Creating Together: The Power of Social Capital

Dear Digby,

Like you, I was struck by Chris Hayes‘ recent piece at the Nation on the root causes of the illness afflicting American politics. Like you, I highly recommend it to anyone who wants some insight into how — and why — to change the system. And like you (I suspect) I came away from the piece feeling like Hayes had put his finger on some unfocused thoughts I had been having about our baleful estate these days.

I’ve been reading Peter Block’s recent book Community: The Structure of Belonging. Most people will think it’s a bunch of New Age leadership babble. It also has some potentially very useful insights. For example, Block reports on the work of the sociologist Robert Putnam:

[Putnam] found that community health, educational achievement, local economic strength and other measures of community well-being were dependent on the level of social capital that exists in a community.

Geography, history, great leadership, fine programs, economic advantage or any other factors that we traditionally use to explain success made a marginal difference in the health of a community. A community’s well-being simply had to do with the quality of the relationships, the cohesion that exists among its citizens. He calls this social capital.

Social capital is about acting on and valuing our interdependence and sense of belonging. It is the extent to which we extend hospitality and affection to one another. If Putnam is right, to improve the common measures of community health—economy, education, health, safety, the environment—we need to create a community where each citizen has the experience of being connected to those around them and knows that their safety and success are dependent on the success of all others.

This is an important insight for our cities. If you look beneath the surface of even our finest cities and neighborhoods, there is too much suffering. It took the broken levees of Hurricane Katrina to expose to the world the poverty and fragile lives in New Orleans.

And it took an earthquake for the misery of Haiti to register on most Americans. Lord knows if the lesson will stick.

You can probably see why I’d like to use some of these ideas in the church world. But you can also see how applicable to the current situation they are. As Hayes suggests, the “human, economic and ecological disasters that demand immediate action,” such as the “grossly inefficient healthcare sector, millions un- or underinsured, 10 percent unemployment, a planet that’s warming, soaring personal bankruptcies, 12 million immigrants working in legal limbo,” and so on, are all symptomatic of a larger problem. Hayes calls it “the perverse maldistribution of power in the country,” and I think he’s right. But the “disasters that demand immediate action” may also be symptomatic of a dangerously frayed social fabric.

Political liberals are used to thinking of things the other way around: we believe that the maldistribution (or misuse) of power causes problems in the social fabric. But it’s possible that just the opposite is true. Perhaps because we are so disconnected from one another, and because we have heard ad nauseum that our “safety and success” have nothing to do with those of others, we share power so poorly these days.

Block’s approach to setting things right involves getting citizens to sit down and talk through a series of conversations designed to increase the connections among them. He asks, “What do we want to create together that we cannot create on our own?” “What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change?” “What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me?”

I am quite confident that if those questions were properly injected into our political conversation, they would scramble it. The first one is the most volatile. No unjust system can withstand a citizenry determined to act as equal owners, investors and co-creators of a larger good. As soon as the political discourse in this country shifts from fear and loss to the question of what we can create together, the developing oligarchy won’t stand a chance.

Taking Obama’s first year from that perspective, I think we’ve been thinking about some things all wrong. For example, liberals have been moaning about the monument to crapulence that has been health care reform.

Now, don’t get me wrong—-what has come out of the process so far has been pure grade A sausage, at least by progressive standards. But while we’ve been complaining about the losses dealt to us, we’ve failed to notice that it’s taken the combined efforts of Big Pharma, Big Insurance, the Republican Party, Rahm Emanuel, Max Baucus, Joe Liebermann, the media, the policy wonks, a passive-aggressive President, the Catholic church, and the Blue Dog caucus just to keep the public option off the table.

To put it another way, agree or disagree with her, the Village sees Jane Hamsher coming and they crap their pants. Can you imagine what they’d do with 300 million of her?

It’s no accident that the netroots—based in the internet, one of the biggest generators of social capital in recent memory—has been disproportionately effective. We can connect citizens to one another, help them to understand how their fate is intertwined with those of others, and set them on the course to create something together. That’s power. No wonder it worries some people who make their living off convincing ordinary people they can’t do it for themselves.

I’m not trying to indulge in blog triumphalism here. Plenty of other social frameworks can do the same thing. Remember, I’m reading Block’s book for clues about how the church can create social capital.

Rather, like Hayes, I am hopeful about the long-term prospects for our democracy. Or at least I’m not ready to count us out just yet. There are things that can be done to affect the balance of power, as Hayes suggests: public financing, nuking the filibuster, passing the EFCA. But there are other measures than can be taken to bind us to one another and make sure the power stays spread around. They’re not sexy, and they’re not easy. They’re the grunt work of civic engagement: getting to know your neighbors’ names, volunteering at the school or the senior citizens’ home, going to church or the theater, signing petitions, attending neighborhood meetings, getting to know people across all sorts of social lines.

I realize that some people will think this approach is terribly soft-headed. What we need is power, and lots of it, they will say. That’s short-sighted to the point of not being able to see past your nose. Like Hayes says, Obama unleashed the social yearnings of voters in 2008. Along with some favorable conditions, the social strategy made him win in a walk. Why his administration would turn their backs on the very thing that brought them to office, I do not know, but I suspect they will come to regret the insider strategy they have adopted in the past year.

Again, though, we need to reframe the situation. If a half-hearted, quickly abandoned social strategy breezed Obama into office, what could a sincere, deeply-rooted strategy accomplish? Again, I don’t really know. No one does, since it hasn’t been tried yet. I do think Democrats might want to find out before the GOP has time to strengthen and reimplement its Amway-style social program. They have been doing this stuff ever since the Moral Majority formed in the early 80s, and they are very good at it. I would hope somebody has a plan for how to respond to it on our side of the aisle.

Last, I’m not sure how the self-proclaimed realists intend to shore up their political gains without a social program behind them. Another church book I’ve been reading talks about the “80-20” trap: when you assume that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, you’re constantly recycling people in that top tier, never able to get ahead of the game. I think it’s the same way in politics. We can develop a very powerful and very effective political elite, but if that’s all we do, we’ll be constantly shoring up our position, rather than actually strengthening it. The power and the action belong to the people, not to the privileged few at the top of the food chain. The sooner we figure that out, the sooner the system will change, and the more permanent the change will be.


P.S.: While I’m at it, I should put in a shameless plug for one of my favorite social capital projects: the community quilts put together by my friend Rain. They collect messages from members of the online community for a friend in need, then stitch them onto a quilt delivered to that person. They’ve even started doing it for people outside the netroots. You wouldn’t believe how loved people feel when they receive the quilt, or the social connections it generates.

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