As we entered the past weekend and prepared for Thanksgiving, a wave of emotions and thoughts hit me as I stopped and absorbed so many of the articles and TV documentaries about the end of John F. Kennedy’s life and Presidency. I know a lot has already been printed and broadcast about this event over the last week, but for me, there is another perspective I want to share with you in light of all the turmoil that has been swirling around us over the last few months.
Looking back over the years since three rifle shots rang out on that Friday afternoon in November, 1963, I believe the most important consequence of that event has been the deterioration of the social trust needed for our unique society of free people to function properly. For some reason, the shared sorrow of that day long ago seems to have created reactions among us, which ripped at the fabric of our social trust in ways that we have never come to grips with.
Robert Putnam, author of the landmark work, Bowling Alone, used the term “social capital” to describe the web of interdependent relationships and networks we have used over the centuries to create and maintain a society of free people. What his studies have noted is a sharp decline in “social capital” over the last 50 years. With the loss of this social capital, we have too many people living in physical communities without any sense of neighborhood with each other, and that loss of neighborhood has led to social dysfunctions in our families, our schools, our communities, and our politics. Without this social capital, we have become more and more dependent on governments and other institutions to provide for the needs of society—needs that used to be filled by private relationships and networks among neighbors in communities, churches, local schools, work places, and civic organizations.
Putnam’s books and articles search for ways in which social capital can be re-built. But the type of interdependence that is needed to build and maintain social capital cannot be re-established without trust. And it is trust that we no longer share with our neighbors—trust that allowed a generation of kids to ride their bikes down the street and play in the local parks without adult planning or supervision; trust that led the families of judges and business owners and doctors and executives to live and participate in the same neighborhoods as teachers and factory foremen and union members; and trust that allowed our parents to work together in civic organizations regardless of their politics or religion.
It was a form of social trust that a young John Kennedy described in a speech (quoted by Putnam in Bowling Alone) Kennedy gave during his first campaign for Congress in 1946:
Most of the courage shown in the war came from men’s understanding of their interdependence on each other. Men were saving other men’s lives at risk of their own simply because they realized that perhaps the next day their lives would be saved in turn…We must work together…We must have the same unity that we had during the war.
At a very basic level, a soldier must trust his fellow soldiers to develop the interdependence that Kennedy described. Likewise free men and women must form a level of trust with each other in order to develop and sustain the relationships and networks needed to raise families, build communities, transact business, and manage governments.
In fact, it is another quote from Kennedy that always catches my attention when I think of the type of trust that is needed to manage governments. In his book, Profiles in Courage, Kennedy described his liberalism this way:
If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal”, then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”
There was a time, not too long ago, when a conservative could proudly use the same definition to describe his or her beliefs, because there was a time when the vast majority of us—liberal and conservative—shared these beliefs; we mainly disagreed over the proper role of government at each level of the federal system, the proper role of the individual and his or her private relationships and networks, and the proper, constitutional balance between these two spheres of institutions needed to address these shared ideas and concerns. Because we shared these ideas and concerns and debated the proper balance needed to address them, there were liberals who called themselves Republican, and conservatives who called themselves Democrats. It is why, still today, there are conservatives who agree with many of the words and policies of Kennedy just as there are liberals who admire Reagan and many of his accomplishments. And our shared beliefs, together with our interrelationships and networks, strengthened a social trust that allowed us to work with each other to solve problems without destroying society or our constitutional system—allowed us, in Kennedy’s words, to “[a]sk not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Alas, there always have been people who lived outside the social capital formed through trust. Some were kept outside on purpose because they were perceived wrongly as either different or unworthy, and much of the social advancements made over the last half-century have come from the movements to open participation in our society to those people. Others followed ideological beliefs that rejected these relationships and networks as the basis for a “just” society and sought to replace them with imposed institutions and structures of their own design, which are far less dependent on social trust for their existence and perpetuation. Unfortunately, the natural tensions foreseeably created by opening our social relationships and networks to all citizens have been exacerbated by those who have been driven by ideology to replace the relationships and networks all together, and the result—playing out every day in our families, our schools, our courts, and our politics—are citizens becoming more estranged from each other as they become more dependent on institutions, and the ideologies that support them, for their material and spiritual needs.
The simple facts are that in order to trust each other enough to work with each other, you must be willing to know and care for each other, and ideology is a barrier to forming such a relationship. For some reason, the events that started on a Friday afternoon so long ago began a series of events that eventually unraveled our desire to know and care for each other in a way that promoted social trust, and caused us, over time, to turn to ideological institutions for solace. Eventually, distrust replaced trust in our social interactions, including our politics. It is a sign of that distrust that some people can still blame a conservative-extremist conspiracy for the death of the President, when the sad fact is that a loner, trained as a military sniper and driven by a misguided Marxist ideology, fired those shots that day. Ideology, and its handmaiden, distrust, have clouded our ability even to process that event and get over it.
If we are to regain our balance in this country, and in this ever-more dangerous world, we must start to reach out to know and care about each other again, to recognize our shared ideas and concerns, and to work together to shape our communities and public policies based on those shared ideas and concerns—even though we may disagree on the role of government v. the role of the individual in shaping those policies. To take this step we must first realize that we did not lose our social trust because of someone else’s extremism. Instead, all of us must look ourselves in the mirror and realize that over the course of the last 50 years, it is we—each and every one of us, regardless of our professed faith or politics—who have enabled this situation by becoming the loner; the loner too influenced by the extremism of our own chosen ideologies to forge the relationships with our neighbors needed to rebuild social trust, and to ask what we could do for our country.
As we enter this holiday season, my hope and prayer is that we finally bury the Oswald that we have let simmer inside of us, and that we rekindle the Kennedy and Reagan in each of us; and that we re-build on that Kennedy-Reagan foundation the social trust we need to save and secure this unique society of free people for our children and grandchildren.
I wish all of you a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving.