The Key to Reviving American Institutions May Lie Next Door

When Americans cease to trust each other, they lose faith in government, as well.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

No one doubts that faith in government plummeted over the last several decades. What’s less well known is that Americans aren’t just turning their backs on Washington—they’ve lost confidence in institutions across the board. In 1979, 60 percent of Americans had a lot of confidence in banks or more—today that figure hovers around one in four. Faith in organized religion—which once hovered in mid 60s—has taken a 20 point hit over the last 40 years. And it doesn’t end there. Public schools, newspapers, and big businesses have all slipped down the same slide.

There’s a natural tendency to look inside each institution for a diagnosis of what’s wrong. Americans critique the government by blaming the filibuster, the gerrymander, and the outsized role of lobbyists, among other factors. The Big Short has reshaped perspectives on financial regulation. School failures are blamed on a whole range of problems. Rarely does anyone step back and ask if anything links each separate illustration. Could any single factor explain what appears to be a broad-based trend?

The failure to ask that question reflects a more fundamental misunderstanding. Americans tend to think of institutions as machines, capable of being tweaked like a mechanic tunes a car engine. But from another perspective, the big organizations in need of repair are something altogether different: They’re collections of very different people, operating under rules that can be hard to understand. The real issue isn’t just why Americans don’t trust “the government” or “big business.” It’s why Americans no longer feel comfortable trusting the faceless individuals inside those institutions. Why has the unfamiliar become strange—or worse?

Theories of how the nation’s social fabric has changed abound. Two decades ago, it was fashionable to argue that Americans were becoming culturally isolated—that “social capital” was in decline. But in the age of social media, that now seems more far-fetched. More recently, some have posited that contemporary reliance on technology was filtering Americans into like-minded bubbles. But subsequent studies of Facebook have revealed that users end up seeing more of what other people think that one might first assume. And that’s the problem: Too often, debates about whether people are more or less connected distract from the underlying issues.

It makes more sense to focus on how exactly things have changed. On the one hand, the members of no prior generation have been so effortlessly close to the handful of people they love most: Technologies like text messages and Skype have made it possible for people to be much more entwined in the lives of our most intimate acquaintances. At the other end of the spectrum, Americans are much more connected to people who share nothing more than a single common interest. They “friend” high school acquaintances to whom they spoke just a handful of times before graduating. They “follow” the feeds of people who root for the same football team.

Has anything been lost in the wash? As it turns out, yes. Looking at data drawn from surveys of whom Americans were eating dinner with, researchers at Harvard and Berkeley found something remarkable. The percentage of Americans spending evenings with their families is going up. The same thing is true for acquaintances who live a good distance away. But the percentage reporting evenings with their neighbors has fallen dramatically. Time and attention is being driven to the extremes.

The upshot is that Americans are no longer so devoted to the middling relationships that were long a staple of the American experience. The chatter around the cookie plate setup outside a PTA meeting once provided average Americans with the opportunity to connect with people they wouldn’t otherwise understand. The bonds formed on the sidelines of bowling tournaments provided a window into the thinking of acquaintances working the levers deep inside the institutional machines. But because they no longer bowl in leagues—because PTA meetings have been supplanted by online petitions—strangers have become alien. And that has left them with the impression that the institutions they inhabit are more sinister.

There’s no point to hoping that the wealth of new social opportunities spawned by new technology will be curtailed anytime soon. Americans are unlikely to return to the era when they hung out with their neighbors simply because it was next to impossible to keep in good touch with anyone else. The real issue is what might spur them to connect with people from different corners of society. And the key to answering that question may be found well outside the sphere of government reform or information technology.

Think about what it takes to build a bond with someone who is neither an intimate acquaintance nor an ephemeral contact. Those relationships require you to interact with people whom you don’t see eye-to-eye. Middling ties require you to withstand the impulse to lash out or turn away. And so, beyond whatever technological solution may be in the offing—social networks like Nextdoor promise to connect people geographically—the most powerful tool in the struggle to rebuild faith in America’s institution is what a hard-charging band of education reformers now call “grit.”

It’s easy to lose sight of how relationships vary along the continuum of intimacy. On the one hand, your mother will love you no matter what you think or believe—or so we should hope. On the other, you can easily “unfollow” someone who offends your sense of decorum on Twitter. But what’s required to maintain the relationships that fall in between? How do you maintain a relationship with the woman down the street who voted for the other candidate or the guy from your bowling league who takes the opposite position on marriage equality? More than anything, you need self control to stay engaged across the chasm separating your various points of view.

Many may recall the lessons of the Marshmallow Test, which found that randomly chosen four-year-olds capable of withstanding the impulse to eat an available marshmallow are better poised to thrive later in life. Study upon study has confirmed that those who exhibit more self control at a young age are wealthier, healthier, happier, and less likely to fall into a life of crime. But while educators are becoming more convinced of the power that grit has to affect the trajectory of each individual life, they rarely consider how a society of individuals less inclined to eat the marshmallow might build stronger bonds across pockets of disagreement. Might grit empower you to maintain a bond when you’re put off by the other point of view?

The answer to that question is among the most important facing a nation that some believe to be “unwinding.” Middling relationships sustained what may be the most distinguishing historical feature of American life. The fact that neighbors in colonial villages, frontier towns, urban tenements, and inner-ring suburbs were so frequently compelled to pierce the bubbles of class, race, ethnicity, and politics—that, despite deep-seated prejudices and divisions, people who disagreed with one another couldn’t help but be exposed to other points of view—stirred the pot of ingenuity and nurtured a sense of common purpose.

Today, there are more avenues than ever to build relationships of every kind. The question is whether individuals will have the wherewithal to choose relationships that aren’t entirely comfortable.

Neighborly relationships could go a long way toward rebuilding the frayed sense of community. Indeed, the most potent way to restore faith in government, business, and other American institutions may have less to do with fixing those institutions, and more to do with how ordinary Americans each choose to invest their limited funds of time and attention.