The Public Vanishes

By Paul Starr

The New Republic; Aug 14, 2000.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 541 pp., $26)

BY A VARIETY of measures, popular involvement in politics and civic life has atrophied during the past three decades. Voter turnout has dropped; elections are now typically fought on the air rather than on the ground; membership in a wide range of civic organizations has slumped; and a smaller proportion of people say they read newspapers or even watch the news on television. These trends could hardly please anyone who cares about the republic, but they have been particularly disturbing to liberals. The most intense periods of liberal reform during the past century-the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the 1960s-were all times when the public was actively engaged, and new forms of civic action and participation emerged. Reforms in that tradition are unlikely to succeed again without the same heightened public arousal, which not only elects candidates but also forces them to pay attention once they are in office.

Nobody has done more in recent years to illuminate the problem of civic disengagement than Robert Putnam. During the mid-'90s, he published a series of articles that provided quantitative evidence for the decline in participation, and he explained it as part of a more general fraying of the social fabric. America, Putnam contended, was experiencing a general loss of social connectedness-or, to use the term that he adopted, a loss of "social capital"-as membership sank in social groups of all kinds, not just those explicitly directed at civic ends. In what became the defining example of his enterprise, Putnam observed that even though bowling was increasing, bowling leagues were declining, and so Americans were "bowling alone."

While drawing considerable attention, Putnam's articles also drew strong dissent from critics who questioned his analysis of the causes of change, his theoretical framework, and even his claim that civic engagement was falling. These disputes required not only more evidence, but also more reflection-and that is what Putnam has now provided in his book. The fruit of a substantial research enterprise, Bowling Alone provides important new data on the trends in civic engagement and social capital, a revised analysis of the causes of the decline, an exploration of its consequences, and ideas about what might be done. The book will not settle the debate, but it is a formidable achievement. It will henceforth be impossible to discuss these issues knowledgeably without reading Putnam's book and thinking about it.

Although in some respects more nuanced, the book makes even more sweeping claims about the "collapse of social capital" in America than Putnam's earlier and appealingly tentative articles. With the benefit of more data, Putnam now sees the change as more pervasive and consequential. The breakdown of social connections shows up not just in civic organization, but also in everyday sociability, with pernicious effects on education, health, and happiness as well as democracy. No class, no ethnic group, no religion, no region is exempt from the lamentable trend. Much of the material that Putnam presents in support of what I will call his "extended" thesis about social capital (as opposed to the "core" argument about civic engagement) is powerful and disturbing; and he makes a convincing case that civic engagement has declined in America. But he does not make an equally strong case that social capital, in the aggregate, has diminished. And even if Americans are less socially connected than they used to be, trying to solve that problem-which is what Putnam asks us to do-may not be the most efficacious way of increasing civic engagement.

Bowling Alone is indispensable in one respect that might initially be unappreciated: as a historical study. Putnam is not arguing that Americans have always been too individualistic and insufficiently devoted to civic life. He acknowledges, on the contrary; that the United States has a rich tradition of political and civic association, as de Tocqueville and others observed in the nineteenth century. Indeed, Putnam maintains that civic engagement was actually rising for two-thirds of the twentieth century, until a sharp decline set in during the last third. This historical reversal is the central question of Putnam's book-and he finds one straightforward answer to it.

"THE SINGLE MOST important explanation for the collapse of civic engagement over the last several decades," according to Putnam, is "generational math" Americans born between 1910 and 1940 have contributed disproportionately to civic life throughout their lives; they represent, in his phrase, America's "long civic generation. And the core group, born between 1925 and 1930, who came of age during the Depression and World War II and first voted in 1948 or 1952, have been "exceptionally civic-- voting more, joining more, reading more, trusting more, giving more." In 1960, the long civic generation constituted two-thirds of the electorate; but by 1992, it was down to one-third. Its replacement by the less civic baby-boomers and the even less civic Xers is the principal story of Putnam's book, insofar as the book is about civic engagement.

But there is also a second story in the book, which Putnam merges with the first under the concept of "social capital." This is the pervasive decline in face-to-face sociability: trend data show that fewer Americans invite friends over for dinner or for the evening, visit their neighbors, go on picnics, play cards, or participate in a variety of other social activities. Yet the causal process here appears to be different from the one affecting civic engagement. Putnam finds that the declines in "voting, political interest, campaign activities, associational membership, and social trust [as well as church attendance] are attributable almost entirely to generational succession.... By contrast, the declines in various forms of schmoozing, such as card playing and entertaining at home, are attributable mostly to society-wide changes, as people of all ages tend to shift away from these activities." And declines in still other, mostly noncivic social activities reflect some combination of the effects of generational succession and "society-wide changes" affecting all age groups. The latter changes include the growth of electronic media (particularly television), pressures of time and money (including the squeeze facing two-career families), and suburbanization, sprawl, and commuting.

This difference in causal lineage between civic activity and other social activity seems critical to me, though Putnam seems to forget it when he summarizes his causal analysis a chapter later. There he bundles civic engagement together with sociability, and concludes that half of the decline in "social capital" is due to generational turnover, another quarter of it is due to television, and the remainder is the consequence of time pressures and money pressures and suburbanization.

But if changes in civic engagement are "attributable almost entirely to generational succession," why blur the picture? As far as civic engagement is concerned, the critical question is why successive generations have changed. Perhaps, as Putnam believes, the advent of television had a formative influence on Americans growing up after 1950. But his data cannot resolve this issue, and it seems entirely plausible that most of the explanation for generational variation in civic engagement lies elsewhere. As his own narrative suggests, our public experience has changed dramatically in the decades since the Depression and World War II. Politics and civic life once seemed to make imperative claims on Americans, to offer avenues for participation, and to reinforce the sense that government could be made to work. The public world has since become less urgent, more remote, and more tainted. What the generational differences may record is principally the imprint of this history on successive groups of Americans as they have come of age.

WHILE LEAVING MUCH unresolved about the causes of civic disengagement Putnam does provide a satisfactory answer to some previous criticism. One frontal assault on his early research argued that he had counted the membership only of traditional civic organizations and relied too much on one source of data for overall rates of civic activity. In The Ladd Report, an attack on Putnam's work published last year, the public-opinion analyst Everett Carl Ladd claimed that the decline of civic engagement was a myth. The growth of new civic organizations had made up for the decline of old ones, Americans were just as politically active as they had been, and charitable giving and volunteering were on the rise.

On these points, however, Putnam's book presents a more amply supported and carefully thought-out analysis than Ladd's book. One of Putnam's key sources is a monthly Roper survey asking Americans about their involvement in a dozen civic activities, such as writing letters to Congress, signing petitions, attending rallies and public meetings, working for a political party, serving as an officer or committee member of a local organization, and running for office. On average, the proportion of Americans reporting any one of these activities declined 10 percent in the 10 years from 1973-1974 to 1983-84, and then fell another 24 percent in the next ten years. The younger the age group, the greater was the decline: over the entire 20-year period, civic activity dropped 44 percent drop among those aged 18 to 29, compared to just 11 percent among those over age 60. Or to look at the picture another way: the proportion of people who reported none of the civic activities rose by one-third, from 46 percent to 64 percent. These and other data make it hard to take seriously Ladd's claim that the decline in civic engagement is a chimera.

Not all of the empirical issues raised by the critics, however, are slam-dunks for Putnam. Has total membership in civic organizations declined? Survey data suggest little change, but face-to-face civic activity has dropped as groups with local chapters have given way to groups that count as members everyone who sends in a check in response to a direct-mail appeal. Members of chapter-based organizations are more likely to know each other and to work together; direct-mail groups generally underwrite professionals based in Washington. It seems entirely reasonable to say that the shift from one to the other represents a decline in civic engagement.

Have charitable contributions declined? The Ladd Report says they have not, citing numbers showing an increase. But, as Putnam points out, we spend more on nearly everything today. The important question is the share of income that Americans devote to charity; and by that measure, charitable giving has dropped sharply. And Putnam applies the same tough but reasonable scrutiny to three developments that critics hail as contradicting his argument about civic engagement. Many people have invested utopian hopes in the rise of the Internet, but Putnam doubts it is contributing to civic involvement. He acknowledges that there has been growth in support groups, but he insists that these are concerned with their own members' psychological well-being rather than with any civic interests. He accepts survey data that illustrate an increase in volunteering, but he observes that if people are asked whether they have worked on a community project, the increase vanishes. Moreover, the rise in volunteering shows up only among two age groups: it has doubled among Americans sixty and over--the long civic generation--and increased among Americans in their twenties, while declining in every other age category. The rise in volunteering among young people is just about the only data in Bowling Alone that provides a basis for hope about the future.

BUT THESE TRENDS raise another problem. In his extended thesis, Putnam argues that America has seen a general decline in social capital, which he equates with social networks. The basic idea is that just as individuals derive benefit from their social connections (for example, in getting jobs), so a society derives a public value from stronger connections among its members. Even if the Internet, support groups, and volunteering do not increase civic engagement, they do represent new or expanding bases of social networks. Indeed, during the past third of a century, there has been spectacular growth in telecommunications, not just the Internet. Many of us are more networked than ever, capable of maintaining far more long-distance social ties than in the past. One reason for the decline in face-to-face sociability may be that Americans can now sustain relationships with people whom they do not regularly see face-to-face. From Putnam's data, however, we have no way of adding up the pluses and the minuses. There is no overall metric of social capital. The sheer breadth of the concept, covering all kinds of social ties, makes it impossible to judge whether social capital is rising or falling. The methodological problems in answering this question may not be insuperable, but they are certainly daunting.

At the end of his book Putnam turns to the future, and he tries to be upbeat, though there is little in the preceding analysis that offers encouragement. On the basis of generational turnover alone, public participation should continue to fall. Inexorably, the long civic generation is dying off, and it is being replaced by generations that are far less civically inclined. In his penultimate chapter, Putnam sees a basis for optimism in an analogy with the Progressive Era, the years between 1900 and 1920, when many of our major civic organizations, such as the League of Women's Voters and the NAACP, were founded. Like all historical analogies, however, this one has its limitations. The Progressives created nonpartisan civic organizations in part as a counterweight to what they saw as the excessive power of political parties, and the reforms of that era actually reduced voter turnout. Today, parties as well as civic organizations are weak, and we could use more participation in both.

Prescription is not the strength of Putnam's book. In the final chapter, written in a hortatory style that seems better suited to speeches, Putnam makes a series of "challenges" to leaders in various realms of life to rebuild social capital. "I challenge America's clergy, lay leaders, theologians, and ordinary worshippers," he writes in a typical passage. "Let us spur a new, pluralistic, socially responsible great awakening,'so that by 2010 Americans will be more deeply engaged than we are today in one or another spiritual community of meaning...." (The italics are his.) The charge seems hopelessly vast. And if the aim is renewed civic engagement, then rebuilding social capital may be too indirect a way to do it. People participate in politics and civic life because they want to accomplish particular purposes, which are often highly partisan and divisive. They are not likely to connect with others out of a belief that America needs more connecting.

IN SEARCH OF general agreement with his analysis, Putnam avoids confronting the political implications of renewed civic engagement. Sleepy times are no problem for a conservative, business-oriented politics, but they pose a nearly insuperable barrier to a politics aimed at significantly reducing inequality or repairing democracy. Such efforts are likely to produce far more conflict than the civic uplift and the community togetherness that Putnam seems to bold up as an ideal. America certainly would be a better place if we had more picnics and bowled more in leagues, but I am not sure that activities of this sort would spill over significantly into the public arena. People are likely to come back to politics and civic life only if the stakes are compelling and the possibilities of public improvement are genuine.

Nobody has a sovereign remedy for our civic atrophy, and I do not mean to be too harsh on Putnam. One test of a book is its value to those who disagree with at least some of its conclusions. By that standard, Bowling Alone is an important work, rich in its incidental details as well as its general architecture. In one respect, certainly, the book testifies to the moral seriousness of its author: Putnam's research is itself a fine illustration of civic engagement. Not the least of its achievements is that it teaches by example.

PAUL STARR is co-editor of TheAmerican Prospect and professor of sociology at Princeton University.
Copyright 2000 by Paul Starr.

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