• The United States has been witnessing a steady decline in community involvement over the past four decades.
• The federal government has tried to respond to these needs, and in the process, it has continued to expand its depth and breadth.
• North Carolinians have the opportunity to change this trend in our state. Are we up to the task?
“The challenge we face today is rebuilding our real communities, which will require us to reverse century-old trends toward centralization,” Sen. Mike Lee said. “We need to turn our gaze away from Washington, back to where we came from.”
Federalism. Do most Americans know what that is anymore?
Federalism means de-centralization of the government, and that de-centralization requires a healthy civic society in order to be sustained. Federalism means that North Carolinians have a vested interest in what happens to our beautiful state. It means that we, not Washington, are best equipped to make well-informed decisions that affect our towns and counties. And, finally, it means that we, not government-backed welfare programs and initiatives, are responsible for cultivating strong communities within the larger populace.
During a nine-month trip to the United States in 1831, 19th-century French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville made keen observations regarding the unique way American civil society functioned. For nearly two centuries, lovers of liberty have regarded Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” as a masterfully insightful look into American life. In this work, Tocqueville makes numerous references to the strength of America’s social fabric, crediting the nation’s success to it.
He wrote, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” Yet, what are we to make of an America whose citizens increasingly fail to practice self-governance or care for their fellow man?
In a recent article on the need for a renewal in civil society, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah insightfully wrote, “It is no coincidence that federal power has expanded at the same time American communities have come apart. The trends are related, and in fact they reinforce one another.”
I know, I know. Correlation does not equal causation. But the evidence is too strong to ignore. When looking at the link between government growth and communal decline, the examples are sadly numerous.
Take marriage, for example. According to Senator Lee, “Between 1970 and 2015, births to single mothers rose from 11 percent of all births to 40 percent. A majority of American children can now expect to live with just one parent at some point before reaching age 16.”
What about participation in organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Rotary International? A quick perusal of Boy Scouts of America’s 1997 and 2015 annual reports reveals a 1.9 million-member drop in participation over the 18-year period, which equates to a 68 percent decline overall. Rotary International has likewise seen a downward drop in involvement.
The growth of government has incentivized many of these civic groups to move to Washington in hopes of lobbying for recognition and monetary distribution, rather than spending their time and energy on making connections with the very people and communities they were established to help. Government programs have crowded out voluntary civic groups and civil society.
What do we make of these glaring facts? Are people simply spending more quality time with their family, which is in turn preventing them from contributing to their local community?
The precipitous declines in marriage rates and childbirth would say no. It is becoming increasingly obvious that men, women and children are exchanging face-to-face relationships — even in their own homes — for online interaction and engagement.
All the while, they entrust their leaders — elected by a little more than half of the voting age population — with the work of making key decisions on their behalf.
In Senator Lee’s article, he notes a June 26 CNBC headline that highlights Facebook’s two billion monthly user milestone. According to the article, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is moved by a vision to create community through this social media giant, because of the vacuum created by decline in church attendance and Little League.
Zuckerberg keenly perceives, “Americans are in need of something to unify their lives.”
As a frequent user of Facebook, I certainly understand the appeal that social media possesses when it comes to facilitating community. However, are we really OK with lowering the bar of what it means to be in community, relegating it to oftentimes shallow online interactions?
Does my membership in a Facebook group create a way for me to bring dinner to my neighbor when she’s sick? Does it enable my 11-year-old son to play soccer with his friends? Am I able to bear the burdens of my fellow man, to include offering a shoulder to cry on, through a glowing screen?
No, no and no. That sort of human contact can only come through real community.
When I think about North Carolina’s wonderfully diverse population, from Wilmington to Fort Bragg to Asheville, I am convinced that the answer to the problem of growing government and the ever-expanding preoccupation with social media will require us to fight for stronger families, stronger volunteer organizations and stronger local communities.
None of this will be easy, because relationship — real relationship — takes time, effort and intentionality.
So, if we aren’t ready for that sort of commitment, the nanny state and Mr. Zuckerberg will be more than happy to fill the void.
Brooke Medina currently works with the Civitas Institute’s Communications Team, which seeks to advance the message of liberty and the importance of personal responsibility. In her free time, she, her husband, and their four children love to hike, swim and read great books.