Anthony Stahelski

Anthony Stahelski

Anthony Stahelski

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The United States has an increasingly diverse culture, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing because it indicates that we are still a culture that welcomes newcomers, and it is a bad thing because this increasing diversity is occurring at a time when tribalism is rising and national collective experiences that all Americans participate in are few and far between.

What experience do most current Americans have in common? Aside from fulfilling basic biological needs, the only one is the K through 12 school experience, and possibly driver’s education at age 15 1/2! That’s it! Every other experience that can be thought of, even voting, is a choice, that sizable percentages of Americans choose not participate in.

Social coherence in a diverse society is not guaranteed, because tribalism is humanity’s fallback position. Our ancestral hominid forebears were tribal, and human history ever since has been dominated by Us versus Them conflicts. Current global and national politics indicates the continued lurking presence of tribalism. The absence of shared common experiences is dangerous because tribalism can only be countered by commonalities that cross over tribal boundaries.

Some previous American generations have faced traumatic events leading to common unifying experiences. For example, the Greatest Generation had the back-to-back experiences of the Great Depression and WWII, which affected and shaped all Americans. Essentially the Depression and the war reminded the members of that generation of the responsibilities and sacrifices necessary to sustain freedom and democracy. Are there collective experiences that could be introduced into current American society that would stimulate a sense of we-ness, without the trauma of a deep depression or world war? Three suggestions:


Voting is the basic democratic citizen act. Americans have a terrible voting record compared to citizens of other democracies. Mandatory voting (enforced by very minor sanctions) has not harmed the democratic process in other countries, and it typically results in very high voter turnout. All citizens should share in the basic act of maintaining democracy, and mandatory voting might also give Americans a deeper understanding of and commitment to the democratic political process.


Sometime between the ages of 16 and 30, everyone would serve their country in some way, for two years. One could choose from a variety of collective options: The military, the Peace Corps, Ameri-Corps Vista, the Red Cross, hospitals, schools, clinics, prisons, social service agencies, or charitable organizations. Young people would be provided room and board and paid minimally during their service. The purpose of this proposal is to one, create a renewed sense of social commitment and connection, by instilling the recognition that we all have a debt to the society that nurtures us, and two, initiate the habit of collective participation.


Most Americans live in neighborhoods. In the past Americans socialized with their neighbors, but it does not occur regularly now. Many neighborhoods have recognized associations, but most Americans do not participate in them. Mandatory participation in these associations, which should not require any sizable time or energy commitment, would have neighbors relating to each other as fellow community members rather than strangers. Neighbors would have to work together collectively to resolve issues and build a stronger web of community.

Unfortunately, none of these suggestions is likely to become reality, given our divisive national politics. However there is hope. In the last two decades journalists and social scientists have observed something remarkable: some people in local communities across the country are crossing tribal boundaries and working together to confront issues and solve problems at local levels. This makes sense because, for most people, their day-to-day lives are bounded by their families, their neighborhoods, their villages, their towns, their counties. Maintaining livability in their communities becomes more important than a person’s particular ethnic, political, religious or social class identity. As this local community building movement spreads perhaps it can become national.

Anthony Stahelski is a Central Washington University psychology professor. Left and Right is a column provided by CWU professors to represent of variety of political viewpoints.


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