Including shopping malls on a list of former unifying institutions

It not news that Americans have less confidence in institutions and participate less in civic and voluntary associations. Yet, can we include shopping malls as part of a list of institutions that used to bring Americans together? Nancy Gibbs, the former editor-in-chief at Time, suggests as much:

For reasons cultural, economic, demographic, psychographic, we are divided as a country perhaps not more, but differently than ever before. What were once unifying institutions are declining—Rotary Clubs, churches, even malls. Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness are shredded by rising tribal furies and passions. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy, it’s a skill.

The best argument I have seen for how shopping malls bring people together is from sociologist Elijah Anderson who argues in The Cosmopolitan Canopy that certain shopping areas can bring together people across race and class lines. Malls in the past and present were places that could encourage contact – at least some proximity – between people of different backgrounds as they hunted for consumer goods or entertainment.

However, shopping malls are not doing well these days. With the rise of big box stores and online shopping, people simply do not go to the mall as much any longer. They may have similar experiences encountering the other in other retail settings – as one professor once told our class, you need to go to Walmart to see the real America – but there is now much freedom to avoid other shoppers all together.

Ultimately, I am a little hesitant to place shopping malls past or present on a list of unifying institutions. This is because much of the activity is driven by consumers seeking out the best deal with themselves and occasionally interacting with or noticing others. Malls are about consumption, not interacting with people. In contrast, traditional markers of civic decline – like political behavior or participating in voluntary organizations – require a higher level of interaction with people. If the shopping mall is the best we can hope for in terms of Americans interacting with each other, we are already in trouble.

Slight uptick in Americans’ confidence in institutions

The latest results from Gallup suggest the slide in institutional confidence in America has ended:

Americans’ confidence in the nation’s major institutions has edged up in 2017, after registering historical lows over the past three years. Newspapers, public schools and organized labor, in particular, have improved in public esteem. The average percentage of Americans expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in 14 institutions is at 35%, up from 31% in 2014 and 32% in 2015 and 2016…

First, the uptick in Republicans’ average confidence resulting from the election of President Trump was not offset by a decrease in confidence among Democrats, leaving the population, as a whole, more confident than in previous years.

Second, despite this increased confidence, Americans are still skeptical of most of the major institutions that make up U.S. society. Major institutions have an average 35% “great deal/quite a lot” confidence rating overall, and only three institutions garner a confidence rating above 50%. Major institutions such as big business, the criminal justice system and banks get high confidence ratings from less than one-third of the public.

Finally, the dismal level of public confidence in Congress — with 12% of Americans saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the nation’s legislative body and 44% saying they have very little confidence — highlights what Americans themselves say is the nation’s most important problem: a dysfunctional government that has lost much of its legitimacy in the eyes of the people it serves.

While the numbers are slightly up in 2017, the summary suggests not a whole lot has changed outside of which party controls the presidency. Overall, Americans are pretty skeptical about most major institutions though their dissatisfaction might be the result of different reasons. At the least, this data may suggest confidence has bottomed out.

This is also another example of why longitudinal data is so helpful. If this was data from a single time point, it is hard to know what it means: is this more or less confidence than normal? How do certain events change the responses? But, with data regarding confidence in 14 institutions since 1993, we can see patterns: upward and downward swings over years, shifts due to social changes like a burst housing bubble, comparisons across very different institutions.

The benefits of institutions over charismatic authority for evangelicals

American evangelicals may often prize celebrity pastors and figures but sociologist and college president Michael Lindsay argues institutions provide more lasting impact:

Weber distinguished between different kinds of authority. Traditional authority is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority is what President Obama has. You’re on top of a major bureaucracy, and that’s how you get things done. And then there’s charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had. It’s the authority that Jesus had. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.

But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized; in other words, it has to be channeled into an institutional form. The authority of a charismatic individual has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, for instance, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, his ministry will continue. Charles Colson died two years ago. But much of his work is continuing in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.

So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.

Charismatic leaders are rare and it can often be difficult to take the better things they do and imbue that into institutions. Yet, institutions can have incredible staying power and operate at a broader level of society.

While evangelicals may be showing more interest in institutions, such a viewpoint rubs against the typical evangelical tendency toward individualism. The charismatic leader can fit the American story of working hard and making something of oneself. The attractive leader can pull in individuals through new technologies as evangelicals effectively used the ascending radio and television scenes. (Interestingly, I’ve seen much less about evangelicals effectively harnessing the Internet for their ends. Perhaps such an analysis can come with time.) Appealing to institutions requires both leaders and adherents to turn their focus more to the communal than their own interests. This is a difficult switch, particularly in certain areas like Smith and Emerson demonstrate in Divided By Faithwith the inability for white evangelicals to beyond the individual to the social dimensions of race in America.

19% of Americans now religiously unaffiliated but many are still religious or spiritual

Pew reported yesterday that the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation continues to rise to over 19%. However, there is a complex story taking place with this group: many are still religious or spiritual, this may be more about generational change, and it could be that those who rarely go to church are now more willing to say so.

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics…

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives…

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

So while the number of atheists and agnostics has risen in the last few years, the number of non-affiliated Americans has risen even more as more people are less interested in identifying with religious institutions.

I wonder if there is another explanation at work here: in general, Americans now have less trust in all institutions. Here is where things stood in October 2011:

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed barely 10 percent of the public trusts the government. But it doesn’t stop there: Trust in public institutions like corporations, banks, courts, the media and universities is at an all-time low; the military is one of the few exceptions.

Perhaps this is a package deal. And perhaps this was part of the oddness of the 1950s; the prosperous era suggested Americans could trust institutions (and church attendance and membership went up) but the zeitgeist started going the other way in the 1960s.

Gerson suggests we can’t solve social problems through individualism; we need to correct dysfuncational institutions

Michael Gerson argues we can’t address America’s social problems through individualism but rather we need to help strengthen dysfunctional institutions:

While the Romney video was making news, I was reading some recent research by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. He recounts an interview with a woman given the fictional name of Mary Sue, who lives in a declining industrial town in Ohio. Mary Sue’s parents divorced when she was young. Her mother became a stripper and left for days at a time. Her stepmother beat her and confined her to a single room. Mary Sue told the interviewer that, for a time, her only friend had been a yellow mouse who shared the apartment.

Mary Sue went in and out of juvenile detention. One boyfriend burned her arms with cigarettes. Her current partner has two children by two other women.

Is such a story really explainable as a failure of personal responsibility? That seems both simplistic and callous. Putnam describes these social conditions as “depressingly typical” in America’s working class. He measures a number of growing gaps between poorer and more affluent Americans — gaps of parental time and investment, of religious and community involvement, of academic achievement — that widen a class divide and predict a “social mobility crash” for millions of Americans.

This crisis has a number of causes, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs and the decay of working-class neighborhoods, which used to offer stronger networks of mentors outside the home. Perverse incentives in some government programs may have contributed to these changes, but this does not mean that shifting incentives can easily undo the damage. Removing a knife from a patient does not automatically return him to health. Whatever the economic and cultural causes, the current problem is dysfunctional institutions, which routinely betray children and young adults. Restoring a semblance of equal opportunity — promoting family commitment, educational attainment and economic advancement — will take tremendous effort and creative policy.

Gerson goes on to argue for a kind of conservatism that looks to improve civil society rather than retreat into a libertarian world.

A few thoughts:

1. Gerson brings up an important idea: simply removing unhelpful government programs doesn’t necessarily solve the larger social problem. In fact, there may be two issues at stake: a misguided program as well as the social problem. But simply doing nothing doesn’t necessarily rectify the problem either. For example, making certain kinds of discrimination illegal in the 1960s was a big step in the right direction. But, this didn’t immediately equalize the life chances for different groups, particularly those who had endured decades of legal discrimination. There is still work to be done on this front so simply acting like the new law or program has completely solved the problem is false.

2. Note that Gerson is not necessarily calling here for government to tackle all of these issues. Also, he brings up issues that tend to worry conservatives like the decline of the traditional family.

3. Is this what moderate Republicanism looks like?

Generation R(ecession)

This isn’t the first article or commentator to suggest that the current generation of roughly 20-somethings will be profoundly affected by the current economic malaise. But sociologist Maria Kafelas provides some insights into what she terms Generation R:

[Generation R] were born between 1980 and 1990. They’re the children of the baby boomers…

Working class kids said to us, “Listen, we’re going to be the first generation of Americans to do worse than our parents.” One young woman said, “I just feel burned. My friends who didn’t go to college, they don’t have debt and they’re making more an hour than I am.”…

[A working class girl who went to college] actually said, “I don’t even know why I spent the money.” The middle class kids were saying, “It’s very tough, I am filled with anxiety. I can’t sleep at night, but I still believe in a college degree. I’m just going to have to work harder and it’s going to take longer.” And those elite kids said, “Is there really a recession? It’s more like — it’s just harder for me to get a job.” And they’re sitting out this recession in a lot of ways…

They now talk a great deal about not wasting money; conspicuous consumption they say has gone out of fashion. And they don’t want to be seen as throwing money around when their families are eating into their resources to keep them afloat, etc.

If these characteristics do mark this current generation, their beliefs and practices would affect a number of institutions: higher education (and the education system in general), the economy (with more measured consumption practices), the relationship between generations (perhaps being the first generation in a while whose life is not markedly better), and perhaps more (government – for letting this all happen, financial institutions – for helping to make this happen, etc.).

But these comments from Kefalas also highlight the class differences that are exacerbated in these difficult economic times. For the elite, not a whole lot has changed. The middle class may still believe in college and the value of hard work. But it is the working and lower classes that might really have a lack of hope as the ways to move up, such as a college education, seem to be further out of reach.