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Following the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and a particularly vicious partisan campaign against U.S. government institutions, there has been an invigorated discussion about the meaning and instruments of democracy. Many are asking, why are our political divisions so severe? Why do so many people feel alienated? 

Twenty years ago, the scholar Robert Putnam argued in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital that United States society had experienced a large decline in social cohesiveness. He cited research showing that the individuals born before 1930 who had experienced the Great Depression and World War II were more trusting and community-minded than the generations that attained adulthood during the years of Vietnam, Watergate, and a general coarsening of popular culture. With this decline in trust and civic engagement, he found a diminished commitment to the needs and welfare of those beyond immediate family and friends.

One of the consequences of this lack of engagement is a sense of loneliness that has been labelled a public health crisis. It has been linked to shorter life spans, heart disease, obesity, and Alzheimer’s. Putnam and others have written that fewer of us join civic or community organizations, that we are less likely to attend religious services, and that we are prone to overworking. 

An important cause of this decline in social cohesion is the rising rate of income inequality. This in turn is related to declining participation in voluntary associations and trust in others. It is a strike against the notion of a common good. Democracy requires community and community requires trust. Community is based on common interests, common values, and common aspirations. The common good is not supported when the focus is on the individual to the exclusion of other values. The saying, “It takes a community…” may be trite but it is true.

It is unfortunate that the Covid pandemic has kept us isolated because the positive health results of social distancing may exacerbate the decline in social capital. So, just as we consider how to open schools for the social and emotional health of children as well as their learning, let us think further. How might our community organizations work to bridge the divides that separate us and bring us together in common cause? 

Fortunately, we have examples in our area colleges and universities that sponsor community engagement involving faculty, staff, and students. These include Adelphi’s Prize for Leadership for high school juniors; Hofstra’s Center for Civic Engagement; and St. Joseph College’s Center for Community Solutions. 

With these and similar initiatives, we can encourage the role of the individual in supporting the common good, the strengthening of communities, and the building of social trust and cohesion so essential to democracy.

Robert A. Scott is President Emeritus of Adelphi University.

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