‘It’s relationships, stupid’ – how social capital is redefining politics
Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images   

In February 2016, nearly 1,000 Republicans packed into the Harlan Veterans Memorial Auditorium in the heart of Shelby County, Iowa. The line to get inside stretched from the door through the parking lot across to the Dollar General. One-by-one, representatives for each Republican candidate for president stood up to make their case. Then it was the voters turn to step up and cast their ballots. The winner in Harlan that night went on to win the state of Iowa: not Donald Trump, but the US Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.

But as the primaries rolled on through New Hampshire and South Carolina, onward to November, it became increasingly clear that most states in America were not like Iowa, nor were their counties like Shelby. Donald Trump was winning, and after securing the Republican nomination, went on to win the White House. This was not supposed to happen. “The contours of Donald Trump’s support and opposition don’t fall on traditional lines,” observed the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone in March 2016. 

Donald Trump seemed to perform better in places with weak family ties, small friend groups, unsteady work, and little life in church or the Rotary Club

What then distinguished primary voters who opted for Trump from their fellow Republicans who plumped for another candidate? For Barone, one plausible answer was “social disconnectedness.” Donald Trump seemed to perform better in places with weak family ties, small friend groups, unsteady work, and little life in church or the Rotary Club.

Polling released in Summer 2016 appeared to prove the point: among voters who identified or leaned toward the Republican Party, 50% of those who said they were civically disengaged favoured Donald Trump. His main opponent, Ted Cruz, gained the support of just 24% of those voters. “Trump has exceeded expectations,”observed The Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum, in part “by drawing so many civically disengaged voters back into the electoral process.”

Community health as an explanatory factor in people’s voting behaviour has been given a further boost by The Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Index. Published earlier this year, it ranks America’s states and counties by the health of their associational life. Like a GDP measure for society, the index takes a data-driven look at the things we want in our lives – like economic mobility, healthy families, and shared prosperity – as well as the things we don’t, such as opioid abuse, digital addictions, and violent crime. The things that bring us together, and the things that push us apart.

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Let’s briefly return to Iowa: of the top 10 counties in Iowa for social capital, just two plumped for Trump. Shelby County scored the highest in the state by this measure, driven in part by strong family unity and the relative absence of violent crime. By contrast, seven of the 10 poorest performing counties in the state voted for Trump in the 2016 caucus. The trend continues from top to bottom in Iowa’s social capital scores: the best performers predominantly went for Ted Cruz, while Donald Trump did better among its worst performers.

Across the United States, social capital is distributed unequally. A disproportionate share of the Americans living in healthy communities reside in two blocs of states running from Utah to Wisconsin in the upper-middle of the continent and Maine to Vermont in northern New England. Meanwhile, 17 of the bottom 20 states by social capital concentrate in a contiguous bloc across the American South from California to Florida, and it is here where three-quarters of the Americans living in the worst-performing counties call home. The geography of social capital in America betrays a clear north-south divide, with the highest-performing states clustering in the north and worst performers concentrated in the southwest and Deep South.

In the wake of Trump’s White House win, pundits flocked to communities that had voted for the billionaire businessman, searching for a compelling narrative to explain his rise to power. The stories that emerged from this fly-by reporting told of a spreading geography of despair and isolation, but these were little more than anecdote. There was also a tendency to focus on the economic experience of voters, citing financial anxiety as their motivation for supporting Trump. But while there are, of course, other factors – including economic anxiety and religious faith – that help explain Trump’s support, the Social Capital Index provides empirical evidence for the importance of relationships (family, friends, community, institutional).

The geography of social capital in America betrays a clear north-south divide, with the highest-performing states clustering in the north and worst performers concentrated in the southwest and Deep South

That evidence is all the more important given that social cohesion and civic engagement, often deeply rooted in historical and cultural patterns, is declining. Understanding this, and its implications, helps explain America’s growing political divisions. More Americans now live in places with low levels of social capital than those who live in areas of high social capital – and communities with less social capital also experience higher poverty rates, lower median incomes, worse health, and lower economic mobility. These struggling communities align with the geography of slave-based cotton farming. Whereas in areas of high social capital, patterns of settlement by Puritans, Scandinavians, the Dutch Reformed, and Germans are still apparent today.

We have only begun to dig into the role declining social capital may be playing in American political life. But it is noteworthy that states with a greater share of residents identifying themselves as “American” also have remarkably lower levels of social capital. These ‘unhyphenated Americans’ – people who reject ancestral labels of, say, German-American or Irish-American – are overwhelmingly white and predominantly found in Donald Trump’s core strongholds of the Deep South and Appalachia. Should it be surprising that a vivid form of patriotism, longing to restore a past vision of national greatness, would resonate among these very same Americans?

Social capital may be the least understood concept with the most significance for public policy in America today. Maybe if those running for office better understood the declining state of associational life, and the attendant ways it impacts our individual choices, they would spend as much time seeking to boost the social health of America as they do its economic health.

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