The United States is suffering from not only a public health crisis, but also an identity crisis. Many of the principles that were once honored are now under attack. Basic rules, such as law and order, have been characterized as racist and sources of systemic injustice.
One of the most recent and flagrant illustrations was the story in NPR by the author of “In Defense of Looting.” While Graeme Wood does a good job explaining and deconstructing it in his Atlantic story, we’re seeing so many examples of people attacking axiomatic principles—ideas we took as self-evident less than a decade ago.
Social Capital And Culture
A mountain of empirical research in social sciences emphasizes the importance of social capital—“social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them”—for promoting human capital accumulation, economic development, safety and lower crime rates, public sector transparency, and much more.
However, the United States has been experiencing a deterioration in social capital. For example, divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades, particularly among African Americans.
These patterns motivated the formation of the Social Capital Project, chaired by Senator Mike Lee on the Joint Economic Committee in Congress. The Social Capital Project has focused its attention on identifying the contributors to social capital and suggesting policies that would help support stable and thriving families.
Leveraging Culture To Advance Social Capital
While some have argued that nationalism is dangerous, nationalism simply involves an appreciation and love for one’s country—something that we should all hold. Otherwise, why don’t we move?
But, it’s hard to flip the switch if people feel like they’re no longer part of the country and its economic system. And, that runs both ways. What if we could leverage cultural investments to help restore an appreciation for our country and bring people together?
Perhaps we can if we revive some of America’s most compelling stories. According to Alexandra Hudson, a former policy adviser to Betsey Devos at the U.S. Department of Education, “plumbing our national myths to understand what they tell us about ourselves, and immortalizing our values and heroes in art, may hold the key to a more unified, and beautiful, American future.”
Hudson saw first hand the brokenness in our politic and experienced the deep breakdown in social capital while serving in government and wanted to be part of the solution. After leaving Washington for Indianapolis, she partnered with the Harrison Center.
Last July, she curated an art and rare books exhibit at Indianapolis’ Harrison Center to encourage viewers to confront our country’s shortcomings while appreciating the good in our past. These manuscripts covered the gamut, ranging from a first English translation of Plato’s Republic to an original printing of the Gettysburg Address.
The events and conversations that took place around the exhibit over the course of July helped attendees recover a sense of what we have in common as Americans, despite political differences. As protests against racial injustice ripple across the country, and as we enter a historically divisive presidential election, it is timely that Hudson is doing yet another exhibit. The exhibit this October is entitled “Some Books Make Us Free.” It will display art that interprets classic works of human freedom and political philosophy and explore how political protest is a essential feature of democratic citizenship.
“We are constantly reminded of the things that make us different,” said Hudson, whose forthcoming book on civility and civil discourse will be published by St Martin’s Press. “But our hope is for this exhibit to be a venue of clear thinking and respectful dialogue across divides and from differing perspectives.
Honest and candid conversation is what will breed the trust, unity and healing necessary to sustain our free society.” That Hudson is one of many across the country looking for ways to remind us of our shared past and motivate us to live up to our ideals offers hope for the future.
We face a new era of political polarization, but we can rise above it if we focus on what we have in common, rather than what separates us. Culture, manifested in art, might be exactly the medicine we need to remind us of our shared past and motivate us to live up to our ideals.