Examining the growing disconnect in America

Posted Jan. 14, 2011, at 7:41 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 02, 2011, at 12:02 p.m.

In the wake of the assassination attempt on Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that left six people dead and the congresswoman critically wounded, we have been reflecting on the society that America has become. Though the exact motives for alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner’s actions are still emerging, many have been pointing to our heated political discourse, often laced with allusions to violence, as a likely motivator of the tragic occurrence in Tucson.

The criticism of this rhetoric is certainly in order, and one hopes there will be a more civilized public discussion in the future. But it is also important to take a look at the broader environment that this uncivil discourse is a part of. In recent decades, America has become a more disconnected society. This growing disconnect has been apparent in three key areas.

First, Americans have become disconnected from steady, secure and prosperous employment opportunities. Since the 1970s, working-class and middle-income Americans have been seeing their real incomes either stagnate or decline. Many of those who have been fortunate enough to maintain steady employment have been forced to work more hours while seeing their benefits decline and the prospects for their children’s future dimming.

The official unemployment rate has been hovering around 10 percent for nearly the past two years, and the actual unemployment rate is much higher when factoring in those who are underemployed and those who have dropped out of the labor market altogether. Writing in The Atlantic last March, Don Peck maintains that chronic unemployment “is a pestilence that slowly eats away at people, families, and, if it spreads widely enough, the fabric of society.”

Another area of disconnect is with our government. This is certainly apparent in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when working-class and middle-income Americans saw their tax money going to Wall Street bailouts, which was parlayed into record profits and executive bonuses. While Wall Street was beingsaved, many Americans were being laid off and having their homes foreclosed on.

In their important recent book, “Winner-Take-All Politics,” political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson indicate that the growing inequality America has faced in recent decades is not the result of natural market evolution, but rather deliberate choices made by political leaders. Wealthy earners have had steady tax cuts and have received windfalls from tax rollbacks on investments.

Public policy changes also have resulted in the moving of prosperous jobs to other countries. In a bipartisan effort, both the Clinton administration and Congress during the late 1990s successfully pushed for the financial deregulation that led to the 2008 collapse.

Distrust of government is much higher today than during the early 1960s, as many believe that our government has not been working in the interests of the middle class.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Americans have become more disconnected from each other. Political scientist Robert Putnam, in his celebrated book “Bowling Alone,” indicates that organizations that connect people with one another — labor unions, church groups, political parties and other civic organizations — have been declining in recent decades, resulting in community breakdown. Organizations that build social trust and facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit are an important part of a healthy democracy. When political and economic negotiation is embedded in dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism are reduced, Putnam mentions.

Today’s uncivil political discourse fits into this disconnect. Opportunistic political figures and shrill cable news hosts, such as Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, are more interested in calling attention to themselves rather than helping people find solutions to the very real problems they have been facing. And though it does not necessarily lead to violence, the rhetoric that originates from these figures works to keep people divided, fearful, suspicious and resentful of one another.

Both conservatives and liberals who have been experiencing these hardships have a lot more in common with each other than with the political figures and opinion leaders who work to keep them resentful of one another. We need to start reconnecting in a way that builds prosperity for everyone, otherwise American society could become much worse than it is today.

Brian Lepine of Bangor received a master’s degree in communication from the University of Maine in December.

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