Civic Deserts and our present crisis

My colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan have published an article in The Conversation that I believe supports an important diagnosis of the 2016 election and our current crisis. Their article is entitled “Study: 60 percent of rural millennials lack access to a political life.” They find that a majority of rural youth live in areas that they call “Civic Deserts,” which are “characterized by a dearth of opportunities for civic and political learning and engagement” and a lack of “youth programming, culture and arts organizations and religious congregations.”

Young people in these areas are less civically and politically engaged than other youth. They do not belong to groups and they rarely take civic actions, like voting and volunteering. “During the 2016 presidential election, young people who live in Civic Deserts were less likely to vote compared to others with more civic resources.”

But if they did vote, “they were slightly more likely to choose Trump than those with better access to civic resources.” To illustrate that point: young urban Whites who lived in areas with many civic organizations voted for Trump at a rate of 17 percent. Young Whites who lived in Civic Deserts—which could be rural, suburban or urban—voted for Trump at more than twice that rate: 39 percent.

A person could prefer Trump over Clinton in the November election for a variety of plausible reasons. For instance, if you think that abortion is murder, that is a reason to pull the lever for Trump/Pence instead of Clinton/Kaine. But to like Trump—to appreciate his rhetoric and leadership—is a different matter.

I have argued that few people who belong to functional voluntary groups will appreciate Trump. In almost any kind of voluntary association (whether an evangelical church, a Farmworkers’ local, a business coalition, or a lending circle) leaders typically emerge who demonstrate two virtues: inclusiveness and accountability.

No matter how unified the group, it will encompass some diversity. Members normally expect their leaders to hold the group together by using words and taking actions that include, rather than exclude. Groups do sometimes expel or deliberately alienate members–but only in extremis. The normal goal is to hold the group together.

And members expect their leaders to deliver. If the pastor says the church is going to build a new playground slide, then a new slide had better appear reasonably soon, or the pastor will be blamed. If the informal leader of a social circle promises to organize a gathering but fails to set a date, her stock as a leader will fall.

Donald Trump exhibits neither virtue. He is happy to exclude and he is utterly unaccountable. Indeed, I believe many of his fans don’t really expect him to deliver. For them, he is like a droll uncle sitting beside them on the couch, watching O’Reilly, and making remarks that reflect their feelings. When he says he’s going to drain the swamp, they take that to mean that he endorses their values and despises the lobbyists and politicians whom they despise, not that he will actually pass ethics reforms. I posit that this attitude reflects a lack of satisfying experiences with voluntary associations in which the leaders are inclusive and accountable. And that is an increasingly common situation given the steep decline in organizations like unions and churches.

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Thus I consider the decline in membership—especially among working class Whites—a fundamental cause of Trump.

As evidence, I cite my colleagues’ new finding that White Millennials who live in Civic Deserts voted for Trump. I’d also cite a recent conversation with a self-described Southern conservative evangelical pastor, who told me that he despises Trump because the president’s leadership style violates everything he believes about how to hold a community together.

I’d also cite Hannah Arendt’s argument that loneliness is a precondition of totalitarianism. For her “isolation” means being alone, but “loneliness” means having no felt capacity to control the world in conjunction with other human beings:

Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together, ‘acting in concert’ (Burke); isolated men are powerless by definition. …

In isolation, man remains in contact with the world as the human artifice; only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable…

Isolation then becomes loneliness. … Totalitarian domination … bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man (The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 474-5).

Donald Trump is no totalitarian, but the mechanism is similar. When individuals learn from hard experience that they stand alone in a harsh world, they are prone to follow leaders who simply echo their private thoughts and make them feel part of a unified mass.

See also the hollowing out of US democracyto beat Trump, invest in organizing and the “civic state of the union”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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