By Tamara Straus
In 1995, Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, published an article in an academic journal that received the kind of attention usually reserved for television stars and best-selling writers. Within months, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" became the most talked-about scholarly article of the last few decades. It brought Putnam to the presidential couch at Camp David. It made him a darling of the lecture tour. It earned him a half-million-dollar book advance. And it generally caused a chain reaction of conversations among Republicans and Democrats, policy makers and academics, grassroots organizers and denizens of the nonprofit world -- all of whom wondered why Americans have become less engaged in politics and community life than ever before.
Putnam's thesis of political and civic disengagement caught on partly because of its chief symbol: the lonely bowler. He argued that even though the number of Americans who bowl has grown, league bowling had decreased drastically in the past few decades. Whereas in the 1950s, Americans of all stripes headed down to the alleys to trade news and gossip with their fellow-leaguers, today the lanes are filled with loners who, after a few solitary games, return to their fractured neighborhoods or, worse, their gated community homes.
Putnam's point, of course, was not that we should be terribly concerned with the decrease in bowling leagues, even if it showed how we could all get along. Our real concern should be the sharp diminishment of what he calls social capital: voter participation, club meetings, voluntary groups, church functions and visits with friends and relatives. This downturn, Putnam says, is turning the average American into an island in a sea of alienation. It is sounding the death knell of the voluntary spirit championed by Alexis de Toqueville as well as every social scientist who came after him.
Not everyone favored the ideas put forward in Putnam's article. Detractors argued that he was nostalgic for the 1950s, when community life was more cohesive, sure, but that was because women had the time to run the P.T.A. bake sales and men defined the terms of a homogenous, clubby civic society. Critics also argued that the voluntary organizations Putnam analyzed to provide proof for his theoretical pudding -- such as the 4-H Club, the American Legion, the Elks and the Shriners -- had lost members because they no longer suited the times. The nature of community life, they said, had changed. And if it had taken a recent beating it was because of the social upheaval caused by women's transition into the workplace and the emphasis on individual achievement and making money above anything else.
Now Putnam's book-length treatise has hit the stores -- a 541-page tome jammed with analysis, statistics and surveys. It is, no doubt, a thoughtful, research-intensive exploration of late-20th century political activity and civic life. We learn, for example, that among people under 35 only one-third read a daily newspaper, as opposed to the two-thirds who did so in 1965; that in the past 25 years, the number of voluntary organizations have tripled, but membership is about a tenth as large; that American adults average 72 minutes every day behind the wheel, more than twice the time they spend with their kids; and that even such a mundane activity as the picnic has been slashed since 1975 by 60 percent.
Putnam is relentless in proving his point about the decline in social capital, and throughout much of his analysis he is convincing. He argues that although the number of nonprofit organizations has grown from 10,299 in 1968 to 22,902 in 1997, these groups are not bringing about stronger community ties. To be a member of Greenpeace or the National Audubon Society one need only write a check. Memberships are kept high at the Sierra Club not through public hearings or demonstrations but through the aggressive tactics of D.C. professionals whose chief tool is the direct mail campaign.
Equally depressing, Putnam argues that the most innovative and popular voluntary organizations in the late 20th century are self-help groups such as Alcoholics and Gambler's Anonymous and neighborhood crime watch associations, which underscore the emergence of a troubled, alienated society. These types of groups are a far cry from the Red Cross and the American Legion, created by the "long civic generation" -- the cohort of men and women born between 1910 and 1940, who Putnam shows voted more, joined more and trusted more than Boomers and Xers.
Indeed, Putnam ascribes generational change as the most important factor in the decline of civic engagement and social capital. Americans who came of age during the Depression and World War II, he believes, lent a hand to their neighbor or volunteered at the local soup kitchen because the war reinforced solidarity among strangers. It created an atmosphere of national unity and patriotism, which Putnam says has not been replicated by the social movements of the 1960s, largely because those movements emphasized a libertarian distrust of government and institutions.
Putnam even goes so far as to say that the Boomer indictment of Gen X civic disengagement -- as well as the Xers' unifying interest in materialism and individualism -- is misplaced (an unusual statement for a Boomer to make). "The erosion of American social capital began before the Xer was born," writes Putnam, "so the Xers cannot reasonably be blamed for those adverse trends."
But this does not mean that Xers are in the clear. On the contrary, Putnam reports that their political cynicism and social isolation are on the rise and directly related to widespread clinical depression: "The younger you are, the worse things have gotten over the last decades of the twentieth century in terms of headaches, indigestion, sleeplessness, as well as general satisfaction with life and even the likelihood of taking your own life."
All in all, Putnam's prognosis for a healthier, more civic-minded America is bleak. We are a nation of couch potatoes, who on average spend 40 percent of our free time in front of the television. We are strapped by pressures of time and money to the especial detriment of our family happiness. And our social ties are in tatters as American daily life is increasingly shaped by such malevolent forces as suburbanization and sprawl.
Even the bright spots of our contemporary culture are marred by impending blights. Athough Putnam does not completely write off the organizing potential of the Internet, he is not hopeful that virtual communities will serve as even a partial salve to our civic disengagement. "Most online groups have the structure of either an anarchy [if unmoderated] or a dictatorship [if moderated]," he writes, citing a September, 1999, Time magazine study that found extensive Internet usage causes greater social isolation and depression. Unfortunately, no mention is made of the cyber-activism that came out of the November WTO protests in Seattle, possibly because Putnam was unaware of the phenomenon.
Putnam's book is subtitled "The Collapse and Revival of American Community," but its real focus is on the collapse (the revival is charted in an 11-page "agenda for social capitalists" tacked on at the end of the book). Reading along, one gets the feeling that if Putnam had his wish, he would revive the conditions that created the Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw's phrase for the sage, self-sacrificing pre-Boomers. Although Putnam is quick to admit that the social movements of the 1960s created a more tolerant and egalitarian society, those benefits, he implies, have not outweighed its costs.
Putnam mourns the communitarian spirit of the 1940s and '50s, and never quite owns up to the fact that that spirit went hand-in-hand with the chaos of war and a more oppressive society. In the end, there is much missing in his accounting for civic decline. Some, like Margaret Talbot in The New York Times Book Review, have accused him of not focusing enough on the drain on civic engagement brought about by women's new work lives. Others, like Francis Fukuyama in The Washington Post, have argued that his analysis of how Americans are associating may be dead wrong, since the data he uses does not include the newer, less institutionalized groups like AIDS advocacy and Usenet discussion groups. Another missing piece is America's changing ethnic composition brought on by mass immigration.
The fact is that the men and women of the Greatest Generation were largely of European descent and often the first in their families to be native-born Americans. Between 1901 and 1910, the years directly preceding the GG's coming of age, immigration accounted for 39.6 percent of the population growth. The number is even larger today. Immigration between 1991 and 1997 accounted for 45.5 percent of the population growth. Yet that population is predominantly non-white, as opposed to the mass influx of Europeans who came to the United States at the beginning of the century.
Well-off, well-educated Americans several generations from immigration will likely nod their heads as they read through Putnam's book. It is hard to argue with his points about the effects of television, which he says "privatizes" leisure time and breeds "lethargy and passivity." It is also hard to argue against Putnam's observation that Americans are politically disengaged. Fewer Americans have gone to the polls to vote since the 62.8 percent who showed up to choose between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Yet about the same number (48.9 percent) voted in the 1996 presidential election as the 1928 presidential election (51.8 percent).
What Putnam does not show is that political engagement at the end of the century is on par with the political engagement of the beginning of the century, when the United States was in the throes of widespread economic and social upheaval. For many Americans today, poverty and social marginalization are real forces even in the midst of the great late-20th century boom. For them, there is no G.I. bill, no patriotically inspired neighborliness to help forge connections and mitigate ethic tensions, as it did between Italians and Irish, blacks and Jews.
Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone is an impressive contribution to the American conversation about community, but it fails to take into consideration what America looks like today. There can be no return to the mores and traditions of the Greatest Generation, even if our need to celebrate them grows, thanks to the efforts of Tom Brokaw and Steven Spielberg. The civic engagement and community life of the future will accommodate something else: perhaps the strains of family life, perhaps the new diversity of our country or perhaps it will stem from the economic conditions created by war or economic tumult. Either way, bowling leagues will certainly not reflect whatever it is we are to become.