Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a somewhat overrated book that seeks to put a lot of phenomena into a single box of Americans losing their social spaces. But it’s not completely wrong. We in fact do have a lot of social spaces and online communities include some of them, whether it’s the comment section here or gamers meeting and playing together. But what these newer spaces don’t provide is the kind of mass institutional gathering that can launch political change. This is part of the reason for the disconnect between polling that shows Americans supporting progressive ends and who ends up winning elections. It’s also a huge part of the reason for the racist Republican crackdown on Black churches being used as a voting mechanism. Among liberals, the Black church is one of the only mass sites where a message can be conveyed and plans made to take that message and turn it into action. The online left doesn’t get this, which is part of the reason for the failure of progressive candidates to defeat Biden in 2020–the internet is not the church. Meanwhile, white evangelical megachurches are huge places for political messaging. Outside of the Black church, what does the left/liberal world have that replicates this? Nothing.
This issue came up when I was speaking to the reporter Danielle Tcholakian the other day about the Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton, who is running with this kind of platform in mind. Tcholakian initially contacted me about the history of socialist politicians, but we ended up down this road instead and I was happy to contribute a couple of quotes for the piece:
Walton talks a lot about community centers, and the socialist historians I consulted lit up at the idea: Erik Loomis at the University of Rhode Island pointed to the “communitarian aspect” of the right’s power “because they’re still going to church.” The left needs its own community base, is the idea. Walton, and other young socialists across the country, are trying to build it.
“There’s no easy answer to rebuilding communitarian structures, but I do think the left has to take that really seriously,” Loomis said. “It’s a huge reason why conservatives are winning on all of these issues.”
It’s also a huge reason why Walton has campaigned so hard, in person, on podcasts, showing up to union rallies anytime she’s asked, even by unions who endorsed her opponent. She knows that if she can meet people, she can meet them where they are. She doesn’t bicker with other activists, doesn’t think twice about whether someone “doesn’t use the right language.” She worked for years as one of four Black nurses in a bargaining unit of 170 and credits this with teaching her how to fight for and work alongside people who may not even like her, let alone agree with her.
And to Walton, if she can meet people where they are, she can get them to understand, and she can show them they deserve more.
It’s unlikely Walton wins. And even if she did, it’s easier to talk about building community spaces that people actually want to be in than making it happen. I’m not really even sure what the first step would be. But it’s something that we do need to take seriously as an idea.