Robert Putnam (in Australia) discussed American Grace, the recent rise in youth civic engagement, and both growing polarization and a growing class divide. Excerpt from story in The Australian:
Putnam also sees a break in the downward trend in social capital, with the generation that became adults after September 11, 2001, more civic minded than older Americans. “9/11 had a big impact on these kids,” he says. “The attitude was that we are all in this together. There were Mexican waiters, Irish firemen, Jewish bankers involved.” On this reading, it was a disaster that drew people together, as did World War II and the Depression with earlier generations, although whether it has a long-term effect may be open to question. [For more on this youth civic up-tick, see “Still Bowling Alone?“]
But Putnam worries about two other trends: political segregation and an increasing class divide. “Growing political polarization quite frankly is a damnable problem,” he says. “It is almost impossible in America to have an adult conversation about any issue like healthcare. People revert almost instinctively to very shortsighted partisanship.” He sees the decline in social capital as a contributing factor. Fewer people are brought together by mutual interests, irrespective of their different perspectives. “You didn’t choose your bowling partner to make sure your politics fitted their politics.”
Putnam says there are other reasons for what he describes in an ABC interview as the echo chamber that political discourse has become, including changes in the media. But the effect is that “ordinary Americans are more and more disconnected from personal networks that would help them interpret what is happening politically and enable them to share ideas. More and more we are stuck in this kind of strange echo chamber in which we send our views to the world and we hear back this crazy echo from other people who don’t actually know.”…
His second concern is based on research that has identified an increasing class division. Despite greater integration along religious and racial lines, there is an opposite trend when it comes to class, mainly, he believes, because of the widening gap in incomes. Americans are less likely today to marry outside their class. Children from lower classes are less likely to spend time with their peers or take part in community activities and have less confidence, while the trend for middle-class children is the opposite. [For more on this youth growing class gap, see “Still Bowling Alone?“] “Kids coming from upper middle-class backgrounds are living in a different world now from kids coming from working-class or less well-off backgrounds,” Putnam says, adding the sense of collective responsibility for children in a community has disappeared.
Putnam has had a receptive hearing from both George W. Bush and Barack Obama on this issue because it goes to core American values. He is arguing for a focus on early childhood education and child welfare.
“Historically, Americans aren’t that concerned about equality of outcomes but they are very concerned about equality of opportunity,” he says. “The real victims of this are kids. Almost everyone agrees on that, including Republicans. If you could get them to focus on it, you could get a pretty broad consensus on child-focused initiatives in the interests of equality of opportunity.”
That would be easier in an era that was less polarised politically, where consensus is elusive even on issues on which there is underlying agreement.
See “Trapped in echo chamber world of our own opinions“, The Australian (by Mike Steketee, 4/7/11)