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Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah is worried. He is worried about the country’s economic trajectory, given rising inequality, the shrinking of the middle class, and the persistence of intergenerational poverty. And he is worried about its social trajectory, based on growing political and regional polarization, rising distrust in institutions, falling rates of marriage and churchgoing, the dearth of mixed-income neighborhoods, and declining voter turnout.
“We have a lot of metrics by which we gauge the health of the economy and the health of the government,” he said. “There are other things that reflect the health of the country in one way or another that aren’t as frequently measured and even less frequently discussed by policymakers.”
An initiative he started this month addresses that imbalance. In a series of hearings and reports, his multi-year Social Capital Project is examining the decline in social cohesion and civic engagement in American life, and drawing legislators’ attention to it. Americans do less together than they did in the past, he said. They trust less. They participate less.
The loss of the “middle layer” between families and the government and a broader fraying of the social fabric seem like somewhat unusual subject matter for a man who is among the most conservative legislators in Washington—one who, for instance, supports a balanced-budget amendment, barring gay marriage, and greatly reducing the federal government’s role in education. If the project did reveal deep scars on civic life, would it be Washington’s job to try to repair them? “I’ve long believed, and I still maintain, that government can’t create institutions. It can’t create civil society. If it tries to, it fails,” Lee told me.
Federalism might be one answer to the loss of social capital and disapproval of government, he said. “The Constitution already contemplates that there would be vast regional differences geographically, politically, the way people approach government, how they view the role of government, what they want their government to do, what they’re willing to entrust the government with and what they’re not,” he told me.