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BOWLING ALONE: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

BOWLING ALONE: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam Simon & Schuster; $26.00

IN THIS ERA OF AMERICAN SELF-congratulation--for winning the Cold War, establishing American pre-eminence as the world's foremost military and economic power, the "longest peacetime economic expansion" in American history, record levels of employment unaccompanied by high inflation, budget surpluses, reduced crime rates, decreased air and water pollution, the ability of an ever-increasing percentage of Americans to spend an ever-increasing percentage of their savings on an endless variety of non-essential consumer goods, and their pursuit of the bitch-goddess of wealth with abandon and without shame or apology--there is an underlying dirty little secret:

The underpinnings of American democracy that helped produce all this are coming apart.

For nearly the past 25 years, I have been looking at one aspect of this problem--the growing disinclination of Americans to vote and otherwise participate in the political life of their nation. Every biennium American politics seems to produce new modern records for citizen political disengagement. And every year, the nation seems further and further from the political comity, cohesion, and consensus that makes possible the constructive address of citizen needs. In the 1998 election, only 11 percent of the 18-19 year olds eligible to vote for the first time bothered to go to the polls. The United States now stands 139th out of 163 democracies in the rate of voter participation. And the nation that prides itself on being the best example of government of, for, and by the people is rapidly becoming a nation whose participation is limited to the interested or zealous few.

Five years ago, in an article entitled "Bowling Alone" in an obscure publication, Robert D. Putnam expanded this discussion beyond the boundaries of political engagement by arguing that the entire spectrum of social connectedness in interpersonal, civic, and social life in America was eroding. His title was drawn from his finding that while bowling as an activity had not diminished in popularity, what had diminished substantially was league bowling, as emblematic of many more important activities that Americans were doing in isolation rather than in conjunction with others.

Prior to that article, Putnam was a respected, if not widely known, Harvard professor who had published a minimally read but highly honored book on Italian social connectedness. "Bowling Alone" took certain elites by storm. Putnam was invited to discuss his findings with foundation executives, institutional leaders, and the President of the United States. He was showered with grants to expand his article into a book and to conduct a series of seminars to elaborate on his initial findings with a high-level group of peers. Putnam also spawned a small industry of detractors, led by the late Everett Carll Ladd, who suggested that if one looked in other directions--toward continued high levels of church attendance, the proliferation of new political and social organizations, increased charitable giving, and a recent increase in volunteerism--the social state of America was not as bad as Putnam made it out to be.

Five years later, after exhaustive research including into the data that Ladd had used to debunk Putnam's theory, Bowling Alone is now a formidable book, which, through the overwhelming weight of evidence he has amassed, demolishes this set of criticisms.

He does not deny any of his critics' assertions--that church attendance is still at a high level, the number of political and social organizations has mushroomed, many more dollars are being donated to charitable organizations, volunteerism is on the rise among the old and the young, and there are many communities which still retain a high degree of community engagement.

But against this small catalogue of Pollyannaish propositions, Putnam has arrayed an imposing set of contrary and depressing evidence:

* Not only has there been a 25 percent decline in voting, but also a 50 percent decline in political involvement as measured by campaign activities engaged in over the last four decades. In 1973, a majority of Americans signed a petition, made a speech, wrote an article, or sent a letter to a public official or to the editor of a newspaper. By 1994, a majority engaged in none of these activities.

* Despite a proliferation of social, civic, and fraternal organizations during the last two and a half decades, a modest decline (16 percent) in membership in those organizations as a totality and a 50 percent decline (between 1973-1994) in active participation, as measured by those who took any leadership role, has occurred. In 1973, two-thirds of Americans attended at least one organizational or club meeting a year. By the late 1990s, two-thirds of all Americans did not attend any.

* There has been a profound change in the nature of organizational activity in which grassroots membership has been replaced by professionalized national staffs, and local activity and organizational sinew has been supplanted by the giving of money as the sole form of organizational identification.

* There has been a small decline (10 percent) in church attendance (composed of a substantial increase in attendance at fundamentalist churches and a concomitant steady decline among other denominations), but a 25-50 percent decline in active involvement in church-related activities. Membership in church-related groups has dropped by 50 percent between the 1950s and the 1990s.

* The percentage of the work force that is unionized has declined from 32.5 to 14.1, despite a substantial numeric increase in the number of Americans who belong to various professional associations; a noticeable decline in the percentage of professionals who join such associations; and a workplace, which, by virtue of downsizing, conglomeration, and telecommuting (among the artifacts of the modern competition for maximum profit), provides for a smaller amount of cohesion, personal economic security, and durable interpersonal relations.

* Despite an increase in the total amount citizens give to charity, there has been a substantial decline in the percentage of both citizenry and the portion of their income devoted to philanthropy and charity; and an erosion in volunteering among every age category, save the old (imbued with another generations values and armed with this generations advances in medical science and available leisure time) and the young (propelled somewhat by the adoption of compulsory service programs in some school systems).

* Add to this list: declines in marriage, eating together or discussing anything as a family, entertaining friends at home, participating in group games, social or sporting activities, and interpersonal as well as political trust; and increases in divorce, suicide, watching television and spectator sports, and time spent in solitary commuting or surfing the Internet, among other social indicators--and what emerges is a picture of American society, on levels from family to nation, which has become, over four decades, fragmented, atomized, and lacking the social capital for investment in societal betterment.

Putnam is also convincing when he argues, with evidence, that social capital matters--that a whole range of social good, including education, child welfare, safe neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health, personal satisfaction, and vibrant democracy depend on interconnectedness among citizens. Volunteerism is not, according to Putnam, a substitute for politics, but rather that the person who is politically interested is one who is more likely to volunteer. Charitable giving comes most from those who have connections to and a stake in community.

Putnam is, however, less convincing in other parts of this book. Perhaps because he is, first and foremost, a quantitative political scientist or, perhaps, more likely, because he had to amass an enormous amount of evidence to present his case and silence his critics, Putnam seems compelled to attempt to quantify everything.

He attempts to create a percentage pie chart of why the societal disconnect exists, attributing about 10 percent to women in the work force, robbing the community of what had historically been a vital source of voluntarism; about a tenth to suburban sprawl--to community-spread, non-engaging strip malls, and enormous time spent commuting; about 30 percent to the atomizing and fragmenting effects of modern communications, making citizens passive spectators and diminishing, through cable satellite and the Internet, their body of shared information; and the largest portion to generational change, in which each succeeding generation, beginning with those born after World War II, is less involved than their predecessors.

But such an analysis does not explain why each generation has a lower level of involvement than their forebearers. It ignores other contributing factors, including but not limited to the role of leadership, beginning with Johnson and Nixon, in eroding trust; the shocks to our political system beginning with Vietnam, which undermined faith in the wisdom of government; the shifts in citizen values away from engagement and toward self-seeking and libertarian consumer choice; the changes in the content of the media toward cynicism and lack of seriousness; major modifications in the content and quality of education; and the decline of many basic societal and political institutions which provided the glue for engagement as cause as well as effect. Nor does such a quantification elucidate the obvious, that the present disengagement is a product of various causes interacting with each other. Television, for instance, changed the way political parties conduct their business, but the new political party--by conducting campaigns through television that are off-putting to the average citizen--is a cause of demobilization as well as an effect of the age of television. The whole cannot be parsed so easily.

But the least convincing part of Putnam's treatise is his section on remedy. He devotes a long chapter to recounting the history of the Progressive period at the turn of the last century, suggesting in the process that the actions of leaders, citizens, and journalists, which produced an enormous and completed agenda of durable reform, might be replicated now. And he offers a menu of recommendations for the present which are at the same time unexceptionable and tepid, including: civic education and community service for the young, a more congenial and community-friendly workplace, the building of new communities with an eye toward citizen interaction, strengthening of ecumenical faith-based churches and organizations, reducing the time citizens spend in front of the TV and enhancing programming which promotes community engagement, using the arts to create communal activities, campaign finance reform, and devolving powers to local government.

On one hand, it is hard to see how this menu of reform is commensurate with reintegrating a society fragmented by concrete and communications, rebuilding the integrating and mobilizing institutions which have decayed over the last four decades, or restoring a trust shattered by decades of shoddy politics and journalism. And, on the other, it is hard to compare a period in which there was real, perceived, and widely shared grievance to propel action--segregation, slums, child labor, worker exploitation, xenophobia, disenfranchisement of women, to name but a few--and this period in which the majority of Americans are unaware of any crisis at all.

These caveats notwithstanding, this book is to be read and kept as a reference. There is no place, in my knowledge, where so much about the current disconnectedness of American society has been uncovered, assembled, and presented as in the text, charts, and notes within this book. And while we still await remedy for the American crisis of disconnection and disengagement from someone less rooted in academia and more emboldened to propose coercive solutions, this book will be a major resource in that effort.

CURTIS GANS is director of the non-partisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Gans, Curtis
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Words:1894
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