In the realm of social sciences, there are two main types of social capital: bonding and bridging. The first (bonding) typically refers to the connection between members of a homogeneous community. In plain terms, this means that it is easier for people to connect with someone else who looks like them or shares the same religious or cultural values. Bonding trust can create a strong sense of togetherness that may be absent otherwise. The latter (bridging), aims to create connections across groups who may have different values or appearances. In general, trust among the American people has decreased drastically over time. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2015, public trust in government was at a minuscule 19%, an immense decrease from 77% in 1964. Why is this happening? What are the consequences? What can be done about it?
Why has trust decreased?
Putnam suggests a few causes for the decrease in trust, in particular, “the movement of women into the labor force”, “mobility,” “demographic transformations,” and “technological transformation of leisure.” Before discrediting him as an out-of-touch misogynist, consider that Putnam is studying the change in social behavior over the past hundred years. These are a few of his observations made into simplified terms. He then analyzes the change in behavior in connection with political attitudes, labelling them as ‘causes.’
For example, Putnam doesn’t state that women shouldn’t have joined the workforce. But instead, that in doing so, many social groups central to women were eliminated. Instead of going to a PTA meeting, the woman goes to work. All four of Putnam’s ‘causes’ ultimately boil down to the change of personal social engagement over the past 50 years. Society overall experiences less face-to-face interaction and less opportunity to engage with or meet new people. Social groups become isolated, interacting with other groups less frequently, solidifying in their viewpoints, and rejecting outside opinions.
Consequences: Polarization and Populism
Decreased socialization leads to a vast lack of trust. This contributes to polarization, the ever-increasing separation between the ends of the political spectrum. When considering the types of social capital, this can be attributed to an increase of bonding trust and a decrease in bridging. This forms homogeneous groups that may be too tightly-knit and not diverse enough. People become hostile toward those outside of their trusted inner circle. This environment creates ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups and an ‘us versus them’ mentality.
This is precisely what a strategic populist will look for and exploit. However, It seems these days that the name ‘populist’ is thrown around a lot. So, what is a populist? According to Merriam-Webster, a populist is “a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people.” But, does this definition truly encapsulate the meaning of populism? Britannica takes this a step further, distinguishing the modern populist as “a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the will of the people in order to consolidate his own power.” There is something both these definitions have in common: the populist claims to embody or represent the people. Whether they actually do so is not specified.
Prominent populists are ubiquitous in the modern political sphere. In the United States, 2016 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Former President Donald Trump serve as prime examples that are hard to deny. Despite residing on two very separate sides of the aisle, Sanders and Trump have certain populist traits in common. They play on other popular populist rhetoric such as nationalist values and anti-establishment sentiments. In both cases, a charismatic leader claims their followers to be the “true” Americans (a nationalist pull) and that the existing government is corrupt (anti-establishment). These areas tend to have strong emotional ties, earning an intense response from their loyal followers (the common people). In many cases, the populist may use fear tactics in combination with nationalist sentiment, leading the people to believe their way of life is under attack by the ‘out’ group.
As the ‘far right’ and the ‘far left’ become farther, it becomes more and more difficult for each end to find common ground. The United States’ two-party system does not handle extreme polarization well. A polarized government means little to no compromise, gridlock, and never-ending policy reversals. This creates a space for populists to manipulate the extremes of the electorate, which in turn creates even more polarization.
What can be done?
It may be possible for those in power to discourage polarization as well. By publicly denouncing the intense social divide, it could lead the average citizen to rethink harboring resentment for their neighbor. Unfortunately, those in power typically want to stay in power. In the case of the populists discussed earlier, the easiest way to stay in power is to exploit the social divides, so there is no real incentive to mend polarization.
In short, to overcome the pressures of populism and polarization, there needs to be an increase in bridging trust. This does not mean to seek out your most hated enemy and suddenly offer a peace treaty. Instead, the Social Capital Research suggests simple social ventures like “attending events, or joining associations such as interest or sporting groups, industry associations, [or] action groups.” By joining groups such as these, a person directly increases their chance for face-to-face interaction with new people, opening the opportunity to see the validity in another group’s values. Lack of trust may not be the sole cause of polarization, and increasing it may not eliminate polarization entirely. But, it is definitely a place to start.