Infrastructure has been for bipartisanship what Thanksgiving is for American life in general: the last best hope for all of us coming together. For anyone who has been stuck on New Jersey Transit in a tunnel under the Hudson or felt trepidation when crossing a rusty bridge in the midwest, the need for massive investment in infrastructure is self-evident. But that has not kept Republicans from finding fault with Biden’s infrastructure plan: when their busy schedule of culture warring and “owning the libs” allows it, they are making meager counter-proposals. More importantly, they attack the administration for tucking all kinds of supposed pet policies into the plan – from crazy socialist heresies like support for home care (why, when the wealthy can easily afford help themselves?) to government-financed research, which, as everyone knows, is highly ineffective because it has only ever given us things like the internet.
It is true that two cliches central to our political language today – “resilience” and, indeed, “infrastructure” – have often covered up a lack of real public policy justifications. But the fact is that Biden’s plan is in one sense not ambitious enough: it does not address the country’s decaying civic infrastructure.
Infrastructure is about connecting people; it enables us to reach others and be reached by them. Roads, but also the post office, are paradigmatic examples. The culture war rhetoric of Republicans has made it sound as if the main problem of those “left behind” is the condescension of supposedly liberal-cosmopolitan-bicoastal elites who have nothing else to do than sneering at “real Americans”. But plenty of people are left behind because it’s hard to reach them, and hard for them to reach out: deregulation made airplane tickets to remote parts of the country horrendously expensive; buses and trains, if they exist at all, are infrequent and shoddy. People have been cut off, while many of their local resources have been cut down, as institutions like community savings banks, which draw on and provide local knowledge, keep disappearing.
Building back better physical infrastructure – and, no less important, regulating back better – can do a lot more for overcoming the country’s divisions than the communitarian kitsch rhetoric which some of us feared might become the default political background noise of Biden’s presidency. But democracy itself also depends on being able to connect with others. What’s more: while everyone possesses basic political rights – speech, assembly and association – the impact of using such communicative rights is multiplied if we have the resources and tools to spread our views.
Yes, infrastructure connects – but it is not a guarantee of consensus, let alone community. Social scientists have emphasized that democracies need citizens to both bond in tighter groups and build bridges across divisions, generating mutual trust in the process. But democracy is not primarily about unity; it is meant to enable conflict within rules. Having an excellent highway network does not mean we all have to drive in the same direction (or, for that matter, that we transport the same number of people with us). A democratic infrastructure prevents collisions, but also allows taking very different routes. It certainly does not determine them.
What does civic infrastructure mean, concretely? American democracy got a major boost in the first half of the 19th century through the development of the press and political parties – in fact, these two crucial parts of a communicative infrastructure for citizens were often one and the same. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the lively political scene in the US; he also observed that “in democratic countries … large numbers of men who feel the desire and need to associate may often find themselves unable to do so, because all are insignificant and none stands out from the crowd, so that they cannot identify one another and have no idea how to meet. But let a newspaper come and give visibility to the feeling or idea that has occurred simultaneously but separately to each of them, and all will immediately rush toward this light.” Newspapers, often owned by political parties, defended particular doctrines which tied people together.
We feel queasy at the thought of an openly partisan press (or an openly partisan cable TV station, for that matter), but we cannot deny that the media, even media outlets with an agenda, are part of democracy’s infrastructure. One of the most visible signs of that infrastructure’s decay is the lamentable state of local journalism. Fewer local news translates into less civic engagement and more corrupt politics. To make matters worse, the resulting void is often filled with national news that can exacerbate polarization. Taxing large platforms and using the funds to support local journalism – including citizens’ journalism – is one remedy.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has recently proposed a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure, akin to the National Endowment for Democracy. Local associations promoting dialogue could receive grants from it, alongside public libraries and other spaces with civic uses. The proposal can be extended to online public spaces. As everyone knows, the dominant social media platforms today – especially Facebook – are based on the business models of “incitement capitalism”: the imperative to segregate and rile people up, and keep them under constant surveillance, all in order to monetize their “engagement”. By now, there are excellent plans for public, non-partisan platforms and digital democratic infrastructure. It would be naive to think that these could replace behemoths like Facebook, with its billions of users and corresponding network effects; but they might complement them with proper spaces for civic exchange. Some scholars also advocate a Corporation for Public Software, on the model of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to make civic digital tools freely available.
That leaves one elephant in the room – political parties, and the one with the elephant in particular. They are a crucial infrastructure, which is why well-functioning democracies regulate them tightly (sometimes even in the constitution). In particular, they prescribe democratic procedures inside parties as well as transparency in financing. With the current supreme court being what it is – an active promoter of dark money and dependency on large donors – there is little chance of addressing campaign finance. But pluralism inside parties might be strengthened. After all, when a party is turned into a personality cult, as happened with the Republicans under Trump, there cannot be any critical loyalty inside the tent: any criticism of the person is deemed betrayal.