Who are your neighbors? What are their names? What do they do for a living? Chances are you don’t know. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, only 19 percent of Americans today know the names of the people that live around them.
Harvard University’s Robert Putnam first brought light to the issue of the declining civic engagement in the United States in 2000 with his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam placed a large amount of the blame on television as the primary reason Americans have become less involved in their communities.
It isn’t hard to see why what was already a problem 17 years ago has worsened today. If television was a driver of lower civic engagement at the turn of the millennium, then in a world with iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, and an endless internet, it is impressive that we have even an ounce of civic engagement left. As a whole, we Americans have left our block parties for our basements.
Why does this matter? There are several reasons, but perhaps the most concerning reason is the impact this lack of civic engagement is having on our ability to come together politically. It is no secret that the United States is divided, perhaps more than it has been at any point in recent history.
The 2016 presidential election and aftermath have widened this chasm. Data from 2017 shows, Americans are the most divided along party lines since the Pew Research Center began polling on the subject in 1994.
Many people can relate to the awkwardness of last Thanksgiving as the Republicans in the family couldn’t help but preen about the election while the cousins, who clearly voted for Hillary, looked for anything else to talk about. Unfortunately, the impacts of the last election have gone much further than awkwardness at the dinner table. According to CBS News, 7% of American voters said that they had ended a personal friendship as a result of the presidential election.
One of the direct victims of this division is the conservative movement. We have watched as conservatives have been mischaracterized as a polarized fringe of society, yet we as this “fringe” have let ourselves be handled.
The misconceptions and stereotypes that fuel our division are perpetrated by the media, offering us false definitions of what it means to be a conservative or a liberal. These stereotypes, assisted by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum, have painted conservatives as heartless and uncaring.
Thus persecuted, the temptation is to wash our hands of our intellectually dishonest accusers and disappear into our basements. But conservatives cannot afford to stand silent as we are mischaracterized. We cannot allow the division to affect our ability to live as an American community, both on a national and local scale.
Conservative values are community values. We value integrity, participation, helping our neighbors, fostering camaraderie, promoting both individual freedom and strong families, and unlocking the potential of each person to make an impact in his or her own way.
Yet few of us have done enough in the recent past to preserve these values. Most have sat back and watched our communities grow more and more polarized. Too often, we have chosen to live as collectives, disappearing into our own circles of like-minded people. Instead, we must become active in our communities, working to bring neighbors together to create respect and understanding among them.
Of course, we cannot solve this problem on our own. There is no point in starting a dialogue if the other side refuses to talk back. Healing this division within our society will require much effort from both conservatives and liberals. There are countless aggravators to this problem: technology, social media, the media, institutions of higher education, etc. Nevertheless, conservatives have an obligation to preserve our communities and show the compassion and engagement that many wrongly believe the conservative movement lacks.
One step that each concerned citizen can take right now is to begin to talk to their neighbors and to build community. Get to know your neighbors. Listen to their concerns. Share yours. You might be surprised how similar you both are. Get involved. Go to meetings. Sponsor community events. Run for your local city council and begin to create dialogue. Do something.
When we look at communities, the ones that stand out to us as ideal are the ones where neighbors share meals, kids play together in the streets, and parents advocate for the community issues they believe in. Yet these “ideal” neighborhoods have become few and far between. When we hear the mantra “Make America Great Again,” it should start us thinking about what helped make America great before: tight-knit neighborhoods and communities where dialogue could be freely exchanged and people could come together to compromise for the common good. Today, “compromise” has become a bad word.
Yes, there will always be deep division in American politics, and block parties alone won’t solve them. Every American citizen, however, has a duty to help solve this problem in their communities by starting a conversation. So, who are your neighbors? What do they do? Go next door and find out.
Anthony Massa is a member of the Forge Leadership Network’s Mentorship Academy. Originally from North Canton, Ohio, he is a rising junior at Miami University studying Management & Leadership and Economics.
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