This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
When describing the American Dream, buzzwords like “prosperity,” “homeownership,” and “upward mobility” likely come to mind. However, it is not material wealth, but social capital that is America’s true stock-in-trade.
According to a new Survey on Community and Society, Americans value freedom and family more than large bank accounts, hefty mortgages, or garages full of toys. The findings, published by the American Enterprise Institute, suggest that America’s wealth hinges less on economics and more on good old-fashioned relationships.
Timothy S. Goeglein and Craig Osten would concur. In their book “American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal our Nation,” Goeglein and Osten underscore the importance of cultivating community and growing social capital. “Our riches are not in our individual achievements, our wealth, or our personal experiences and adventures,” they write. “Our riches are the relationships we have — relationships transcending our personal differences because of our shared striving for the common good.”
Social capital accumulates through the relationships we have with each other. Where do these relationships come from? Our families, our churches or spiritual communities, and our neighborhoods. Civic engagement, social connectedness, and community involvement all contribute to social capital — whether volunteering for public service groups such as Rotary or Kiwanis, supporting athletic groups like Little League, AYSO, or YMCA, or participating in the local PTA, cultural or hobby organizations, homeowners’ associations, or Veterans groups.
In “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse,” Tim Carney writes, “Strong communities function not only as safety nets and sources of knowledge and wisdom, but also as the grounds on which people can exercise their social and political muscle. These are where we find our purpose.” Indeed, for most of us, our sway on national policy is limited to showing up at the voting booth every two years. Our real sphere of influence is found at the local level.
The exciting news is that most Americans believe they can enact positive change in their communities. According to the SCS study, 58 percent of respondents think they can have a big or moderate impact in making their communities better places to live. Another 35 percent believe they can make a small difference for good, while only 6 percent believe they have no influence at all.
Consider the profound impact one faith community has had on its city and surrounding area. Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village was in the path of a devastating wildfire that ignited on November 8, 2018. The Woolsey Fire would burn nearly 100,000 acres of land in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, destroying over 1,600 structures, killing three people, and prompting the evacuation of nearly 300,000 more.
“I came out of that fire with a nightgown and one flip flop,” said one fire victim. In the days and weeks that followed, the Calvary family stepped in to help community members whose lives had been shattered by the blaze. Now, eight months later, the church continues to provide social capital in the form of temporary housing, moving and storage, clothing, and counseling to help residents get back on their feet — neighbors helping neighbors.
“The academic literature is clear that higher levels of social capital produce greater community stability and life satisfaction,” writes Ryan Streeter, one of the authors of the SCS study. “Our well-being is deeply intertwined with the quality and nature of our relationships.” And it is our close relationships that remain most essential.
Even as we witness bitter division in our national political discourse, a majority of Americans remain content with life close to home. According to the SCS study, nearly three-quarters of us are satisfied with the way things are going in our own communities, even though 43 percent do not feel the same about the country. That’s not to say there are not problems at the community level; there are always opportunities to improve. Still, most Americans think their neighborhoods are good places to live — and feel empowered to help make them better.
That is encouraging, since the rancor at the national level has reached fever pitch. The start of the 2020 election cycle portends even greater nastiness in the months ahead. The danger is that such acrimony can cause us to forget the ties that bind us. As Carney points out, the glare of the national debate may cause “people’s affections and allegiances [to] swing away from their communities or parishes or towns or counties, and toward their political party or ideology.” In other words, an us-versus-them mentality kicks in. “National politics take people’s attention away from their communities, thus weakening communities and civil society.”
Our representative form of government is exactly that, representative. It is the people, not the government, who have the power to set the mood of the nation. As Goeglein and Osten put it, success or failure depends not on government, “but on the individuals and communities using it. When we perceive problems with our government, we must look not to the system for a solution. We must look to ourselves.”
Ourselves in community, connected through civic engagement, working together in pursuit of the common good — that is the true wealth of our nation.
Erin Rodewald is a Los Angeles-based writer, researcher, and strategist. She writes about civil society, American politics, human rights, and international religious freedom. You can follow Erin on Twitter at @EDRodewald or on her blog, Writing for the Public Square.