The Precipitous Decline of America’s Social Capital in the 21st Century

Frank Islam & Ed Crego
21 min readSep 5, 2020
Photo Credits: Noah de Boor, Wikimedia, et al

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. — New York City Post Office

Social capital is the glue that holds the American democracy and civil society together. In this twenty first century, America’s social capital has declined precipitously and the country is coming unglued.

The United States Postal Service has been an essential part of this country’s glue. Its responsibility, in this regard, is reflected in its mission statement, which reads:

The postal service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.

The postal service traces its roots back to 1775 and has always fulfilled its mission. Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night have prevented it from doing so.

But in these tyrannical times, President Donald Trump is attempting to do what these forces of nature could not. If he is successful, it will be just another step in the ungluing of America’s social capital.

Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, did seminal research and popularized the concept of social capital in his book with the evocative title, Bowling Alone, published in 2010.

In his research, Putnam examined seven measures of social capital: (1) political participation, (2) civic participation, (3) religious participation, (4) workplace networks, (6) mutual trust and honesty, and (7) altruism and volunteering. He concluded that America had experienced a decline in all of those areas in the last 25 years of the 20th century.

Social Capital Decline Over Two Decades

That decline accelerated in the first two decades of this 21st century. As we highlight in our book, Renewing the American Dream, published in 2010, there were a number of capital-destroying as opposed to capital-building occurrences in the years from 2000 through 2009.

They included: The 2000 presidential election with the Florida “hanging chads” fiasco, which required Supreme Court intervention to make a decision on the winner. The offshoring of jobs and businesses. The market meltdown of 2008, followed by the Great Recession with its home foreclosure crisis. Millions of jobs lost and a decline in real wages for blue-collar and middle-class workers. The emergence of the Tea Party movement as a force to be reckoned with within the Republican Party.

The list could go on and on. As we stated in 2010,

The inevitable conclusion must be that America’s social capital account is in much worse shape than it was when Putnam completed his research. There have been far too many withdrawals and not enough deposits. America’s social capital account is not bankrupt, but it is seriously overdrawn.

The second decade of this 21st century moved that account much closer to bankruptcy. The New York Times labeled 2010-2019 “A Decade of Distrust” in its Sunday Review Section. Washington Post columnists, in a special opinion piece, used the words “unraveling,” “anxiety”, and “dissonance” to describe the decade. We ourselves labeled 2010–2019 “A Decade of Loss.”

The losses came on many fronts. There was a loss of faith; a loss of hope; and, a loss of charity

The loss of faith ran across the board. It was a loss of faith in our political system, our government, our institutions, and in each other.

The loss of hope was in the American dream and in American democracy. This loss was driven by increased inequality; a changing middle class; significantly greater influence of the wealthy and big business over government and society; a dysfunctional Congress; and a large percentage of jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

The loss of charity came with Donald Trump’s campaigning for and winning the Presidency and continued into his administration over the past three years. That loss has a number of dimensions, but has been focused primarily on major reductions in federal government agencies; changes in governmental programs for the poor; and the imposition of immigration barriers.

The State of America’s Social Capital in 2020

Where does America stand in terms of its social capital in 2020? Isabel V. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution provides input for making this assessment in her recent paper, Social Capital: Why We Need It and How We Can Create More of It.

In the opening section of that paper, Sawhill states:

Without a certain degree of social trust, without norms of appropriate vs. inappropriate behavior, without strong institutions that uphold unifying and transcendent values neither democracy nor the economy will flourish. Social capital, in short, is the glue that makes a society work. [Based upon the opening of this blog, we obviously agree with Ms. Sawhill.]

Sawhill continues to point out that social capital may be inclusive or exclusive. And that, “Putnam distinguishes between bonding social capital (ties to people who are like you in some way) and bridging social capital (ties to people who are unlike you in some important way).”

The concepts of social trust, inclusive and exclusive social capital, and bonding social capital and bridging social capital provide a framework for assessing the status of our nation’s social capital account, based upon what has happened over the past two decades and what is going on this year in America.

In the second decade of the 21st century, trust fell more deeply than in the first decade. Exclusive social capital and the bonding among individuals and groups with similar characteristics and values, attitudes, and belief deepened and hardened. Inclusive social capital and the bridging across differences and dissimilarities lessened.

This was and is not healthy for the future of the United States democracy and society because social capital can be constructive or destructive. Constructive social capital is that which unites and brings diverse individuals, groups, and communities to cooperate, collaborate, and solve problems in order to promote the common good. Destructive social capital is that which divides, separates, and builds walls between us that can become impenetrable.

Over the past decade, the destructive forces have been overwhelming the constructive forces. In the United States today, we are living in an era of repression and regression.

Trump’s ego-centric and self-serving performance as President has been repressing. He has had considerable collaboration from his allies in areas of repression that he has championed. The areas that have been repressed include, but are not limited to: the three branches of government; federal agencies; the Republican Party; free press and media; voting; immigration; and civic life.

The Accelerating Shift Toward Oligarchy, Plutocracy and Tribalism

The repression has increased with each successive year of Trump’s presidency and escalated the country’s shift towards oligarchy, plutocracy, and tribalism. Each of these conditions are signs of the encroaching and encompassing growth of exclusive and bonding social capital in the United States.

Three new books — Robert Reich’s The System: Who Rigged it. How We Fix It; Zephyr Teachout’s Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech and Big Money; and Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism — shine a bright light on the potentially fatal consequences of this shift for our democracy.

Reich and Teachout both emphasize the ability of the rich and powerful to grab the reins of government, to use it to achieve their own ends, and to make the system more unequal. Teachout places much of the blame on corporate America for increasing inequities in today’s America. Applebaum provides insights into how intellectuals and other advocates who influence public opinion contribute to the growth of populism and tribalism as a destructive force.

In 2020, President Trump has put the movement toward an oligarchy, plutocracy, and total tribalism into overdrive. It should be clear he did not build this three-wheeled vehicle himself, nor could he.

But when he is not playing golf or watching TV, he is the man behind the wheel. And because of the haphazard and erratic way in which he drives, and the direction in which this vehicle is headed, to borrow a phrase from Ralph Nader, our democracy is unsafe at any speed.

This is the case because oligarchy, plutocracy, and tribalism increase the social distance between and among all Americans. Increased social distancing to combat covid-19 is good for the health of Americans. Increased social distancing of this type is bad for the health of the nation.

Since early this year, Trump has continued to say things to widen the social distance between those who support him and those who oppose him. In February, shortly after his acquittal by the Senate in his impeachment trial, Trump used his opening comments at the bipartisan National Prayer Breakfast to attack and defame those who called for his impeachment, stating:

As everybody knows, my family, our great country and your president have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people. They have done everything possible to destroy us, and by so doing, very badly hurt our nation. They know what they are doing is wrong, but they put themselves far ahead of our great country.

Trump has also used the triple whammy of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic collapse due to the pandemic, and the protests across the nation after the killing of George Floyd to divide and put his supporters on the attack.

Early in the pandemic as the country was shutting down, Trump tweeted his base to turn out in force to “liberate” states such as Michigan and Virginia. As the pandemic evolved, because of his refusal to do so and equivocal statements he made, Trump turned the decision about whether to wear a mask into a political statement as opposed to a public health issue

On the economic front, as the country slowly began to lurch forward in June and July, Trump was claiming victory based primarily upon the performance of the stock market. He and the administration’s representatives insisted that there would be a rapid V-shaped recovery, in spite of the fact that few, if any, objective economists agreed with them.

Trump purported to be an “ally of peaceful protests” in a Rose Garden speech on June 1. Then he left the Rose Garden with an entourage to walk across Lafayette Square Park to pose with a Bible for a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Before he began his walk, his allies — those peaceful protesters in the Park — were tear-gassed and forced back by police on horseback and the National Guard so nobody could interrupt his parade.

The other topic near or at the top of Trump’s agenda and attack list in this election year has been vote-by-mail fraud and the operations of the U.S. Postal Service. Within a short period of time after he assumed his position as Postmaster General on June 15; Trump appointee Louis DeJoy had a number of drastic measures implemented, including eliminating employee overtime pay, removing mail sorting machines from facilities across the country, removing mail boxes in black and brown areas, and reorganizing to get rid of some of those in executive and management positions.

These actions were allegedly taken to cut costs and improve operational efficiencies. But many viewed them as steps to suppress the vote and reduce the ability to vote by mail in order to try to influence the outcome of the election in the President’s favor. Trump himself reinforced this perception when he indicated during a Fox business interview that he was considering withholding funding to the Postal Service because it would impede mail-in voting.

Trump later walked that statement back a little. But on a campaign visit to Wisconsin during the Democratic convention, he declared that the only way the Democrats could win this election would be if it was rigged. As is so often the case, the exact opposite of what the President was saying is true. The only way Trump can win this time round is if he can rig the elections in his favor through lies and scare tactics.

As with many things that Trump says and tweets, his comments about the Postal Service and mail-in voting fray America’s social fabric and diminish trust. The campaign against the Postal Service is particularly bothersome because of the history and legacy of this institution and the respect the American public has for it.

As mentioned earlier, the post office traces its roots to 1775. Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish post offices and post roads.

That is its past. In the present, a Pew Research Center national survey released in April found that the Postal Service was the most favorably viewed federal agency with over 90% of Democrats and Republicans giving it positive ratings. This is why the actions constraining its operations are so harmful to America.

Helaine Olen of the Washington Post articulates the extent of that harm in her marvelous article published on August 17, which she ends as follows:

But now our empty mailboxes tell the story of the decline of both our civic and economic life. The post office is part of the basic contract between Americans and their government. When we retrieve our mail from our mailbox, we are not just receiving packages and letters. We are getting a demonstration of the power of government to act for the good of the people, no matter their financial or life circumstances. But now, thanks to Trump we are receiving the opposite. No wonder so many are enraged.

In all fairness, Donald Trump is not contributing to the continuing decline of America’s social capital single handedly. There were and are many other actors and factors at play.

The actors aiding and abetting Trump’s divisive agenda include those in his inner circle of advisors at the White House; agency heads who do his bidding; Republican members of the House and Senate; and, those Republican state and local officials who govern in Trump’s image and likeness.

There are a multitude of factors tearing America’s social capital asunder. The three at the top of our list today are: the unsocial media; an increasingly dysfunctional congress; and, ideological groups.

The Unsocial Media

If there ever was a misnomer, social media is it. When social media first came on the scene in 1997, it was supposed to be an electronic platform for bringing us closer together — a way for friends, family, and like minds to network. As it evolved, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others were going to be the means for elevating our communications.

In many instances it has achieved those ends. Unfortunately, in many instances it has not, and a segment of what transpires in the electronic space could more appropriately be labeled the unsocial media. The unsocial media became a means for saying vicious, venomous or vile things, and for propagating and popularizing falsehoods and fake news.

One of the foremost users of Twitter is President Donald Trump. In May of this year, he had over 80 million followers and had tweeted out more than 52,000 times.

No record has been kept on the nature of all of Trump’s tweets or their validity. Linda Qiu of the New York Times looked at 136 tweets from one week in May, though, and found at least 26 clearly false and 24 misleading. Ms Qui did not examine Trump’ s retweets. In May, Twitter itself also fact-checked and attached information to refute some of Trump’s tweets.

Given Trump’s practices and proclivities, it is not an overstatement to say that when he goes on his tweet tirades, he puts truth and civility on a tweeter-totter. But Trump’s Internet transgressions pale in comparison to the group QAnon.

QAnon is a far-right wing conspiracy group that believe there is a cabal of pedophiles that control the world. This group posts unsubstantiated claims regarding the “deep state” activities of progressive individuals involved in the cabal. QAnon’s followers have established a massive media presence on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter since it first arrived in the public sphere in 2016.

QAnon has begun to move from the internet sphere to the political sphere. According to Axios, 11 Republican congressional nominees have publicly supported or defended QAnon conspiracy theories.

No current congressional member is an acknowledged QAnon supporter. It appears, however, that in the November 3 election Marjorie Taylor Greene from a conservative Republican district in Georgia, and Lauren Boebert from one in Colorado, have a good chance of winning and becoming the first QAnon members of Congress.

The extremist and dangerous positions of QAnon are illustrated by the fact that the FBI has labeled them a potential domestic terrorism threat. In August, Facebook removed 790 QAnon groups and restricted 1,950 groups and 440 pages. And in July, Twitter permanently suspended thousands of accounts that posted QAnon material.

The Dysfunctional Congress

If QAnon is a domestic terrorism threat, our increasingly dysfunctional Congress is a threat to our American democracy.

Back in the good old days — which started to end in the ‘90’s with the entry of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House — members of Congress used to be able to work across the aisle and to compromise. There was bonding and bridging social capital.

Today compromise is a dirty word and the only thing that crosses the aisle is contempt for those on the other side. There is no bonding social capital. The bridges have been burned.

They have not been burned overnight. As noted, the decade just past was a decade of loss and decline on a number of fronts.

It was especially so for Congress. The Washington Post and ProPublica did a study in 2018 examining publicly available data on the House, Senate, committees and congressional data dating back several decades. They concluded, “That some institutional decline began 25 years ago, but the study showed that the steepest drop came in just the past 10 years.”

The study attributed the rapid decline to “the hyperpolarized climate since the 2008 election of President Barack Obama and the subsequent dawn of the Tea Party on the right.” It continued to say “the political center has largely evaporated, party leaders have adhered to the demands of their bases, while rules and traditions that long encouraged deliberative deal-making have given way to partisan gridlock.”

The Post/Pro Publica study was published on November 5 right after the 2018 midterm elections. Those elections increased congressional gridlock and polarizing partisanship. The Democrats gained control of the House and the Republicans maintained control of the Senate.

The result was that for much of 2019, the House Democrats under Nancy Pelosi’s strong leadership passed most legislation without Republican buy-in, and the Senate under Mitch McConnell’s strong leadership chose to ignore that legislation.

Then, as the year drew to a close, in December the House approved articles of impeachment for Donald Trump, and in early February 2020, the Senate acquitted Trump of the impeachment charges. The impeachment proceedings and subsequent events added additional vitriol to the congressional dysfunctionality.

There was a ray of hope for bipartisanship in March, when the 2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package to address the impact the COVID-19 pandemic was passed unanimously by the Senate and by voice vote in the House. That ray of hope went out in August when no agreement could be reached on a second stimulus package after the supplemental unemployment benefits of $600 a week provided through the CARES Act expired for millions of Americans on July 31.

In an example of congressional callousness and cluelessness, both the Senate and the House adjourned for their Summer vacation around mid-August until September without any continuing negotiations on a second stimulus package. This going AWOL with so much work to be done demonstrated the triumph of polarization over pragmatic problem-solving. It also illustrates how rival partisan ideologies can impale an institution and government.

Separatist or Divisive Ideological Groups

In the United States, there are tens of millions of individuals who come together in groups because of shared ideologies. Those ideologies determine the nature of and how they invest their social capital.

Many of those groups promote inclusionary and bridging social capital. They are unifiers with the common good in mind.

Others do the opposite. They are divisive or have separatist agendas.

Consider the Tea Party, which, when it first burst on the scene, appeared to be a diverse group of non- or bipartisan individuals with an intent of improving government. Robert Putnam and Professor David Campbell dispelled that myth with their groundbreaking research reported in 2011. They found the Tea Partiers were: highly partisan Republicans; overwhelmingly white; unified in holding immigrants and Blacks in low regard; disproportionately socially conservative; and desirous of seeing religion play a prominent role in government.

In 2020, there are groups such as Unite the Right and Neo-Nazis who definitely fall on the divisive end of the spectrum. They are joined there by QAnon supporters.

They are also joined by those in gangs, anarchists, and right- and left-wing extremists in the streets of Chicago and in other cities across the country, who see the opportunity to exploit current economic and social conditions through violence and acts of vandalism. Their social capital is purely negative, criminal, and destructive but it is social capital nonetheless.

To sum it up, looking at all of this contextually, there is no question that America’s social capital has declined precipitously over the past two decades, and in 2020 social capital is plummeting even further. What can be done to reverse the decline and to turn it into an upward trajectory?

Renewing and Rebuilding America’s Social Capital

Much needs to be done in all areas and at all levels throughout and across this country. There are three initiatives that are essential at the national level.

If they are not taken, America’s social capital will stay in the quicksand in which it is currently mired. They are: Elect a new president. Make Congress work again. Develop a democracy renewal plan.

Elect a New President

There has never been a presidential election in this century, and possibly in this past century, as consequential as there is in this year. As we noted in an earlier piece, Trump’s re-election represents an existential threat to the American democracy.

President Barack Obama agreed with us and reinforced that perspective in his August 19 speech at the Democratic Convention. Near the opening of his remarks, Obama said:

Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that are severe…Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world greatly diminished and our democratic institutions threatened.

Later in his remarks, Obama called on Americans to save the American democracy, stating:

Democracy was never meant to be transactional — you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So, I am also asking you to believe in your own ability to embrace your own responsibility as citizen — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.

Barack Obama is not the only one who feels that this election is important. Donald Trump feels the same way and explained why in his Republican National Convention speech.

Speaking in that speech from the White House in front of 1,500 party faithful, Trump said:

So tonight, I say to all Americans, this is the most important election in the history of our country. There has never been such a difference between two parties or two individuals in ideology, philosophy, or vision than there is right now.

Trump also clarified where he stands and whom he stands with during his speech when he declared:

The fact is, I am here. What is the name of that building? But I’ll say it differently, the fact is, we are here and they are not. To me, one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere in the world is not a building, it is a home, as far as I am concerned. It’s not even a house, it is a home. Wonderful place with an incredible history. But it is all because of you. Together, we will write the next chapter of the great American story.

The debate has been framed. Is the White House the people’s house — a home of all of the people? Or, is it Trump’s house — a home for Trump’s base and supporters? We will learn the verdict on that and the future of the American democracy in November.

Make Congress Work Again

During the first decade of this century and into the middle of the second, Congress sowed the seeds of its own undoing. Since Trump has been President, he has savaged Congress and attempted to make it into his handmaiden. His strongest desire has been to make it irrelevant.

The question is can Congress be salvaged and become more bipartisan again if Trump is no longer in office and Joe Biden is President. The leadership and the members of the next Congress will determine that.

In their August 20 New York Times article, Jonathan Martin and Carl Hulse paint a relatively gloomy picture. They state, “A Biden victory, even if accompanied by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, is more likely to be followed by partisan warfare than bipartisan bonhomie.”

Martin and Hulse may be right, but we hope they are wrong. In 2012, Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes did a segment on the Sunday before Election Day titled The Broken Senate.

When Kroft asked then Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn why it had been so difficult to compromise, he responded, “It’s leadership. It’s pure leadership. When the goal is always to win the next election rather than to put the country on the right course, whether it’s a Republican leading it or the — a Democrat leading it, the Senate is not going to work.”

Back then, we wrote,

If the Senate doesn’t work and the Congress doesn’t work, the country doesn’t work. With this new Congress, we will see if we now have the courageous leaders who realize this and are prepared to begin the journey and to compromise by putting country first rather than party first.

It is eight years later and there is still a search and need — a desperate need — for those courageous leaders. There are numerous proposals that have been presented to reinvigorate the bipartisanship of Congress.

The new leaders must consider them and take proactive steps to adopt the ones that will make Congress a more collegial and relevant body once again. They need to look in the mirror and see what Congress and an autocratic president have done to diminish the relevance of the legislative branch of government. They must do this because time is running out for this institution and American democracy.

Develop a Democracy Renewal Plan

A new president and a revitalized Congress will be necessary, but not sufficient, actions for renewing American democracy and rebuilding social capital. There also should be a comprehensive plan for renewing American democracy directly.

We discuss that plan in detail in an earlier blog. We recommend that the plan be developed by a nonpartisan American Renewal Commission (ARC) established in the first quarter of 2021. The charge to the ARC would be to create this plan as part of an integrated set of four plans: Health Care Stabilization Plan; Country Reopening Plan; Economic Recovery Plan (Short Term); and the Democracy Renewal Plan (Long Term).

The goal for the set of plans would be:

To provide the strategic and pro-active framework for creating a more inclusive and equitable American democracy.

In combination, these plans should resemble but go well beyond the scope and thrust of the acclaimed Marshall Plan, which the U.S. put together to finance the rebuilding of Europe after the devastation of World War II.

At a minimum, the Democracy Renewal Plan should include a focus on: the American dream, the federal government, civic life, civic learning and engagement, and the public health system.

The Democracy Renewal Plan should provide the opportunity for America and Americans to stand and deliver in a united front that puts the common good and country first. The Democracy Renewal Plan would provide the capstone framework for rebuilding America’s social capital nationally.

Other Social Capital Building Recommendations

In Renewing the American Dream (2010), we provide eight social capital recommendations that remain relevant ten years later:

1. Articulate a social compact for the 21st century.

2. Establish “Interdependence Day” as a national holiday for celebrating our connectedness as citizens.

3. Require mandatory national service for all youth 18–21.

4. Invest in activities that blend community economic development and community building.

5. Increase support for those organizations that are focused on community service and volunteerism.

6. Exploit the power and potential of the internet for development of social capital and community building.

7. Stimulate the private sector’s participation in community-building activities.

8. Encourage interdenominational faith-based initiatives directed at enhanced communications and community problem-solving.

Isabel Sawhill of Brookings advances three ideas in her new paper which are similar to ours. They are:

1. Expand national service to make it a normative expectation for every young American.

2. Encourage people and reform the tax code to democratize and increase giving to faith-based and non-profit organizations.

3. Fund and encourage state and local leadership and initiatives in areas such as infrastructure improvement, job training, housing, and community development.

These ideas and recommendations are starting points. America’s social capital must be rebuilt from the bottom up, from the top down and from the middle out. It must be rebuilt brick by brick, block by block, and bridge by bridge.

On Saturday, August 22, the House of Representatives, which had been called back from vacation by Speaker Pelosi, passed a $25 billion piece of legislation to fund the postal service. Mitch McConnell has stated the Senate will not even consider the bill. And President Trump has indicated that he would veto it if it got to him.

Nonetheless, the manner in which this bill was passed in the House suggests that the social capital rebuilding process may be beginning. It had bipartisan support, with 26 Republicans signing on with all Democrats. Those Republicans came from a mix of blue and red states such as Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia.

This is a bill that puts country first, not party first. This is a bill that serves the interests of urban, suburban, and rural America. This is a bill that enables the postal service to fulfill its mission:

The postal service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary and l correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.

This is a bill that takes a step toward reversing the precipitous decline of America’s social capital. This is a bill that puts the United back into the divided states of America.

What happens next? Stayed tuned and keep those cards and letters coming!

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.



Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. Ed Crego is a management consultant. Both are leaders of the 21st century citizenship movement.