in: People, Podcast, Relationships

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #176: The Vanishing Neighbor & The Transformation of American Community

In the past few decades, there’s been all kinds of research about declining community life in America. Participation in PTAs, civic clubs, and even bowling leagues is on the decline, and Americans don’t really know who their neighbors are anymore. Several reasons have been put forth for this decline in community life such as the rising use of communication technology.

My guest today, however, argues that while advances in communication technology has contributed to the decline of community life, there’s more to it than that, and what we’re seeing is a radical transformation in how Americans organize themselves socially. Marc Dunkelman is a fellow of public policy at Brown University and the author of the book, The Vanishing Neighbor. Today on the podcast Marc and I discuss the history of American social organization, why it’s changing, and what effects that change is having on institutions such as government and business.

Show Highlights

  • The three rings of social organization
  • Why the “middle ring” of social life has played an important role in America since the country’s founding
  • The township model of community organization in America and how it influenced how the Founders organized the American government
  • How “networked communities” are replacing “township communities” and the effects that has on various institutions in America
  • The factors contributing to that change
  • The benefits and downsides of both networked communities and township communities
  • How our definition of “neighborliness” has changed over the decades
  • Is it possible to reverse the trend towards networked communities?
  • What you can do to foster township communities in your own life
  • Why focusing on nourishing township community in your life is an answer to Teddy Roosevelt’s challenge to “step into the arena”
  • And much more!

Book cover, the vanishing neighbor by Marc Dunkelman.

If you’ve bemoaned the fact that there’s been a decline in community life in modern America, I highly recommend picking-up The Vanishing NeighborMarc does a great job of providing some much needed big-picture historical context about what’s going and makes the case that both the old way of organizing ourselves socially and the new way have their pros and cons. The challenge then becomes finding ways to leverage the benefits that come with township and networked communities while mitigating their downsides.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. In the past 20 years or so, there’s been an increasing number of research by sociologists and other academics about the declining sense of community life in America. There’s research showing that Americans are joining civic organizations less than they used to, things like Civic Club, PTA, even bowling leagues. People aren’t really doing that anymore. In fact, there’s research showing that Americans really don’t know who their neighbors are anymore. They can live in a neighborhood for 10, 15 years and not really know much about the neighbor across the street. It’s a complete stranger to them.

There’s been a lot of theories about why that is. My guest today makes the bold case of what we’re seeing right now is a transformation in the way Americans organize themselves socially. His names Marc Dunkelman. He’s the author of the book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community,” and in it he argues what’s going on with this transformation, why it’s happening and the effects that it’s having on institutions like government, public schools, even business in America. Really fascinating topic, and today on the show we’re going to discuss why we’re seeing a declining sense of community in the traditional sense you think about it and what’s replacing it. Really great discussion, and without further ado, Marc Dunkelman and the vanishing neighbor. Marc Dunkelman, welcome to the show.

Marc Dunkelman: Thanks for having me on.

Brett McKay: Your book is “The Vanishing Neighbor,” and it’s about the changing ways Americans are organizing themselves socially and interacting with each other. I’m curious. What led you to the research and the writing of this book? Was it a hunch you had or a personal experience? What was it that said I need to look into this a little bit more, what’s going on?

Marc Dunkelman: Two things happened to me almost simultaneously. The first was that I had been working in Washington for several years, and I was sitting around with a bunch of old poobahs who were kvetching about how Washington didn’t work anymore. They were going through the whole litany of reasons that we hear about all the time: too much money in politics, gerrymandering, the filibuster, too many lobbyists. It goes on and on. I was having this experience where I was living in Washington, but my family’s in Buffalo. I’d fly home, and I’d land at the airport. My father would pick me up, and we’d be driving home, and at some point in the course of the conversation, he’d turn to me and he’d say, “Marc, what the hell are they doing down there in Washington?” I would try out each of the explanations that I’d heard the poobahs talk about. I’d say, “Well, it’s the filibuster,” and my dad, who’s a pretty smart guy, would say, “Well, Marc, the filibuster rules haven’t changed since the ’70s, so why is it they’re filibustering more now?” I’d be left dumbfounded.

Then the next time I’d fly home to Buffalo, he picked me up, and I complained again. I’d give him another explanation, like it’s gerrymandering. He’d say, “Marc, gerrymandering is named after James Madison’s vice president, so how can that be?” You go through the whole list of common explanations. You go through all the old explanations. They all existed in eras were government seemed to work, or at least it seemed to work better than it does now. I began thinking, something else has got to be going on.

The second thing that happened was I began thinking more and more about the holidays that I’d spent as a kid. My family was from Cincinnati. I grew up in Buffalo, and we would go back to Cincinnati every holiday season, and we’d drive up and down the street where my father grew up. He would look at each house, and he’d tell me the story of each family. This guy was a lousy student but then got into a good college. This woman did this. This guy invented the electric toothbrush and sold it to Proctor & Gamble for a zillion dollars in the 1950s, whatever it was. I realized that, back in Buffalo, I didn’t have that experience at all. I was delivering the Buffalo news to my neighbors four years into having moved, and I couldn’t have told you the name of the people of any of the people, except save for the few kids that went to my elementary school. I think if I’d bumped into my next-door neighbor at a grocery store I would not have been able to recognize them. I began to wonder: Is there some connection between what’s happening in Washington and what I was experiencing in Buffalo? Is there some connection? That got me off on a whole jaunt of research that ended up with this book.

Brett McKay: I think what’s interesting is a lot of people can probably relate to that second … I think most people can agree that the Washington is at a standstill, and there’s a lot of gridlock, but also that second hunch or that feeling you had. There’s not a sense of community. We’re very nostalgic for it, and it doesn’t exist anymore, so I think a lot of people resonate with that. I know I do. Before we get to why, why there was a change between your experience growing up and your father’s experience growing up, I guess, we’ve got to do a lot of groundwork here. Let’s talk about this. You argue there are three rings of social organization that humans organize themselves with. Can you explain what those three rings are?

Marc Dunkelman: Yeah. My argument is that, if you imagine your whole social world on a diagram that looks like the rings of Saturn, where you’re the planet, and everyone you know is organized along the rings. The most intimate contacts, your spouse, your best friend, your children, your parents, are in the innermost ring, and then moving out are the people who are less and less intimacy, to the point that you get to the barista that you spoke to for five seconds when you ordered a latte or whatever several days earlier and you’ll never see again. If you think about the time and energy you have each day, you get to choose where you’re going to invest your time and energy. The innermost rings, I call them the inner rings, are the people who are really, really close to you. This is generally 10 or 12, 15 people who you know really well. It varies from person to person and from culture to culture, but, generally, those are the people who know almost everything about you or know the most about you.

The very outside rings are people that don’t know you at all, except you share some single interest. I am one of about three dozen Cincinnati Bengals fans in the world, and, unfortunately, I think we’ve lost a couple since that loss to Pittsburgh, but I know a bunch of those people just because I look on blogs about Cincinnati Bengals and follow them, but I have no real tangential connections with them or no substantive connection with them. In-between those inner and outer rings are what I call the middle rings, and those are people who are familiar but not intimate. They are people that you would know well enough to ask them about something that’s important in their lives if you bumped into them on the street. I hear your father was sick. How’s he doing? I hear your business is growing like gangbusters. Are you going to open up a store? You would know enough about them to have a real conversation. These are the kind of conversations you would have from a familiarity that would grow maybe when you were talking to someone over the donuts at the back of a PTA meeting or while you were waiting for your chance to bowl in a bowling league or when you were at a Rotary Club meeting, whatever it was. Those are the sorts of conversations that happen in the background, and you develop a connection.

The core thesis of my book is that, over the last several decades, we’ve taken the time and attention that we each control and invested it much more heavily in those innermost rings, our most intimate connections, and much more heavily in the outermost rings. I could not live in Providence, Rhode Island. It’d be very hard for me to know Cincinnati Bengals fans 40 years ago, but now I can know a bunch of them because of all sorts of changes in technology. What’s been lost in the wash are the middle ring connections. We have very few connections or fewer connections than we once did with people who are familiar but not intimate.

Brett McKay: Before we get to why that is, why we’ve made this transition to focusing more on the inner rings and the outer rings and less on the middle ring, let’s backtrack. Let’s do some history. You make the case that this focus … I think all of us have this nostalgia for there was a time when everything was Norman Rockwell. Neighbors knew neighbors. They talked to each other. People went to church and did cake walks or cake bakes and whatever and went to PTA meetings. This idea that we have, this ideal of community in America you argue got its start all the way when the colonies first organized themselves. How did colonial Americans organize themselves? How did that differ from their European contemporaries?

Marc Dunkelman: It’s a fascinating story. When people came to the new world, the old social hierarchies that had existed in Europe for the most part, couldn’t exist in quite the same way. There just weren’t enough people, so you lived in a town. You got to know people across really what I call the middle ring. Whether you were of a certain standing, if you had a certain religious background, if you had a certain point of view … It’s not to say that it was entirely diverse, but there was a standard of community organization that Tocqueville talked about in the 1830s that differed from what existed in Europe in the sense that, if you had a problem in the community, in your town, in your village in New England in the 1700s, everyone got together and tried to figure out a solution. You could have hated the guy down the corner. You could have disliked the family. You could have disagreed on everything, but on some level, you had to develop some sort of mutual understanding because you needed one another to survive. That didn’t exist in the much more bifurcated European society where people were much more split along class lines, hierarchies, royalty, the whole bit.

There was a core way of organizing your community that made it look much more like Little House on the Prairie, versus in Europe, they organized themselves much more like Downton Abbey where you had a central manor, a powerful family and then classes of people below it. There was a much more egalitarian origin in the United States or in the colonies at that point. What that’s saying is that that core building block of American community existed in colonial villages, in frontier towns. It existed even in urban suburbs in turn of 20th century and then in the beginnings of suburbs. I think that it’s only now for the first time that that core building block, what I call township community, is beginning to fly apart.

Brett McKay: This township community, how did this township model of community, organizing ourselves socially, how did that affect American political organization, not only in government, but also civic organizations and I guess what you’d call non-profit organizations? What would you call them? Mutual beneficial societies, whatever.

Marc Dunkelman: Let me think how to answer that. Every institution is built on a certain foundation, just like a house is built on a foundation, an institution is built on a foundation. You would build your house to the specifications detailed by the foundation. If you had a foundation that was cracked, you’d need to find some way to either fix the foundation or build a house in a different way. The foundation for American institutions of all sorts, the way we govern ourselves, the way we took care of ourselves medically or through health care, the way we educated ourselves, the foundation in each case was this building block of township community where people who didn’t know one another intimately well but knew each other to a degree of familiarity that they could understand where the other was coming from came together and discussed their ideas and negotiated and traded back and forth what they wanted, what the other people wanted, tried to accommodate one another in the way that didn’t exist in other societies.

The unwritten part of the American Constitution is that we expect that the voters will have some experience with the people on the other side. Even if they feel strongly about one party or another or if they feel strongly about one position or another, the presumption is that, in the course of thinking about who they’re going to vote for, that they will have some appreciation for the other point of view, that they’ll have some sense that maybe they don’t agree with what Sarah Palin says, or maybe they don’t agree with what Bernie Sanders says or whoever it is, that they will at least have some appreciation for why someone else would feel strongly passionate about supporting that candidate. The whole system of American government presumes that voters will have that sort of tendency to accommodate various points of view in mind when they are selecting people at the ballot box. That’s one example, but that exists across the span of American institutions.

Brett McKay: Why has this township model of community organization, why has that been in decline in American for the past several decades? It’s interesting. You talk about in the book how founded in that is frontier idea of America with the colonialists where they had to rely on each other, but it even survived the Industrial Revolution. Something changed in the past 40, 50 years, that it’s no longer surviving. It’s being replaced by another form of social organization. Why the decline?

Marc Dunkelman: I like to think of this as a classic who done it. We’ve got the motive and the opportunity. The opportunity is probably pretty clear to most people who listen to this podcast. We’ve got many more opportunities to interact with people of our choice than our grandparents did. As I said, I’m a Cincinnati Bengals fan, and I can be in touch with other Cincinnati Bengals fans. Alternatively, in the inner ring, when I travel for work now, probably three generations ago, I would have been really bored. There would have been three channels to watch on the television, and I couldn’t have been in touch with my wife or children. I would have gone down to the hotel bar and had a conversation with somebody I didn’t know. Now when I get to my hotel and it’s 7:00, I can order room service, watch any movie I want, read “Goodnight Moon” to my children over FaceTime, and there’s no reason for me to go downstairs. There you’re seeing how our opportunities to invest our time in the outer and the inner rings has grown dramatically, no matter what your particular instance. Maybe you’re really into knitting, or maybe you’re into a different football team, or maybe you’re very interested in bike lanes. Whatever it is, you can find your people in the outer rings and also spend more time with the people who you’re closest to.

The question then is are we motivated to take those opportunities? Are you more motivated? Are you more interested when you get to your hotel room while traveling to check your blog, FaceTime with your family, watch a movie by yourself, or are you more motivated to go downstairs and meet people you don’t know? I had a long conversation. I don’t know if you remember 20 years ago when people had PalmPilots.

Brett McKay: I had one.

Marc Dunkelman: There was an app on the PalmPilot called Vindigo, and Vindigo was this really cool app at the time where you could type in the intersection where you were in most major cities and ask for a certain cuisine. If you wanted a bowl of pasta, you’d put in Italian, and Vindigo would tell you where the closest Italian restaurant was. I thought this was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. My grandfather who has since past away, I showed it to him. He went white as a ghost, and I didn’t know why. I said, “What’s the problem.” He said, “Marc, let me tell you. When I was a traveling salesman, I lived in Cincinnati, and I would take a train down to North Carolina to talk with” … He was in the hosiery business, and he’d get out of the train station. If he was hungry, he’d go and say to somebody in the train station or somebody that looked like they knew what they were doing, “Hey, I’ve got a question for you. I’m new to town. Is there a place where I can grab a bowl of pasta, or is there a good steak restaurant?” Whatever it was, and they’d have a conversation. Then maybe they would go to dinner together, or maybe he would go to the restaurant, and he’d develop a conversation with the people who were there, but that was the norm. He desired the opportunity to talk to people like that.

My grandfather’s fear when he saw Vindigo was that those sorts of conversations, which he thought had added such value to his life, expanded his experience, widened his understanding of how the world worked, would be lost because we would no longer have those sorts of random interactions. That’s an indication of how the technology and desire have changed, but it’s a broader phenomenon as well. One thing I’ve noticed is that the … And there’s some scholarship on this as well. The very word, neighborly, has changed in America over the course of the past several decades. It used to be that being neighborly meant that when someone moved in next door, you brought over a plate of cookies, or if you needed milk in a pinch, you could walk next door and grab a gallon. Today, the word neighborly has been turned on its head. Today neighborly means that, if you’re living in an apartment building and you hear a couple have an argument through the wall, when you see them in the lobby the next morning, you don’t say anything. Neighborly has come to mean something that is much more about boundaries between people than it is bringing people together.

The confluence of those two elements, the fact that we have more opportunities to make different sorts of connections with people and the fact that we don’t desire … we’re more tethered to our privacy than to our sense of connection to the people who live next door, but those two things have compelled people to invest their time and attention in different sorts of relationships.

Brett McKay: Let me just recap. It seems like technology had a lot of effect because we can communicate with or associate with who you want to associate, not confined by geography. The technology, in a way, changed our motivations to I want to just focus on that. Am I understanding you correctly?

Marc Dunkelman: Yeah. I don’t know whether I’m sure the technology has necessarily been the sole factor in changing what we desire. I think that there are a whole series of factors that play some role in explaining who you want to spend time with. There’s evidence now that narcissism is up in American culture. That’s a few decades old. At root, you have to ask yourself, what is it that I want to get out of my social interactions? The truth is that middle-ring interactions with people who are familiar but not intimate are the most difficult to maintain because inner-ring relationships would be with your family, with your best friends. Those are people that love you implicitly. You can say something crazy. You can say something they disagree with, and they’re going to love you no matter what, or at least that’s what you hope. The outer rings, those are relationships that, if someone says something that you disagree with, you just abandon the relationship. If I’m talking about to somebody about Cincinnati Bengals on a blog and it turns out that they’re a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I just abandon the relationship. I don’t really want to talk to them anymore, and it’s very easy to do. Same is true with our whole range of outer-ring relationships. The nature of it is you’ve connected over a single common interest, and if you don’t share that common interest, you don’t maintain the relationship.

In the middle rings, it’s a very different situation. The middle rings are people that you’re going to see the next week at the PTA meeting or at the bowling league or at the little league game, wherever you see them. You’re going to see them on the street. You can’t afford, in the moment, when they say that they support a candidate that you think is crazy or they announce that they’ve got religious beliefs that you think are totally out of line or they disparage your favorite football team, whatever it is, you need to maintain that relationship. That’s the moment where you can’t lash out; you can’t argue back. If you do, you need to do it in a collegial way that maintains relationships, and then you don’t both go away mad and abandon it. For some reason today, we’ve got limited time and attention. We don’t necessarily want to spend our time and attention on people who don’t share our common … We don’t want to spend our time and attention talking to people with whom we need to … We don’t want to spend our time and attention talking to people who don’t share a certain core set of beliefs. We’d rather spend it with people that love is implicitly or with people that already agree with us. That’s a fundamental change in motivation that would spur us to abandon middle-ring relationships in lieu of having tighter inner and outer ring relationships.

Brett McKay: You bring up a great point because I know I do this. I definitely am nostalgic for the days of tight-knit communities, Norman Rockwell-esque pictures of community, but then you forget that it is exhausting. There’s all these benefits of having a township idea of community, but you forget that it’s really exhausting. You can even read diaries and letters from … Even Marcus Aurelius complained about people. They’re just so annoying, and it’s a lot of hard work, but I have to put up with them because that’s part of my social duty as a human being is to interact with people that I don’t necessarily agree with. I guess, one of the downsides of a township, it does require a lot of energy and mental bandwidth to manage.

Marc Dunkelman: Absolutely true, more than that. It cuts against the Norman Rockwell view of America. The truth is that we think of middle-ring institutions, Rotary Clubs and church choirs and little leagues and PTA associations, all of those are truly middle-ring institutions, and there’s value in them. Gangs are also middle-ring institutions. The Klan was a middle-ring institutions. Those are people that knew each other fairly well, so it’s not that they are uniformly for the good of America. There are advantages and disadvantages to the institutions of all sorts.

Brett McKay: What is replacing the township? We had township for the first 200-odd years of our country. What is replacing it?

Marc Dunkelman: I think networks. In a word, networks are replacing townships. What I mean by that is that now, if you’re an ophthalmologist in Oklahoma, it used to be that your community was still the people who lived around you. If you’re an ophthalmologist and you want to be in touch with ophthalmologists all around the world, you can. There’s going to be a breakthrough. They did some research in Brazil. There is a horrible case that has really instructed what’s happening in South Carolina. You can be in touch with people who are talking about that all the time, and you can develop a real sense of … It’s not the sort of intimacy that you might have had otherwise, but you can develop a sense of community that is at arm’s length with those people who are sharing your interests, share your concerns.

The example that I use in my book which I think is a pretty powerful one is World of Warcraft. These games that are online that allow people, one who lives in Hong Kong, one who lives in California, one who lives in Europe, to coordinate the moment that they’re going to storm a castle. Those are, by some stretch, real relationships. They’re coordinating their strategy; they’re coordinating their timing. They’re all wrapped up in the same adventure. The question is, are those relationships that come to the depth of … If one of those players, their wife gets sick or their kid’s in trouble or they’re very sad about something or they’re extremely excited about a promotion at work, is that necessarily something that they’re going to interact with those folks about, or is it really just about World of Warcraft? Is that relationship really centered around one single shared interest?

Obviously, in both of those examples, you see real advantages, people who are really into World of Warcraft, people who are really interested in their professions, they can dive much more deeply into those interests with people who share those interests. The downside is that the auxiliary benefits of having local or middle-ring oriented relationships, there’s something lost as well.

Brett McKay: It seems like it fractures the individual in a way because you’ve got to put on your World of Warcraft face on, and then that’s it. Then you go off until you have another aspect of your life that you focus on. When you interact with people in these different little nodes in your network, people aren’t really concerned about your other aspects of your identity, it would seem. Maybe I’m …

Marc Dunkelman: That’s exactly right. I tell a hypothetical example in my book about a bigoted guy who lives in Kentucky who wants to sell a vintage baseball card. Forty years ago, he has to go to a baseball card convention and actually have a face-to-face interaction with someone or he has to go to the local store or whatever it is. When he’s wearing his white power t-shirt or whatever it is, people know what he’s about, and it’s going to affect who he sells to. Today, that same guy could anonymously sell his card to someone who’s also anonymous who happens to be a woman who owns a small business who’s African-American in Oakland, California. The two of them today are now doing commerce together. It used to be that they were separated from one another because they would never interact. They were never in the same circles, and so there was an economic division between the two of them because of their various identities.

Today those people are now interacting but not in a substantive way. There’s going to be no exchange of ideas. It’s not that he’s going to glean any sense of wisdom from her about where she came from or what she’s about. Same, I don’t know if she’d want to glean anything from him, but there’d be no flow of information the other way. There’s something valuable in having people who have different points of view, even if they disagree, actually having interactions. That’s how good ideas come. They come from the fact that people who have different bits of expertise take an idea from one sphere of the world and apply it to another. Frankly, that’s how Gutenberg came up with the printing press. It wasn’t that it was a stroke of genius. It was that he lived at this nexus where he knew people and figured out how presses worked, how movable type worked, how ink worked, how paper worked, and he put it all together in an interesting way and developed this incredibly technology, the printing press.

That sort of interaction happens every day. How are you going to figure out how to get your kids between all these different activities? Then have you had a conversation with other parents who are doing the same thing or people who have different ideas about how you’re going to manage your sales force? This is how we did it. Good ideas come when people who have different points of view come together and share ideas, and if you’re only interacting with them over the plane of World of Warcraft or only interacting with them because you’re selling something to them on eBay, you’re losing the value in those interactions.

Brett McKay: Going back to the baseball card aficionados. One’s a black woman, the other one a white power, white supremacist type guy. You make the subtle case in your book, a point that maybe this is one of the issues with why we’re having a problem with race in America today. Because on the one hand, it’s not like the overt racism that existed in the early part of the 20th century and the 19th century, but because of this community or network community that we have now, we can take out some of the friction because you can associate with people who are like you, and you can interact with people who are not like you on a very superficial level. When you reduce that friction, you reduce the opportunity to actually talking about the substance of an issue on a very in-depth way to actually solve the problem.

Marc Dunkelman: I think you’ve hit it exactly, that we’ve made enormous progress, particularly on the legal barriers that separated communities into different races. The question now is … And this gets back to the issue of a motive and an opportunity. We now have the opportunity to interact with people who have different points of view and come from different communities. The question is are we actually choosing the take advantage? Are we motivated to spend our time and attention with people who are different from us? In too many cases, it seems to me, there’s too much at risk, that you’re going to say something wrong, that you’re going to offend somebody else, that you’re going to somehow come off having exposed some inner prejudice, to the point that risk that you’re going to say something wrong in many cases makes it so that you don’t actually reach out. What a shame that is. What a shame it is that the people who have different points of view are not actually having interactions so that we’re learning from one another and that we prefer, in too many cases, to spend time with people who share our point of view.

That’s not just about race; that’s on all sorts of issues. That’s people who support Donald Trump and people who don’t support Donald Trump or people who think we need single payer health care and people who don’t. Are they actually having interactions so that they have some depth of mutual understanding? One’s a liberal college professor who really believes that we need to break down all sorts of social barriers. One’s an independent businesswoman who runs a coffee shop and is completely bogged down by all the regulations that come from the local government. She gets four pieces of mail from the Department of Business Regulation every day and can’t figure out what any of it means and has to hire a lawyer and might put her out of business. If the two of them have a conversation, a substantive conversation about what the other’s point of view is, it may not be that they end up voting for the same candidate, but at least when their candidate wins and goes to Washington or goes to the state house or goes to city hall and starts reaching out to the other side, they’re not going to think that they’ve abandoned the voters that sent them. They’re not going to say, “Oh, you’re reaching out to somebody else. You clearly have no principles.” No, they’ve got principles, but they’re trying to accommodate somebody else’s concerns as well.

If you’re not able to do that in your own life, it’s much harder, or you’re not taking the opportunity to do that in your own life. If you’re not taking the opportunity to do that in your own life, it’s much harder for you to stomach the idea than your guy or your congresswoman would go to Washington and actually do it themselves. Right at the core, that’s not about filibustering or gerrymandering or money in politics; that’s just about what it is that the average American wants their member of Congress to do.

Brett McKay: This goes back to your original hunch about why you started researching this book. Basically, there’s a mismatch between the way Americans are starting to organize themselves socially in these networks and these institutions that we have that were founded when we were based in a township model. That’s the problem or one of the problem.

Marc Dunkelman: I think that is the core of the problem. When my father would get in the car with me and I would explain that the filibuster in the Senate was the reason that Washington was broken, was because these crazy senators were stopping pieces of legislation, and he said, “Well, the rules haven’t changed. Why are they filibustering more often?” The reason is because, on some level, it’s smart, politically, to filibuster. You want to be seen as a purist and a principled politician. You want to be viewed as carrying a banner, and you’re unwilling to back down. We have this sense that if people would just stick to their guns more frequently, we would get more out of Washington. In fact, the whole premise of American democracy is that you’re going to have factions who have different interests and different ideas and different points of view, and the magic of American democracy was that Washington was a place that would try to accommodate as much of that as possible and that you would get more from the sum of the parts that you would have if everyone just went their own way.

The premise in each of those cases was that the members of Congress or the politicians writ large in the United States would reflect the community’s view that there are a whole variety of points of view, and we need to accommodate it. We need to harness the magic of that diversity. The problem today, more than the traditional litany of explanations, money in politics and filibustering and gerrymandering, the real change is that people, in their own experience, aren’t reaching across the proverbial isle. They aren’t having interactions across the middle rings. In the absence of those interactions, they’re not willing to support politicians, support leaders who are interested in trying to meld the diversity of opinion.

Brett McKay: This is even on a personal level for the politicians. Going back to that opportunity motivation, you talk about how, in the book, it used to be because it was so hard to get to Washington. You had to take trains or carriages or whatever to actually do the voting and do your work. You lived there. Politicians would move to Washington D.C. Because of that, they got to interact with other politicians. They’d go to dinner with each other. The families would get together, but going back now, people are motivated to focus on those inner rings. They’re more likely to not live in Washington. They might sleep in their office and then take a plane back to their hometown to be with their family on the weekends, so there’s not that mixture that once existed before.

Marc Dunkelman: That’s certainly true.

Brett McKay: What’s the solution then? This is the trend we’re going to. We’re going towards network communities. I’m sure you talk about in the book, this isn’t a complete transition. There are still townships that exist in America, pockets of it where you see it. The trend is towards this network community. Do we try to push back against that? In the past 20-odd years, there’s been a lot of books written about that. Robert Putnam’s book comes to mind about we need to do a lot to bring back these middle rings, that we’re all bowling alone, et cetera, and we should do things to encourage these middle-ring communities, or should we try to adapt our institutions and organizations to this new reality?

Marc Dunkelman: I don’t have a clear answer to that question. That’s a terrific question, and, frankly, I think readers … Let me say this. I think that people who have listened to interviews with me have gotten frustrated that I don’t have a single silver bullet answer to what we ought to do. I will say this. I think on the opportunity front, there’s nothing much to do. Our opportunities have expanded. People have more choice about how to invest the limited fund of time and attention that they each control. We’re not going to make it so that people can’t play World of Warcraft. We’re not going to make it so that ophthalmologists can’t interact with one another across the world. We’re not going to make it so that I can’t FaceTime “Goodnight Moon” to my daughter when I’ve traveled across the country. In each of those cases, we prize those opportunities, and we’re not going to give them up.

The thing that we can begin to look at is what motivates us not to join the PTA. It’s not that we shouldn’t spend time with our children. it’s not that we shouldn’t find time for people who share our particular interests, but what would motivate us not to be afraid to spend more of our time and attention in the middle rings? What would make it so that we’re more inclined to invest our time and attention in middle-ring interactions? My experience is that the single determining factor that is most powerful in helping us to decide is what a series of education researchers have called grit, which is the ability to thwart an impulse. If you’re in a conversation with somebody that you know fairly well, a middle-ring connection, and they say something that you think is really crazy. They support a candidate that you think is nuts or they are on one side or the other of a gun control debate or whatever, you’ve got a few options about how to react.

You could say, “You’re an idiot,” and walk away. You could just end the conversation right there. You could offend them, or you could just abandon the relationship altogether. The question is are you able to develop some sort of reply where you say, “You know, I’m not sure I totally agree with you on that. This is what I think,” so that you’re actually continuing the relationship. Are you able to withstand the impulse to lash out or to walk away? To my mind, that single determining factor, that sort of issue is entirely personalized. Do you have the grit to handle a disagreement? That’s something that has diminished in many cases in American community today or within American individuals, that because you are less inclined, because you’re angered by what the other person had to say or you’d rather spend time with people who love you implicitly, who agree with you, you decide you’re not going to stick it out. I think that the most powerful thing we could do to reconstitute middle-ring relationships is to teach future generations grit.

If you read the educational journals, we’re right on the cusp of being able to develop a curriculum that encourages people to develop grit at a young age. There’s this fairly well-known, in certain circles, a fairly well-known test called the marshmallow test where you put a 4 year old in front of a marshmallow and then you say to him or her, “You can eat this marshmallow at any point. I’m going to walk away. I need to run an errand. When I get back, if the marshmallow is still here, I’ll give you a second marshmallow, and you can eat both of them.” This started in the ’60s. They found that 20 years later, the kids who were able to withstand the impulse to eat that first marshmallow and waited for the second marshmallow were light years ahead in all sorts of facets of life. They were likely to be incarcerated, less likely to be addicted to some sort of substance. They earned more money. They were more likely to have gotten a college degree. Across the span of life, you do better if you’ve got the grit to control your impulses.

I think that we rarely connect that idea of impulse control to community, but the truth is that is the core competency when it comes to building a middle-ring relationship. The core competency is being able to deal with a disagreement in an agreeable way, to maintain a relationship even when there’s some ideological disagreement. If we were able to build the next generation of Americans to have additional grit, to have that impulse control, they’ll be much more likely to invest their time and attention in those sorts of relationships that have been lost.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Even for our listeners who are not children … If you’re a parent, you could start doing that. This is the Art of Manliness podcast. This sounds like developing middle-ring relationship is like throwing your hat in the arena Teddy Roosevelt style, seeing it as a challenge and not shying away from it.

Marc Dunkelman: I think you couldn’t put it any better way.

Brett McKay: I love it. Marc Dunkelman, where can people learn more about the book and your work?

Marc Dunkelman: I’ve written a bunch. The book is “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” It’s sold wherever quality books are on offer, and Google my name. You’ll find all sorts of interesting stuff I hope.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Marc Dunkelman, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Marc Dunkelman: Take care.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Marc Dunkelman. He’s the author of the book “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” You can find that on and bookstores everywhere. That wraps up another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy this podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. As always, I appreciate the support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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