"Because it is finite"
Infrastructure is all about caring for the life we're currently in—secular values you can see and touch
I spent the better part of my twenties in Minneapolis, where I learned to accept the cold and appreciate bridges. Driving over a bridge is one thing, but to walk on a big one — to put your feet on a solid course across the vast expanse of the Mississippi River or a six-lane highway — that sticks with you.
After Prince died, people flooded the streets with singing and the whole city lit up in violet hues. One bridge glowed purple for days. Later, at Pride, the same bridge would light up rainbow. Even on an ordinary night heading over the river yet again, I would pause to take in its soft blue glow when the winter air wasn’t biting.
This particular bridge is a fixture in the city’s collective memory too—the only reason it is there is because one day, another one suddenly wasn’t.
On August 1st, 2007, the Interstate 35 West bridge gave way with over a hundred vehicles driving over it. Thirteen people died, and many more were injured as their cars plunged into the river. We rightfully mourn people first. After that, the investigative report on the I-35 tragedy reads, “when a bridge collapses, so does public faith in government.”
There is also something to mourn in the infrastructure itself, the way it brings our personal memories and collective memorials just a little closer together. We have our memories, for better and for worse, because of the infrastructure around us.
Our infrastructure in this country isn’t great. When the I-35 bridge collapsed, a press release advised states to inspect bridges with comparable construction—all seven hundred and fifty-six of them. Traffic and airline delays cost us billions of dollars annually. Maybe you too saw the viral videos of gushing waterfalls down subway stairs in New York City during Hurricane Ida.
In early November of 2021, Congress passed a massive Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It puts resources behind fixing roads and bridges, investing in public transit, removing lead water pipes, expanding quality internet access nationwide, and more. Like any large piece of legislation, the bill’s passage was fraught and full of compromise.
Much of the media coverage focused on Democratic infighting balancing the infrastructure bill against the Build Back Better Bill—a larger social spending initiative offering funding for education, child care, housing support, and expanded Medicare benefits. Key to the debate was Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the lead negotiator for the infrastructure bill. Sinema pushed hard to prioritize that bill, even threatening support for Build Back Better and other domestic spending initiatives.
While frustrating for progressive Democrats, there was a logic to Sinema’s position. We understand that some things count as infrastructure spending, long-term investments in what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” Other social spending initiatives are important, but our crumbling infrastructure is a fundamental need, possibly one of the last issues that can get bipartisan support if we can keep a common definition of “infrastructure” in view.
The problem with this position, one that progressives are quick to point out, is that we urgently need to expand our definition of what counts as infrastructure. Accessible child-care is infrastructure for working parents. Education is infrastructure for sustaining not only our workforce, but a collective functioning culture.
In his book, Palaces for the People, Erik Klinenberg makes this case plainly in his research on “social infrastructure,” including libraries, parks, and other public and publicly accessible spaces that foster connection and support. There is a danger in thinking too narrowly about the scope of what our society requires to meet its basic operational needs.
We can also push this argument further. Without investing in the quality of our social organization, there is evidence that physical infrastructure failures are more likely to occur. In their book, Meltdown, Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik review research about all kinds of organizational failures, everything from plane crashes and oil spills to corporate PR crises. They explain how the increasing complexity and tight coupling of our organizations leads to more catastrophic accidents.
Fixing this requires more than repairing and upgrading our physical systems. In fact, physical upgrades alone could even make this problem worse by making our infrastructure more complicated. We also need to overhaul the organizational cultures that maintain and support that infrastructure to catch problems before they cascade out of control. This requires education, diverse teams of expertise, and improving the social conditions that keep our infrastructure running. The global pandemic has shown us in no uncertain terms the absurdity of separating “infrastructure” and “social spending” in clear, stark ways.
But even without quibbling over what counts as infrastructure and what counts as social spending, I was struck by how the Democrats faced some of their strongest in-party opposition from Sinema in particular, especially because she is one of the few representatives publicly linked to a growing subset of the Democratic party coalition: religiously unaffiliated Americans.
In 2013, Sinema was the first religiously unaffiliated congressional representative, even receiving an award from the Center for Inquiry. I point this out not to probe her personal religious beliefs or identities. I am curious about this because spending on our social and physical infrastructure, to me, is a secular political issue.
When I say infrastructure is a secular issue, I don’t mean that roads and bridges are atheistic, though surely there’s no better everyday proof of the universe’s indifference to your plans than a traffic jam or a pipe bursting. I also don’t mean this in the way we typically understand secular issues in American politics. If you look at what religiously unaffiliated Americans care about, and what secular organizations advocate for, you will usually end up focusing on culture wars issues like same-sex marriage, right to choice, and the separation of church and state among others. These are important issues, and they are also emotionally charged issues that jump quickly to the front of the conversation. A municipal broadband proposal getting held up in city council does not elicit the same deep moral outage within us as these other issues.
Instead, when I say infrastructure is a secular political issue, I mean that it is important to secular people. The General Social Survey has been polling on this issue for years, asking a representative sample of Americans what they think about government spending on various issues including roads, public transit, environmental protection, and more. They ask whether respondents think the government spends too little, too much, or about the right amount in each category. I pulled the numbers and looked at the proportion of people with no religious affiliation who said the government spends too little on each of the longest running issues in the survey:
Some of the trend lines here are similar across both groups, but a few issues stand out for the religiously unaffiliated. More of them say the government spends too little on education, parks, environmental protection, and mass transit.
We know that religiously unaffiliated people also tend to be more politically liberal. Some of the differences in this chart are due to political views, not religious views. I used some simple statistical controls to check whether the differences between religiously affiliated and unaffiliated respondents persisted after accounting for liberal political views and changes over time. On some issues, these groups were not significantly different – unaffiliated Americans supported spending on roads, healthcare, and welfare at similar rates to affiliated Americans.
But on those four core issues—education, parks, environment, and mass transit—religiously unaffiliated respondents were significantly more likely to say the government isn’t spending enough, even after controlling for change over time and differences in political views. It is also notable that these four issues bridge the gap between conventional infrastructure investments and social infrastructure investments—respondents’ support does not cleanly separate the two.
This is only a pattern, not a causal relationship. We have many other historical examples of religious movements advocating for social spending. But these patterns are particularly important for a Democratic party that is increasingly relying on a stable coalition of relatively secular voters. There is room for a new, more comprehensive messaging strategy on these issues.
More broadly, when I say infrastructure is a secular political issue, I mean that in the same way that Martin Hägglund means it in his book This Life, Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom: the sense that both infrastructure and social spending policies are concerned, materially, with our collective wellbeing here and in the future. Infrastructure investment is a statement of what Hägglund calls a “secular faith” – a willingness to buy in to our relationships with others with no guarantee of a return, investing in those relationships because “what you love is worth fighting for even though it is finite and calls for your care because it is finite.”
In the moment we build a wind farm or fix a bridge or give someone better healthcare, we say that this life, this one we are currently in and the one future generations will be in, is worth protecting and worth smoothing over. Infrastructure, both social and physical, is an act of care and an act of secular faith. Both pundits and policy advocates have an opportunity to think more deeply about what it would mean to treat it that way and to invest in restoring a little faith in our bridges, our schools, and our social lives.