The Atlantic interviews Sen. Mike Lee about his newly-launched Social Capital Project, a research effort seeking to examine the sorry state of associational life in the United States. Lee says the nation's economic trajectory is tied to its social trajectory, and the latter is in steep decline: Americans have been moving farther and farther apart socially, politically, and culturally since the 1970s.

Lee believes federalism—legitimizing regionally-different approaches to the role and scope of government—could be one way of restoring Americans' trust in each other and their institutions.

Annie Lowrey:

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah is worried. He is worried about the country’s economic trajectory, given rising inequality, the shrinking of the middle class, and the persistence of intergenerational poverty. And he is worried about its social trajectory, based on growing political and regional polarization, rising distrust in institutions, falling rates of marriage and churchgoing, the dearth of mixed-income neighborhoods, and declining voter turnout.

While he and other legislators seemed to have a decent understanding of the former, Lee told me, sitting in his Senate office last week, they had less data on the latter—trends that in his mind signaled a nationwide loss of social capital. “We have a lot of metrics by which we gauge the health of the economy and the health of the government,” he said. “There are other things that reflect the health of the country in one way or another that aren’t as frequently measured and even less frequently discussed by policymakers.”

An initiative he started this month addresses that imbalance. In a series of hearings and reports, his multi-year Social Capital Project is examining the decline in social cohesion and civic engagement in American life, and drawing legislators’ attention to it. Americans do less together than they did in the past, he said. They trust less. They participate less. And in some cases, they seemed to suffer for it.