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The Local Roots of Civility

Any solution to America’s besetting social problems must begin at the neighborhood level.

Credit: Andrea Izzotti

In the fall of 2021, a group of former Hill staffers and current think tank scholars gathered in a small room in Old Town Alexandria just outside Washington, D.C. The group represented a wide range of perspectives from across the center-right, with former staff from the Trump and George W. Bush White House teams; staff from the Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina campaigns; and former denizens of the Hill, from Mike Lee’s office to Paul Ryan’s. Together, social conservatives, economic conservatives, and libertarians were in the room to take a broad look at the decline in “social capital”—that rich network of relationships that support us in our private and professional lives from the cradle to the grave. 

The deterioration of social capital and its regional inequality has been measured by declines in neighborliness, numbers of nonprofits, charitable giving, church attendance, marriage rates among lower-income cohorts, and rises in loneliness and crime rates. The academic analysis suggests that the decline in social capital across America explains the overall decline in society-wide trust in national institutions such as the government, the media, and each other. 


As we discussed a variety of work papers, an Andy Warhol-style print of George Washington looked down upon us, serving as a reminder that the first president had once stayed in this townhouse. A recent arrival from the United Kingdom, I was reliably informed that it was common for many houses, hotels, or function rooms across the East Coast to make historic claims based on even a fleeting visit from a Founding Father or his spouse.

During a session on civil society and technology, one former Senate staffer quoted de Tocqueville’s observation of the unique emphasis on free associations to get things done in America. I thought the reference was odd. Could a 190-year-old insight still be expected to apply to the country we live in today after enormous changes in territory, wealth, population, technology, and norms? If de Tocqueville set off on a tour of America today, he would be comparing a country of 12.8 million people and a federal revenue of $27.4 million (almost $1 billion in today’s money) with a country of 330 million inhabitants and $4.9 trillion in federal revenue.

Yet one line did seem hauntingly relevant: “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you perceive an association in the United States.” As the day progressed, a clear theme emerged: that America seemed to have come under the eighteenth century French malaise of looking to the government for its undertakings while at the same time lamenting federal government overreach. There is perhaps also a danger of looking to the contemporary equivalent of England’s “great lords”: the American philanthropic billionaire.

Philanthropic giving is at a record high. Yet this flow of cash is not necessarily the sign of great civil health; in fact the share of people giving is down—to both charity and politics. The uptick in funds is from the super-wealthy, concealing a worrying trend. As Putnam states in Upswing, “philanthropy among most Americans has fallen steadily since the mid-1960s, only partially and temporarily offset by megagifts from the newly mega-rich.” 

The number of local nonprofits is down, and has been for some decades, having been replaced with D.C.–based national advocacy groups without local chapters or members. 


Political participation, considered another form of social capital creation by the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project, has also seen conflicting trends. The most recent presidential election was the most expensive on record to date, but giving from regular voters is down. The increase has come from the mega-wealthy expressing their free speech, permitted to do so with abandon since Citizens United in 2010.

Together, philanthropic and political funding have become increasingly focused on the federal or national level. Ostensibly, this should improve the quality of policy analysis and advocacy for the best ideas to influence the most people, but the increase of funds to a focus on the federal and national could well be gutting the capacity for local civil and civic participation. Even those philanthropists funding state outreach do so to achieve federal goals. This activity means that less effort, focus, and value is placed on local political and civil apparatus. 

The declining value of local political apparatus means the best local talent is not attracted to local politics, further diminishing the quality of local civic society. Moreover, the decline in nonprofit and free local association further depletes the networks of relationships that mediate between individuals, local communities, and their representative machinery. Increasingly alienated voters are more vulnerable to looking to the government or overlords to rescue them.

Obviously wealthy patrons have sponsored philanthropic activity throughout America’s history, and were behind many of the associations de Tocqueville remarks upon—hospitals, prisons, and schools. Nevertheless, as Brian Rourke wrote in 2014, describing the shift to “strategic” philanthropy and a decline in taking unsolicited grant requests, “funders are now engaging in public problem-solving efforts in ways that Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller probably never imagined. What are still officially considered ‘grants’ are now sometimes detailed portfolios of work that have been developed by the funder itself, with the nonprofit partner serving more as contractor than grantee.”

​​As we reported in A Civil Society, trust in national institutions—federal government, mainstream media, big business, big denominations, even big philanthropy—is at record lows. But trust at the local level—state government, local media, small businesses, independent congregations, local nonprofits—remains relatively high. While neighborliness is down compared to the 1970s, trust with local residents is higher than with that of an “imagined” community of Americans living elsewhere.

This suggests that some of the solution is to take a look at what is happening locally and to build on it. Let us first examine the results of this society-wide decline in trust. 

We have seen a growth of polarization. We must be careful about what we are describing, as polarization is not the same as difference of opinion. It is, however, when different groups with different opinions who had previously been able to coexist peaceably—glued together by an overarching idea of “society”—are no longer able to do so. Instead, groups look for other “glue” to bind them together, which can be hatred of the groups they previously coexisted with, or new more extreme ideologies on left and right. 

This effect of polarization is heightened when we change our understanding of democracy. A traditional view is one in which democracy preserves the rights of the individual against an over-mighty government. But across the West, democracy is increasingly seen as an individual being given protections against their neighboring citizens by an omniscient government. 

Rather than neighbors working together in free association, creating cohesion and trust that facilitates a governable society, we see neighbors growing less enamored with each other, and instead looking to the government to facilitate society. This development is clear in the rise of “identity politics,” but can also be seen in class warfare, or versions of patriotic populism: All seek to use the machine of government to control those sections of the population that are at odds with them. 

Many philanthropists, concerned at this animus, want to use their generosity to help. Some of these attempts look like trying to get people of different backgrounds to meet each other, as though an absence of empathy is the problem. Bridge-building exercises like coffee with a stranger may be helpful, but philanthropic grants can’t set up coffee dates for 330 million people. Nor can these efforts recognize that society-wide trust isn’t built by eliminating tribes, but rather affirming them. 

In the same way, too often, the more strident efforts to tackle polarization are an attempt to get everyone onto the same page, to sign up to the same political or cultural agenda. Here the view is that polarization wouldn’t exist if only the other person, group, or voter didn’t have bad opinions, if only they would be educated and agree with us. This approach might allow for the celebration of diversity of ethnic or sexuality background, but is threatened by diversity of opinion. This bias is seen operationally; as Chris Stackaruk notes in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Most pluralism nonprofits have progressive leanings and are normally hesitant to hire staff who do not share all their values.”

Coercing people to one point of view and branding anything else toxic hate, racism, or unpatriotic is a manifestation of the problem, not the solution. Rather we must be able to agree to disagree. 

To this end, Governor Cox is making a remarkably helpful intervention during his chairmanship of the National Governors Association, an initiative called “Disagree Better.” Sharing the notion that the American idea allows for plural religions and points of view, the initiative aims to help elected representatives and citizens learn to be more comfortable with different opinions and to enjoy a more civil society that can disagree better.

This requires confidence. A society with strong stocks of social capital can have the confidence to be secure in their own position but not threatened by competing points of view.  

Such confidence is built locally. Seth Kaplan argues in his authoritative, comprehensive and timely book Fragile Neighborhoods, out last month, that it is neighborhoods and zip codes that must be the focus of any initiative to restore America’s potential if there is to be any strong sense of trust and confidence in the wider idea of America. This cannot be achieved through policy and even the siloed approach of government apparatus may fail to serve the “horizontal,” local approaches that are needed.

It is unlikely that the United States can go cold turkey from its addiction to federal intervention. So there are two broad policies the Social Capital Campaign propose at the federal level. One is to ensure the inclusion of faith groups in human services delivery—a group’s faith element should not disqualify a school, childcare service, foster care program, from federal grants. 

Second, we should boost the role of civil society locally. As mentioned, local non-profits are trusted more than national ones. Their boards are known, the work they do is understood, and funds are drawn from local residents. They are drawn from stronger local networks—churches, groups of parents whose children share a school, businesses that want to improve the downtown they operate in. These are local solutions to local problems led by local people. How they look and operate will differ greatly from locality to locality, but any association of local people working together strengthens local ties and helps neighborhoods develop social capital. Such groups build formal and informal networks of involved citizens who find it easier to participate in their local city halls, or to connect with local representatives.

We therefore recommend a couple of ideas that are intended to address Tocqueville’s French “government” problem and English “lord” problem that are challenging civil society grown in today’s America. First, we promote the proliferation of local non-profits that draw together local individuals to tackle local problems. Second, to reduce the “lord” problem, we recommend that foundations and billionaire philanthropists provide funding in a manner that is less controlling of outcomes and far less prescriptive in how those outcomes are achieved.

To encourage more of this, we will need three things. 

First, the Internal Revenue Service must create a new category of tax-exempt organization, the 501c3p—where “p” stands for poverty. In 2022, human services and public and society benefit/community improvement nonprofits accounted for 34 percent of  all nonprofits but only received 19 percent of charitable donations. Higher education nonprofits, by contrast, accounted for 5 percent of all nonprofits and yet received close to 11 percent of all charitable donations. Creating a separate category will allow for clarity around donations given to philanthropy that addresses poverty and local need. To promote this type of work, we recommend it is given a marginally higher tax relief incentive to other tax-exempt categories.

Second, to take directive control out of this work, we recommend a State Poverty and Relief Community Chest, SPARCC. This would be a program of a State tax office which maintains a list of the 501c3ps registered only in their state. Any donor can give to the SPARCC. For the billionaire philanthropic donor-incentivized by a marginally improved tax break, they could experience what most of us experience when giving money away to charity—trusting the funds to the local experts delivering the programs through their own relationships. The SPARCC would, like a tax refund, distribute a dividend to all the local 501c3p nonprofits in the state, regardless of philosophy or alignment to a donor’s approach. 

America has a social capital problem. Its demise is to describe the decline of the social fabric that allows a vast variety of people, values, faiths, ethnicities, and opinions to live side by side. The freedom of associations of individuals and neighbors to provide solutions is as necessary today as it was 190 years ago—arguably even more so. If we are to replenish America’s social capital, we must start local, and use the state and federal apparatus to support a proliferation of local solutions to local problems.

This article is part of the “American System” series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.