A sweeping new look at the unheralded transformation that is eroding the foundations of American exceptionalism.
Americans today find themselves mired in an era of uncertainty and frustration. The nation's safety net is pulling apart under its own weight; political compromise is viewed as a form of defeat; and our faith in the enduring concept of American exceptionalism appears increasingly outdated.
But the American Age may not be ending. In The Vanishing Neighbor, Marc J. Dunkelman identifies an epochal shift in the structure of American life—a shift unnoticed by many. Routines that once put doctors and lawyers in touch with grocers and plumbers—interactions that encouraged debate and cultivated compromise—have changed dramatically since the postwar era. Both technology and the new routines of everyday life connect tight-knit circles and expand the breadth of our social landscapes, but they've sapped the commonplace, incidental interactions that for centuries have built local communities and fostered healthy debate.
The disappearance of these once-central relationships—between people who are familiar but not close, or friendly but not intimate—lies at the root of America's economic woes and political gridlock. The institutions that were erected to support what Tocqueville called the "township"—that unique locus of the power of citizens—are failing because they haven't yet been molded to the realities of the new American community.
It's time we moved beyond the debate over whether the changes being made to American life are good or bad and focus instead on understanding the tradeoffs. Our cities are less racially segregated than in decades past, but we’ve become less cognizant of what's happening in the lives of people from different economic backgrounds, education levels, or age groups. Familiar divisions have been replaced by cross-cutting networks—with profound effects for the way we resolve conflicts, spur innovation, and care for those in need.
The good news is that the very transformation at the heart of our current anxiety holds the promise of more hope and prosperity than would have been possible under the old order. The Vanishing Neighbor argues persuasively that to win the future we need to adapt yesterday’s institutions to the realities of the twenty-first-century American community.
The nation's rich and varied social fabric is wearing dangerously thin, according to this perceptive but unfocused tome. Journalist and Clinton Foundation fellow Dunkelman rues the erosion of America's traditional social base in "townships" diverse, neighborly communities where different classes, ethnicities, and political stripes joined to solve problems collaboratively. With mass prosperity, liberal lifestyles, and the rise of social networking, he contends, we have devolved into a narcissistic society of self-actualizers who live within a homogeneous "inner ring" of intimates and "outer ring" of Facebook friends and blog coteries. All manner of sociopolitical dysfunctions flow from the atrophy of the "middle ring" of diverse township affiliations, he concludes, such as slowing technological innovation, the growing isolation of oldsters, and Washington gridlock. Dunkelman's treatise mines sources from Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone to Jane Jacobs's The Economy of Cities to reach a rich and accessible diagnosis of contemporary mores and discontents. However, the vital-centrist core of his argument, with its finely graded but indistinct rings, feels hollow and weakly supported (for example, a languishing neighborliness statistic: corner bar attendance has declined from 19% to 14% since the mid-1970s). The result is yet another sociological come-together exhortation that's more fretful than compelling.