Two centuries and a year after the American founding, sociologist Peter Berger and (at the time) prominent Lutheran minister Richard John Neuhaus published a pamphlet, aimed at restoring the American experiment after the failures of the Great Society were becoming painfully evident.
Their goal was as straightforward as their title: To Empower People. Berger and Neuhaus sought to restore authentic meaning and pluralism in what they saw as the four main groupings of civic life: neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary association.
The pamphlet became a kind of handbook for the communitarian strain of conservatism, laying out some steps for restoring the Burkean “little platoons” they saw at the heart of the American experience. “Within one’s group—whether it be racial, national, political, religious, or all of these—one discovers an answer to the elementary question, ‘Who am I?’ and is supported in living out that answer.”
Much has changed since Berger and Neuhaus wrote their initial tract. The family has undergone social and legal redefinition and faces economic and cultural threats that 1977 could only guess at. Since the early 1970s, the share of Americans who self-identify as Christians has fallen by one-quarter, and the decline is speeding up: the share that told the Pew Research Center they were agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular” rose from seventeen percent in 2009 to twenty-six percent ten years later. Authors from Robert Putnam to Tim Carney have decried the drop in participation in voluntary associations and its impact on social capital, yet Americans continue to bowl alone—and increasingly, on their phones.
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To the plate steps Seth Kaplan, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies and a consultant to any number of international NGOs. He is more frequently found writing about failed states, from Bolivia to Pakistan, that at first blush don’t seem to have much in common with the anomie of a lifeless suburb or the abandoned main street of a Rust Belt town.
But whether from his globe-trotting field work or the wide spread of research he marshals for his recent book Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time, Kaplan hits on many of the same challenges and insights that Berger and Neuhaus did. The American civic fabric cannot be reknit through large-scale transformation directed by Washington, D.C., but only by bottom-up, localist solutions.
Crucially, Kaplan sees the fragility of American life not just in the low-income neighborhoods of inner-city Philadelphia, but in the isolation of otherwise well-off suburbs. His goal is to resurrect the idea of the neighborhood as a specific place with a distinctive sense of community. It’s a cultural narrative that runs counter to a mentality that prioritizes mobility over stability.
No amount of economic growth, he argues, can paper over the hollowed-out feeling of moving from a “townshipped” society to a “networked one.” We treat neighbors less as friends and more as connections, asking about suspicious footage caught on Ring cameras or posting about local nuisances, instead of getting to know our neighbors as people. Kaplan laments this shift by quoting the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: “The very concept of belonging to a place, a neighborhood, a locality—somewhere we belong and call home—has all but disappeared.”
Kaplan is willing to broach key questions about the purpose and limits of economic growth, which, he says, “leads one to wonder: For all that we pursue material wealth at the expense of relationships, how rich are we, really?” Throughout Fragile Neighborhoods, Kaplan urges the reader to consider where priorities have been thrown out of whack, and which individual- and policy-level answers might get us to a better state. In short, the book is an updated call to reinvest in the four categories that To Empower People discussed.
Of those four—associations, family, church, and neighborhood—the idea of the neighborhood has probably lost the most conceptual clarity over recent decades. The suburbanization of America took a sledgehammer to the idea of distinct geographic enclaves bound together by a common color or creed (some of which, to be clear, stemmed from a welcome end to de jure segregation).
Some American cities still boast old-style neighborhoods with unique traditions, even some measure of local governance. But for many, perhaps even most American families, your neighbors are an accident of the market and some measure of ideological self-sorting. Kaplan’s follow-on essay for First Things, describing the “place-based community” that Judaism entails, is a lovely counterpoint to the anonymity of the subdivision. If it could be scaled, it would be a type of Tocquevillian America, refreshed for the twenty-first century— reminiscent of University of Dallas political scientist Daniel Burns’s framework of “liberalism without Locke.” Extra-liberal living does not require a postliberal overturning of democratic norms or a fundamental reorientation of a nation’s concept of the common good. But it requires a more deliberate pursuit, a re-functionalization of voluntary associations, especially those tied to a specific place. Kaplan cites Theda Skocpol’s famous work outlining how American associational life saw cross-class, voluntary associations, often aimed at local problems, replaced by national organizations dominated by professional advocates, who largely see their members as a source of fundraising dollars. Reversing that trend requires a willingness to work with, rather than bigfoot into, a community, tailoring solutions for what social breakdown and isolation look like on a small scale.
Building the kind of community that can provide that support takes real effort—hard to squeeze in, as Kaplan notes, between striving for the corner office, a couple of hours each week at the gym, and the pressures parents feel to raise their kids the “right” way. Any community restoration effort that requires superhuman levels of effort to maintain will not be sustainable. For the most part, Kaplan offers steps that community leaders could rely on to build habits of belonging and participation that might increase the odds of a functioning local community.
Kaplan is frank in acknowledging the social benefits of religious belonging and intact, two-parent households. “No government or philanthropic program can replace the benefits that the day-in, day-out love of parents and the continuous support of the community provide,” he explains. “Social services may address material needs, . . . but they are rarely equipped to provide the care, nurturing, and targeted discipline that a supportive family and community deliver.”
If I had one complaint about the book, it’s that it didn’t necessarily surprise me: all of the usual favorite examples of thinning social capital, and organizations fighting to restore it, are there—from Baltimore’s Thread to Communio’s work in seeking to lower the divorce rate in Jacksonville. Because these problems are so big, and the prospects of changing their trajectory so challenging, a compendium of innovative approaches is certainly useful, even if it’s not groundbreaking. And aspiring local leaders, from pastors in the Sun Belt to community activists in Chicago, will be able to find something to apply to their work.
Indeed, perhaps wanting to be surprised with something new on these weighty questions of belonging, purpose, and meaning is asking too much. Conservatives and well-meaning centrists alike have been trying to address these challenges since Berger and Neuhaus, through Putnam, and now to Kaplan’s latest, practical addition to the literature.
Kaplan pithily notes that today’s America treats “Thou shall not burden others” as a kind of unspoken commandment. Part of restoring a norm of community involvement will entail a willingness not just to offer, but also to receive, aid of various kinds—as Leah Libresco Sargeant has beautifully explored in her Substack, Other Feminisms. Breaking down our affected individualism may be a bigger challenge than any political movement is willing to take on; but starting with recognizing our need for mutual support, be it material, social, or emotional, may be a starting point.
The neighborhood parish serving a community of white ethnics isn’t coming back; neither are the Kiwanis or the Elks. But the ideas and steps Kaplan summarizes in Fragile Neighborhoods may be our current best guess at how to construct their spiritual successors. And his ideas are worth testing.