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A worker washes the sidewalk near San Francisco’s City Hall. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Coronavirus will test US’s civic health too

The immediate concerns of the coronavirus are clear: an unprecedented health crisis and economic devastation. But it isn’t just hospitals and businesses feeling the strain. Civic and governing institutions will soon be severely tested – and that could pose a huge challenge to the robustness of American society as a whole.

The delicate balance of civic institutions – everything from local school boards and voluntary organizations to the media and local governments – and social trust is the mortar of democracy. Even before the virus struck, the United States has been afflicted by a growing civic fragility reflected in, for example, growing political polarization and mass shootings.

Fragile states

We can see in developing countries, from sub-Saharan Africa to Asia, that when civic institutions do not function well, governance and economic life is tenuous and civic violence, motivated by political or ethnic tensions, can break out. If the United States does not nurture civic concerns – the cohesion of communities and active civic organizations – medical efforts and economic investment in this crisis will be undermined. We have already seen in this crisis that without active citizen involvement, through self-isolation and social distancing, public health efforts come undone.

In our research, together with other scholars, we developed a civic fragility index. Countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan rate very high for civic fragility, while Scandinavian countries rate best for civically robust societies, followed by other Western countries. Latin American and Eastern European countries feature in the middle. The United States historically ranks fairly well, in the top 10% of civically robust countries.

Map of civic fragility across the world, from highest in red to lowest in blue. Civic Fragility Index, CC BY

Civic fragility can in large part be associated with four key factors:

  • Fractionalization: The degree to which polarization exists in a country, whether political, ethnic or religious.

  • Gender inequalities: The disparity in status between men and women, as measured through education and workforce participation.

  • Corruption: The role that dishonest and corrupt practices have in government, business and administrative institutions.

  • Grievances: Real or imagined cause for protest or sense of injustice.

When these factors rate highly, not only does violence spike, but people are less likely to vote or join organizations outside family or ethnic associations.

The four factors also help anticipate civic discord, which can culminate in violence. Such rankings are not static. In the United States, concerns regarding fractionalization are rising, and a broader unease regarding corruption, grievances and even women’s status is growing.

Outbreak of discontent?

The impacts of coronavirus are likely to heighten such concerns. Large-scale unemployment in the U.S., along with any associated rise in poverty and decline in average household income, increases the risk of civic fragility. This could be heightened by any discontent over the way in which all levels of government has responded to the outbreak.

The stronger the trust in institutions, from government to voluntary organizations, the more likely it is that social order can be maintained. States that have a higher level of social capital – that is, close-knit communities with active civic organizations – will find it easier to absorb the coming difficulties, including unemployment.

And the U.S. may have to do this in the face of possible bad-faith external actors. It is no surprise that Russia’s disinformation campaign around the coronavirus is specifically geared to undermine that trust in civic institutions, from government to the media, in the West.

Furthermore, without social trust and a feeling of belonging, tolerance toward others breaks down. It is no accident that in recent years we have seen dramatic spikes in reports of anti-Semitism, racism and white supremacy movements. Yet little will be gained in confronting this problem by attacking whole demographic categories as intolerant – such as branding the white working class as racist.

Not only are such blanket statements untrue, they do not get to the foundational issues of social trust and belonging. Hate groups and criminal entities, from the mafias to white supremacists, exploit lack of trust in governments, creating alternative sources of support – both material and moral – for the disaffected.

The pandemic has created an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty about the economy, health care and employment. Uncertainty has multiple effects: When the cohesion of civic societies fray, it compounds problems of mental health and civic health. How robust a society is can be directly tied to individual mental health.

Civic debt

Moving forward, we see a need to prioritize policies that build social trust and belonging. This is even more the case now with the monumental impacts of the coronavirus. It demands developing policies which involve active citizen and community participation that are not imposed from the top down, such as the recent British government’s program to use grassroots support for its National Health Service; or in the United States, the use of students in the Teach for America program.

We believe both the political right and left need to do more to address our civic crisis. On the right, we need recognition that unfettered capitalism has shattered communities, from the local level on up. When class divisions become, in effect, fixed castes in society, belief in democracy and civic equality breaks.

On the left, we see identity politics as damaging social trust and shared belonging across communities. Social capital, not just financial capital, must become the bottom line. American society is taking on increasing financial debt as it fights this crisis, but “civic debt” – the fraying of our communities and institutions – will become a fast expanding problem as well. The nation will have to address both these grave challenges to ensure the health of American society.

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