Infrastructure Isn’t Really About Roads. It’s About the Society We Want.Roundup
tags: infrastructure, civics
Eric Klinenberg (@EricKlinenberg) is a professor of sociology at New York University and the author, most recently, of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.
Republican leaders have accused Mr. Biden and his fellow Democrats of smuggling their entire domestic agenda into the word “infrastructure.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas caricatured the plan on Twitter: “Abortion is infrastructure. Gun control is infrastructure. Forced unionization is infrastructure.” He and his colleagues argue that “real” infrastructure is little more than roads, bridges, tunnels and ports.
The Republican criticism is disingenuous: Politicians of both parties have long used the term “infrastructure” broadly, to refer to the basic systems, physical and otherwise, needed for the proper operation of society.
The only puzzling question about Mr. Biden’s proposal is not whether, say, health, energy and communications networks should count as infrastructure. (They should.) It’s why, when the United States is struggling with problems of social distrust, division and isolation, the proposal includes so little direct investment in civic and social infrastructure — things like voting systems and community organizations, which can support political participation and civil society, and public spaces and gathering places, which can help foster human interaction and collective life.
The word “infrastructure” is relatively new. It entered the English language in the late 19th century or early 20th century from France, where it referred to the engineering systems that supported new railways. It emerged in American policy discourse during the Cold War as a term for investments in modernization projects. But its full embrace in our popular vocabulary occurred only in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan declared his intent to help developing nations build “the infrastructure of democracy,” by which he meant “the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way.”
Political officials and corporate leaders now use the concept of infrastructure capaciously, as Mr. Reagan did. Governments make substantial investments in energy infrastructure, transit infrastructure, communications infrastructure and health infrastructure. But as Mr. Biden’s proposal makes disappointingly clear, adequate investments in civic and social infrastructure are less common.
Consider civic infrastructure. Many of the critical systems the United States needs to build and sustain a good society are degraded. Discriminatory voting laws, like Georgia’s new legislation, threaten the integrity of the political process. Social media companies like Facebook, by using algorithms that reward political extremism and promote political polarization, distort the discourse in our public sphere. Community organizations that help feed, house and educate low-income Americans are essential for preserving peace and improving living standards, but they have struggled to remain solvent during the pandemic. Mr. Biden’s plan leaves these failings in the civic infrastructure practically untouched.
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