Populism is on the rise around the world—and it’s having an unprecedented disruptive impact on political disourse. Author Eric Klinenberg sat down with The Economist to discuss how a surprising space—public libaries—may hold the key to fighting back.
A sociologist at New York University, Eric Klinenberg authored last year’s Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. He uses the term ‘social infrastructure’ to refer to public, communal spaces that bring people together and shape their interactions. “The most democratic and accessible social infrastructure are classic public goods, such as libraries, schools, parks and playgrounds,” Klinenberg explained to The Economist.
Increasing and strengthening spaces that can be categorized under the umbrella of “public good” will have a healing effect on the frayed discourse happening in America’s political system today, according to the author. “Shared spaces give us a chance to recognise our commonalities and establish mutual respect.”
Libraries in particular have an anti-authoritarian stance built into their programming, making them especially important when it comes to reversing the rise of post-truth populism. Radically inclusive, non-judgmental, and in the pursuit of knowledge, libraries are pushing back against the “fake news” era—yet they are still horrifically under-funded, suffering budget cuts across the globe. “Every time a library closes its doors our society becomes a little less open, our democracy a little more vulnerable,” Klinenberg says.
While many look to the Internet to uphold democratic values in our society, it must be acknowledged that online platforms have also been a source of division and rampant hate. Despite living in a digital age, looking at tech companies for social infrastructure won’t be our saving grace. Klinenberg refuses to give up, looking to nations such as The Netherlands, Japan, and Canada as examples of social infrastructure optimized for the 21st century.
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