Americans don’t know their neighbors — and that’s bad for democracy

Originally published with Quartz Ideas.

The traditional myth of small-town America is that neighbors engage in a social contract, wherein they know each other and the government (or a large corporation) is a distant presence that rarely intrudes into daily life. Today, this social contract of privacy has been inverted: where once Americans were anonymous to elites and transparent to their neighbors, now corporations know everything about them—and their neighbors know next to nothing. And that is a conclusion with profound implications for the future of our country.

This breakdown has been in the works for decades. In 2000, Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, a study of the decline of trust in American communities. Putnam documented how, since World War II, Americans have slowly become more and more disconnected from the traditional civic institutions of American life—things like local government meetings, church services, voter participation, and union membership. Putnam argued that technology, namely, television and the (still early) World Wide Web, was “individualizing” leisure time, thus cracking the traditional social bonds that held society together.

Indeed, Pew surveys over the last decade suggest that every year Americans know less and less about their neighbors—a large change from 30 years ago, when most people in most communities at least knew the names of those who lived nearby. Civility was as much an institution in America as any club or religious group.

Of course, the push to be civil covered up a lot of ugliness—particularly the oppression of women, minorities, and LGBT people. But it also provided common ground where people could meet and talk without assuming mendacity—albeit typically in homogenous groups. And indeed, there are endless think pieces lamenting the supposed end to civility, and what that means for us as a culture.

But civility is not the only measure of how communities function. The early promise of the internet was that someone would not need to be best friends with their physical neighbors in order to be part of a community. And indeed, for marginalized people like LGBT children struggling with unaccepting parents, the internet was a godsend. Suddenly there were spaces for new types of communities, and indeed many people experience stronger friendships with online friends than people they know in real life.

As more and more people met online, however, it became clear that the expectations of civility were changing too: people tended to demonize each other in a way they simply did not in real life. Social media conditions us to accept more extreme views, which in turn makes us more susceptible to conspiracy theories and sensationalism—both important cultural aspects of authoritarianism.

Shifting our lives online also lead to a frightening loss of privacy. It used to take a tremendous amount of resources and time to learn about a community: intense anthropological studies, embedded researching, surveys, and even physical surveillance. Now our digital footprints, which document what we buy, when and why we message our friends, where we travel, who we know, and even what we masturbate to, are indexed in massive databases available to the highest bidder.

This reversal of privacy in our society has created fault lines that were just waiting to be exploited. Then along came Donald J. Trump.

Right-wing demagogues like George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, and even Ross Perot have tried this before, but they did not have the advantage of a growing sense of public mistrust. Trump and his campaign built a database detailing what sorts of issues mobilize people online, and then targeted those communities. According to a detailed report in Bloomberg Businessweek, this included both mobilization (i.e. getting people to donate and get out the vote) and demobilization (convincing potential Democrat voters to stay home). Unlike Barack Obama’s “big data” operation, which targeted individuals with appealing messages based on surveys about local issues that would mobilize voters, Trump instead offered disconnected Americans who had grown distrustful of their neighbors the opportunity to join a broader community, however vaguely defined.

So where do we go from here? It is difficult to reverse social trends, and typically inadvisable too. In the 16th century, for example, the Swiss biologist Conrad Gessner, the founder of modern zoology, lamented that the printing press had led to a “confusing and harmful abundance of books” and urged the various monarchs to regulate how and when new books could be published. History suggests that massive social change is accompanied by panic and even frustration. But there is no real reason to hold onto crumbling social orders. The Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements upended old social orders in America, and the country was better for it.

One of the criticisms of Harvard’s Putnam was that he did not consider new social arrangements when examining civic life—people might attend fewer city council meetings, but they attended things like soccer games. The “soccer moms” were forming new civic institutions that simply weren’t measured through traditional metrics.

Looking ahead, we should accept that we cannot really rebuild the traditional idea of privacy. That era is more or less over; we simply cannot hide ourselves from the marketers or the government. But we do need to think critically about the social bonds that used to tie us together as Americans. Something else is growing to replace the old, traditional bonds, but whether that news system is good or bad is unclear.

A growing backlash to unfettered harassment on Twitter, plus discontent with how Facebook inadvertently spreads fake news and enables conspiracists to silence their critics, shows that people are starting to think about how to build new online social contracts. In order to prevent the rise of demagogues, we need to find ways to create stronger communities online based on mutual trust—like the niche communities of the early internet, but on a larger scale. Whether that will happen, and what forms those communities may take, is up to us.