Americans value community engagement much less than a quarter century ago, according to a new poll from The Wall Street Journal and the NORC research group. The survey also found a significant decline in Americans’ attachment to other traditional American values, particularly since 2019. (Although the apparent sharpness of this trajectory, if not the survey’s assessment of Americans’ priorities, may be due to methodological inconsistencies, pollster Patrick Ruffini writes.) Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say traditional values are “very important” — eg, “patriotism” (59 to 23 percent), religion (53 to 27 percent) and “having children” (38 to 26 percent). Not for “community involvement,” which only 25 percent of Republicans rated as “very important,” compared to 32 percent of Democrats (27 percent overall).
“The decline in American participation in local civil society institutions — from churches to school parent groups — may vary from year to year, but it must be seen as a long-term trend,” says Howard Husock of the American Enterprise Institute. Reason. This long-term disintegration of civil society – local, private associations – mostly in lower-class communities and mostly since the 1960s, is well documented in the works of the likes of Robert Putnam Bowling alone (2000), by Charles Murray Separation (2013) and Timothy P. Carney Alienated America (2019).
Although the trend toward civil separation is certainly driven by many factors, Husock singles out the increasing involvement of government in the daily lives of citizens. “We must bear in mind this insight of the late sociologist Nathan Glazer, who wrote… of ‘the simple reality that every part of social policy is replacing some traditional arrangement, be it good or bad, by a new arrangement in which public authorities assume, at least in part, the role families and neighborhood groups, voluntary associations,” he says. “In other words, government social programs have crowded out civil society.”
And government has indeed expanded aggressively in recent decades. Since 1970, the annual expenditures of the federal government have been ballooned from approximately $195 billion to more than $6 trillion (more than 30 times more). Over the past two decades, federal agencies have codified 114,821 final rules, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute “10,000 commands2022 report. Total federal spending and regulatory costs in 2021 accounted for 36 percent of the economy, the report said. ranking behind France and ahead of Italy,” it added.
Federal government subsidy programs almost doubled from 1990 to 2020, jumping from 1,176 to 2,249. From 1990 to 2018, federal government assistance programs—eg. for agriculture, education and energy projects—pointed from 463 to 1,386.
This age of bloated government is also one in which technological advances make social self-isolation increasingly easy, perhaps even attractive for some. “In a world before radio, before television, before we had more than three networks, before cheap travel, there were just fewer opportunities for leisure,” says David Boaz, distinguished senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “Now, with the enormity of the world that it’s available to us on screens, it’s easier to stay at home.”
However, the Internet has enabled the creation of a new kind of civil society. “Social media has also allowed people to find community online, among people they would never have met,” notes Boaz. “Libertarians, gay or trans people, people with rare diseases, fans of obscure bands or disappearing hobbies can find community and solace in a way they couldn’t before.”