The 1950s as the Height of Conservative America

Part IV: The Soda Fountain

Connor Kaeb

Our journey through the 1950s town stops now for some refreshment at the local soda fountain. The soda fountain serves as an example of importance of community in the 1950s. The centrality of community, a key component of conservatism, was strong during the decade and stands in stark contrast to the decline in social capital the United States faces today. Across a wide variety of metrics, American’s social capital and connectedness with the community has declined, leaving a less cohesive—and less conservative—nation behind.

The idea that there was an alarming decline in American social capital occurring really took hold with the publication of Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam explains that social capital refers to the “connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” He goes on to state that social capital is “simultaneously a ‘private good’ and a ‘public good.’ Some of the benefit from an investment in social capital goes to bystanders, while some of the benefit redounds to the immediate interests of the person making the investment.”

When looking beyond the 1950s, Putnam’s book is extremely telling when it comes to understanding just how far American social capital is declined. He lays out numerous examples of social activities like playing cards, hosting dinner parties, and going to movies with friends that show marked declines between the 1970s and 1990s.

With this decline in social life came an increase in other ills. According to research by Baron Public Affairs, the rate of deaths of despair (drug overdose, alcohol liver disease, and suicide) rose from approximately 15 per 100,000 people in the United States in the beginning of the 1950s to over 45 per 100,000 people in 2017. Putnam discusses this link between decreasing social involvement and increasing rates of suicide in his book, and he also explains that “the more integrated we are with our community, the less likely we are to experience colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature deaths of all sorts.”

It may be hard to see the connection between the decline in social capital and a soda fountain. The 1950s are considered to be the last decade of the “golden age of soda fountains.” Soda fountains served as a community meeting place where members throughout the community could go for a cold drink and talk to other members of the community, thereby exchanging ideas, encouraging involvement in other associations, and building social capital. Soda fountains began to decline after the 1950s, and so did social capital in America.

Besides the fact that we want all Americans to live happy, healthy, and productive lives, there are other reasons why social capital is important to conservatives and why its abundant presence in the 1950s contributes to the decade’s claim of being the height of conservative America. The widespread presence of membership associations that found its height in the 1950s is a quintessentially American experience. Alexis de Tocqueville observed as much when he was in America in the 1830s, writing in Democracy in America that:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds—religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it be proposed to advance some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.

Because it is such an American experience, it is in the interest of conservatism to promote this action. Americans together in civic and civil congress greatly exemplify and personify the love of nation and the drive for its improvement and preservation that Tocqueville observed.

A certain branch of conservatism takes the value of social capital very seriously. The group gained forward inertia in 2012 when Wendall Berry delivered the National Endowment of the Humanities Jefferson Lecture. In his lecture, Berry laid out what has become referred to as “front porch” conservatism. Berry rejected corporate excess and called for a love and a rootedness to ones “place.” This separation from place, he argues, is contributing to the decline of social capital. Berry says that “this is because of the increasing abstraction and unconsciousness of our connection to our economic sources in the land, the land-communities, and the land-use economies. In my region and within my memory, for example, human life has become less creaturely and more engineered, less familiar and more remote from local places, pleasures, and associations.” This decreased connection between one another is one aspect of modern America that these conservatives lament.

Patrick Deneen picked up on this theme in his article entitled “A Republic of Front Porches.” Deneen argues that the switch from building porches in front of the house to building back patios is endemic of the broader decline in social capital in America and thereby the decline in self-government. Deneen says:

In a microcosm, the forces that led to the decline of the porch as a place of transition between the private and the public realm have eviscerated both those domains of their capacity to educate a citizenry for self-government. The porch—as an intermediate space, even a sphere of “civil society”—was the symbolic and practical place where we learned that there is not, strictly speaking, a total separation between the public and private worlds. Our actions in private are not merely “private,” but have, in toto, profound public implications.

This public implication of the private life has been lost because of the decline of social capital since the 1950s, leaving Americans less connected and more isolated than ever.

The decline of social capital in post-1950s America underscores a descent from the heights of conservative America. Americans became less social, less connected, and less rooted. With less love for neighbors and place came less love for country. With less love for place came more willingness to burn down local businesses during riots. With less interconnectivity came skyrocketing drug use and overdoses. These are ills that can be seen in society, and on both a practical and philosophical level, the decline in social capital should concern us all.

About the Author

Connor Kaeb is the Managing Editor of American Discourse.

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