This has been my own experience with youth sports. Families from wildly different social and economic backgrounds and with a broad spectrum of conflicting political views get together every weekend for love of the game and the kids that play. In this context, among people who have built friendships and trust, I have had some of the most engaging and encouraging political discussions with people with whom I strongly disagree.
Those discussions would have been impossible without a pre-existing friendship. Ideas matter, but acting upon them requires trust. And that is the essential element most missing from our politics, but not yet from our culture. Building a better American future requires establishing trust. That trust is developed and transmitted primarily through social and cultural institutions.
In a recent episode, Roseanne’s new Muslim neighbors arouse her suspicions. In character she explains, “Anytime something bad happens to somebody, it’s always somebody who lives next door to somebody.” Cue the laugh track. Of course Roseanne is asking us to consider an important question: “Who is my neighbor?” It is the very question asked of Jesus by the lawyer who, we are told, was “seeking to justify himself.” Jesus replied with the parable of the good Samaritan.
Yet neighborhoods as much as nations have customs and traditions they hold in common. They must be nurtured, first in the family and outward from there in the intricate web of natural relationships and structures that constitute civilization. Understanding how best to relate to something new or unusual is fraught under the best of circumstances. But the Conners don’t live under the best of circumstances. Yet Roseanne picks her way forward — without elegance but ultimately with good will. The jokes are all on her.
Some critics have taken Roseanne to task for doing the right thing but only as a result of personal experience, as in the Muslims-next-door episode, where it takes interaction with her new neighbors to convince her that they are a congenial addition to her community. But such criticism is ungenerous. High-trust societies are built on high-trust relationships that are based on personal experience — exactly the process we see Roseanne and her neighbors beginning.
Some may laugh at the idea that lowbrow Roseanne is modeling, at least in part, the humane qualities commended by the British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. He thought that these highly local, personal relationships were the very fabric of society, that love of “the little platoon” is “the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country, and to mankind.”
A successful nation is a family writ large. Think of civil society as a series of concentric circles, with the family at the center and the complex of nonpolitical and pre-political voluntary associations like sports teams, churches and clubs spreading outward.