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Going Solo

Joiners no more: New book portrays America's political scene as a land of lonely bowlers

By Tamara Straus

1995, Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, published an academic article that received the kind of attention usually reserved for writers with the authority of Gary Wills or the mass appeal of Stephen King. Within months, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" became the most talked-about scholarly statement of the decade. It brought Putnam to Camp David. It made him a darling of the lecture tour. It earned him a half-million-dollar book advance. And generally caused a chain reaction of conversations among Republicans and Democrats, policymakers 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 though the number of Americans who bowl has grown, league bowling had decreased drastically in the past few decades. No longer do Americans of all stripes head 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 about the decrease in bowling leagues, even if they did show how we could all get along. Our real concern should be the sharp diminishment of what he calls "social capital," exemplified by voter participation, club meetings, voluntary groups, church functions, and visits with friends and relatives.

This downturn, Putnam said, 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 Tocqueville 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 PTA 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, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster; $26), 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 has tripled, but membership is about a 10th 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 grew 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 Washington, D.C., professionals whose chief tool is the direct-mail campaign.

Equally depressing is Putnam's assertion that the most innovative and popular voluntary organizations in the late 20th century are self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous and neighborhood crime watch associations, a finding that underscores 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.

Justice league: The author, center, and his teammates.

INDEED, Putnam--who co-authored the poli-sci classic Making Democracy Work (Putnam, 1994)--cites 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 neighbors 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 was not 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 [got] 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. Although 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 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 detriments.

Putnam mourns the communitarian spirit of the 1940s and 1950s, 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. As a result, there is much missing in his accounting for civic decline. Margaret Talbot in the New York Times Book Review has rightly accused Putnam of not focusing enough on the drain on civic engagement brought about by women's new work lives. Francis Fukuyama in the Washington Post has also made the persuasive point that Putnam's analysis of how Americans are associating is off the mark, since the data he uses do not include the newer, less institutionalized groups like AIDS advocacy and Usenet discussion groups.

Another missing piece is America's changing ethnic composition brought about 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 nonwhite, as opposed to the ethnic makeup of the mass influx of Europeans at the beginning of the century.

Contrarian: Robert Putnam's work has stimulated considerable debate.

Putnam provides little statistical evi dence of the social capital created by the Mexicans, Dominicans, Chinese, and Koreans in today's U.S. cities and suburbs. There are no comparative statistics on their voting rates, no analyses of whether they picnic more or spend the usual daily four hours in front of the boob tube. My observation from living in a predominantly Dominican building in upper Manhattan is that at the very least Dominicans spend plenty of time eating and socializing with their neighbors. Places like San Francisco are chock full of Asian-American groups that organize everything from community festivals to political fundraisers.

Putnam writes that the decline in social connectedness and social distrust that began just after the civil rights revolution cannot be correlated with "a kind of civic 'white flight.' "

He says that racial differences in associational membership are not large and that the erosion of social capital has affected all races, particularly college-educated African Americans. At the same time, he argues that "one surprisingly strong predictor of the degree of social capital in any state in the 1990s is the fraction of its population that is of Scandinavian stock," indicating that his definition of social capital is based largely on how Americans of Northern European descent create community life. Moreover, of the 40 voluntary organizations whose decline he charts in the appendix, only two, Hadassah and the NAACP, are ethnic associations.

I also wonder whether the annual studies like the DDB Needham Life Style survey that Putnam relies on gather adequate information on the habits of millions of new Americans.

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 percentage (48.9 percent) voted in the 1996 presidential election as in the 1928 presidential election (51.8 percent).

WHAT PUTNAM does not show is that political engagement at the end of the century is on a par with political engagement at 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 GI bill, no patriotically inspired neighborliness to help forge connections and mitigate ethnic tensions, as between Italians and Irish, blacks and Jews. Instead there are a poor public education system and the demands of a two-income family, a dwindling social safety net, and a concentration of wealth not seen since the age of the robber baron.

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 Saving Private Ryan director Steven Spielberg. Perhaps the civic engagement and community life of the future will accommodate the strains of family life and the new diversity of our country, or they will stem from economic conditions created by war or economic tumult.

Either way, bowling leagues will certainly not reflect whatever it is we are to become.

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From the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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