually, it is time we start working to ensure a connected society working for the sake of its fellow man.