Half Past the Month

April 19, 2019

Editors: You can check the social-capital index of your readership in the current issue of The Indiana Policy Review, “Social Capital: How It’s Created,” appendix tables, pp. 35-37

by Craig Ladwig

A social-capital index for my Indiana county has decreased even as the population has increased. And a low ranking on such an index, according to some economists and sociologists, can mean trouble.

The factors making up this particular index are meant to reflect a community’s ability to get along, to sort out priorities through the democratic process, to argue civilly in the public square, to settle differences with neighbors, to broadcast the values of a community. They are 1) total religious, business, political, professional, labor and recreation organizations per capita; 2) percentage voting in elections; 3) percentage responding to the census; and 4) number of nonprofit organizations.

Our elected officials, sensing the complexity behind this, are in the habit of turning over the hard decisions to courts and bureaucracies. Indeed, some of us argue that the democratic process has been so diluted as a result that we are becoming serfs of an unelected administrative state. The experts call us “Somewheres” for reasons to be explained here later.

“Social philosophers, not just friends casually expressing nostalgia for the past, are quite concerned about the interrelated issues of social capital, civil society, trust and social norms,” writes Dr. Maryann O. Keating in the current issue of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. “They identify these as the central issues affecting contemporary democracies.”

In my town, examples of the problem fly overhead daily. They are the flags the city hangs each week on the downtown light posts celebrating this group, that cause, sympathy or whatever— Otherness Awareness, Girlish/Boyish Scout Week, Burmafest or Anyfest, and so forth. In their innocence, even in their ostensibility, the flags remind us of who we are and signal to visitors what we are about, what we think important, our expansiveness, or so we like to think.

But that, to be perfectly honest, is mere vanity. No representative body selects which flags fly or when. That is so even though the decision-making can get tricky.

An Indiana court, for instance, is likely to preempt as hateful any citizen’s request to fly an old battle flag in memory of Confederate solders who died in a Midwest prisoner of war camp. And Christian churches asking each year that the Gay Pride banner be replaced during Holy Week with the ecumenical Christian Flag are out of luck. The council and mayor say nothing can be done, that it’s not up to them.

And true enough, the flags are ruled by an obscure subcommittee that meets under the auspices, perhaps somewhere in the basement, of the Board of Public Works. The members of this committee, their names largely unknown to the public, make their decisions outside processes, being pushed this way or that by whichever interest group is most activated at the moment, that and the specious whims of political ambition prevailing at city hall.

This is not the way things are supposed to work in a democracy, especially at the most local level. We like to imagine that such issues are carefully debated by sincere representatives of the people, with respect for a wide range of views, culminating in a solid decision based on established and shared principles.

Alas, that is not the case. And please know that if this furrows your brow it isn’t because of political affiliation or even constitutional literacy. Rather, it is about how “local” you are; that is, whether you see your life rooted in a particular community or neighborhood — a place, a somewhere.

Christopher DeMuth, writing in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books, would divide America into those who think of themselves as being “Somewheres,” and those more mobile and typically more wealthy who think of themselves as being “Anywheres.” He explains:

“For the Somewheres their jobs and weekends, their commitments and friendships and antagonisms, are part and parcel of their families, neighborhoods, clubs and religions. Many work with their hands and on their feet. Whether their partisan leanings are to the left or right, they tend to be socially conservative and patriotic. Somewheres probably have a smartphone but their loyalties are with the home team — with the folks they associate with personally. They do not have strong inclinations or opportunities for cutting free and following some abstract dream to a distant horizon. Less disposed to ‘vote with their feet,’ they are more affected by local economies and government policies than the Anywheres.”

As Dr. Keating also argues convincingly, the myriad of person-to-person interchanges implied in such an arrangement are the way we build the positive, constructive social capital necessary for a healthy and by definition constitutional democracy — that, at least, being true if you live somewhere and not just anywhere.

If that is you, here is a suggestion. Forego an absentee ballot for the May 7 primary election and take the trouble to locate your precinct polling place (that concept again). Get in line with real people, your neighbors, your fellow citizens. The percentage of you doing so is one of the factors making up your county’s social-capital rating.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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