American exceptionalism isn’t merely about our system of government or the pioneering spirit of our people. It includes a complex network of institutions that helped facilitate our rise as a nation.
Traveling in the U.S. during the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville ascribed the young democracy’s success to its “art of joining.”
Americans’ commitment to institution-building continued well into the 20th century. Volunteerism and philanthropy were central parts of civic life in postwar America. At least 70% of citizens attended some form of religious worship. Millions joined the ranks of the Boy Scouts. Rotary clubs, Masonic lodges, chambers of commerce, volunteer fire departments, PTAs, veterans’ associations and fraternal organizations all brought Americans together, bonded by a sense of community. Marriage and children were goals to which the vast majority aspired.
By 2000, political scientist Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” identified societal fragmentation warned of social collapse if the worrying trend continued. Two decades later, many of Mr. Putnam’s predictions have been confirmed as we retreat further into a cold, virtual, digital world.
For the first time, fewer than half of all Americans polled by Gallup reported belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque. An estimated 62% of community-based organizations are experiencing flat or declining membership.
The average man in the U.S. now gets married at age 30, seven years later than his predecessors wed in 1968, and the current share of unmarried Americans aged 25 to 50 has reached an all-time high. Seventy percent of Black children are born to unwed mothers. Drug overdoses kill more Americans each year than car crashes. Congress and the media’s approval ratings are at all-time lows.
According to author Yuval Levin, institutions are critical to character formation. Mr. Levin suggests that institutions today however are increasingly viewed as platforms for personal branding rather than as vehicles for service or self-improvement. AOC and Stacey Abrams come to mind.
The left contributed significantly to the decline of our institutions, and not just through higher combined taxation which undoubtedly impacted Americans’ ability to take part in civil society. Their deliberate tactics of endless litigation, speech codes, as well as bureaucratic and media intimidation have helped to drive us apart. The right long ago acquiesced to this perpetual bombardment and has done little to counter it.
Corporations are quickly following colleges over the woke cliff, focused on narrow ideological concerns and virtue signaling that risk damaging brand loyalty. Big Tech is the most prominent but hardly the only example of our narcissistic corporate culture. Thanks to critical race theory, the military could be the next institution to fall under the left’s woke spell.
Institutional decline feeds and emboldens the kind of soul-sapping statism and Marxism that is now a distinct feature of the Democratic Party, the mainstream media and Big Tech. We all live on campus now, whether we like it or not.
Without our institutions and a government or political system we trust, we are left with just the transactional and the transitory, a nation of once free and equal citizens reduced to a collection of isolated consumers. For the left, it’s the perfect divide-and-conquer strategy.
Conservatives must help their fellow Americans re-learn the value of civil society. We must lead by example and join something larger than ourselves. Each of us should think seriously about how our role within an organization or institution can lift others. Let’s endeavor to act responsibility and defend standards and values that strengthen communal bonds.
It won’t be easy. The left prefers revolution to renewal at all costs. We must resist this romantic idea. The loss of our institutions would remove the last barrier to state control and empower the worst parts of society. Without reconnecting with this American impulse there will be no freedom to pass on to our children. It’s our choice.
• Tom Basile, host of Newsmax Television’s “America Right Now,” is an author and adjunct professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where he teaches earned media strategy.
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