Our greatest wealth is the vibrancy of our social fabric. The Founding Fathers understood this truth in framing the Constitution with these words: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Our dynamic social fabric has enabled this country to become the great nation it has been. As incomplete and flawed as this fabric has been, no other force comes close to its importance in the progress of this country. Inventions, the economy, all great and small endeavors have all depended on this amazing, tangible cloth of human interdependency.
But the social fabric has been fraying, even as social progress has embraced more and more people into its composition. The recent events in Charlottesville have exposed that fraying in stark relief. How do we proceed from such hideous divisions?
A first specific step is essential: we begin to orient our policy decisions at every level to repair and rebuild the social fabric. There will be differences of opinion on how that should be done, but if the importance of a vibrant social fabric is recognized as our true brilliance, we will all have a common destination and genuine utility as our focus. Without this measure, whatever we possess — even a robust economy — will lack real value if people are tearing at the foundation of our lives as interconnected social creatures.
And we are social creatures — dependent on each other for food, clothing, shelter, safety, social well being, learning and health. That dependency exists not just within the United States, but today is part of an interdependent world. Ironically, the world of white supremacy displayed in Charlottesville illuminated the protesters’ dependency on people of many colors, genders, ethnicities and nationalities working together to produce the clothing the protesters wore to the Tiki torches they carried to the Dodge Challenger that killed Heather Heyer.
We lost our national social fabric with the Civil War, and have spent over a century slowly, imperfectly rebuilding it toward a more comprehensive, tolerant configuration. Even as we struggle with the fault lines from that dark era, we have better tools to repair the fabric, with tangible progress from civil rights to gay marriage. Those tools — education, laws, the courts, civil participation — have allowed people to open and change their patterns of interacting with others. But Charlottesville is an inflection point for all of us. Those fault lines in the social fabric are now fully visible, and we must make critical choices around working with our collective life. How do we return to the Founding Father’s vision?
Repairing the social fabric is the fundamental reorientation that must take place for any real progress on today’s crucial issues. The promotion of the social fabric does not mean refraining from setting limits on human behavior. It means we move our focus from expressions of conflict to truly functional conflict resolution that promotes both interdependency and autonomy. It means that we look at the causes of social disruption, not the symptoms, and act to correct those causes. We need to use sociologists, psychologists, scientists, economists, as well as politicians, to address these causes.
Statistics on the economy have long been used as markers for our well being. Yet the people that don’t benefit from any economic expansion are the very people that can become hostile to the rapidly changing world, with tearing in the social fabric as the cost. The expressions of this tearing, from open displays of white supremacy to severe drug addiction, are becoming alarming, visible, everyday realities. Focusing myopically on the economy, law and order, immigration or any other single aspect of our communal life inevitably contributes to the social disruption. What has been missing in policy discussions is the understanding that our interconnectedness is what creates our real wealth. A focus on the social fabric as our core value is far more likely to genuinely and effectively address the varied ills we presently face.
There is much work ahead to repair our fractured nation, but as we watch the social fabric at its strongest in the nightmare of Hurricane Harvey, it becomes clear that violence in word and deed will always be an unsustainable substitute for the care, tolerance and cooperative involvement of all people — to “promote the general Welfare” — that is needed to heal what has been truly great about our country.