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My Way


Bowling Alone is a rich, dense, thoughtful, and fascinating book. It will surely be much talked about, and it deserves to be. It is extremely readable—and not merely by the rather low standards of academic political science; and it is packed with provocative information about the social and political habits of twentieth-century Americans. The rise and fall of Boy Scout organizations, volunteer fire companies, PTAs, and just about every other social, political, and pressure group that has been founded, has flourished, and has declined or expired over the past hundred and twenty years are charted in great detail. Just about every explanation for their ups and downs that a rational person might imagine is canvassed, analyzed, and shown to be not quite adequate.

At the heart of Bowling Alone lies a simple story. Professor Putnam has been impressed—and depressed—by the decline of the volunteer spirit in the United States. Fewer and fewer of us belong to the local voluntary associations whose resources are the time and enthusiasm of their members; more and more of us subscribe to national organizations whose interest in us is largely as a source of funds with which to hire professional lobbyists. Bowling Alone describes the rise of many different social groups during the Forties and Fifties of the last century and their slow decline since then. What it does less convincingly is explain just what disasters will follow from that decline; and on the question of what can reverse the decline, it is not at all persuasive. Many readers will suspect that the answer, short of disinventing television or getting into a painless and nondestructive third world war, is “not very much.”

But Bowling Alone has a history or, to be more exact, it has two histories. One of them is Robert Putnam’s own intellectual history. Professor Putnam is a highly regarded political scientist who eight years ago published Making Democracy Work, an important book on democracy in Italy that contrasted the success of democratic politics in northern Italy with the failure of democracy in the Italian south. Putnam’s explanation for this contrast reached far back into Italian history. The south had always been the prey of exploiters of many different stripes, but northern cities had long been practicing self-government. They had been self-governing communes centuries ago, and however often they fell under the control of rich, vain, and ambitious ruling families, they had built up a thriving civil society.

By “civil society,” writers have meant something not very precise but intuitively plausible. Strong civil societies exist in those places where the citizenry trust each other; where they are inclined to keep their bargains; where they are not inclined to cheat strangers, or to give and take bribes; and where they encourage good citizenship in one another by unofficial means. The thought goes back at least as far as Adam Smith’s explanation of the rise of capitalism in Britain, and the expression “civil society” goes back at least as far as Hegel’s account of the intermediate institutions that link private citizens and individual families to the more narrowly political institutions of the state.1

Putnam was interested in the impact of institutions on citizens. A strong civil society is educative: it teaches its members how to make a community function. It is the source of what Putnam and others have called “social capital,” referring to the social and political habits that make communities work effectively. Democracy in southern Italy was not sustained by a strong civil society. What northern Italy possessed and the south lacked was “social capital,” the elusive substance that sustains social trust and allows communities to govern themselves honestly, fairly, and openly.

Making Democracy Work was one of the best of the books that reinforced the moral that many commentators drew at that time about the failure of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. Communist governments had failed to encourage the development of civil society. Indeed, they had systematically undermined it. They had not encouraged the growth of the voluntary organizations that teach the citizenry how to cooperate with one another without the supervision of the state; they had treated every organization not under the control of the state and the Party as a threat to their authority.

Free trade unions were among the first victims of the Soviet Revolution; the Russian Orthodox Church was first attacked, then coopted for patriotic purposes during the Second World War, but at no time allowed to foster a separate spiritual life for Russian citizens. Either by thought-out policy or by inadvertence, the regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union fostered mutual suspicion rather than mutual trust among their citizens. In so doing, they ensured that socialism could not work at all, and that capitalism could be reestablished without excessive pain only in those countries where there had been a flourishing civil society before the postwar Soviet domination of Eastern Europe had stifled it.

The counterimage of a successful liberal society was provided 165 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He was struck by the contrast between the failure of self-reliance that characterized all social classes in centralized, bureaucratic France and the self-reliance of the Anglophone New World. When anything needed doing, it seemed to him, a voluntary association immediately sprang up to do it. This was not because the Americans of the early Republic were altruists—far from it. Their dominant motive, thought Tocqueville, was rational, long-term self-interest. Democracy in America is among other things a hymn to what Tocqueville labeled “self-interest rightly understood,” a point that Bowling Alone dwells on at length.

Americans organized themselves to provide what they needed, or wanted, in part because a small and ill-organized government could not provide it for them, and in part because it would have been wholly inefficient to have tried to re-create the centralized governments of ancien régime Europe in the sprawling and underpopulated United States. The American church was based on separate congregations, education on the famous “one-room schoolhouse,” and newspapers on a hardly less local basis. Tocqueville had in mind the contrast between the United States and his native France; but later thinkers had no difficulty in drawing the contrast between the American capacity for self-help and the inertia of any overcentralized and overpoliticized state. Bowling Alone brings the ideas of Making Democracy Work back home to the United States, and it brings the ideas of Democracy in America up to date. But it is an anxious work; its message is not that the United States of the early twenty-first century possesses a flourishing civil society, rich in social capital, and the basis of a strong democratic politics, but the reverse. What concerns Putnam is what he sees as the dissolution of American civil society and the slow erosion of American social capital. Putnam’s anxiety on this score is not idiosyncratic. Indeed, it was the dominant theme of some of the most interesting books of the 1990s. The diagnoses varied a great deal, and so did the proposed remedies, but the anxiety permeated books as different as Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and Mickey Kaus’s The End of Equality. Kaus blamed the underclass and Lasch the “overclass,” but what both of them lamented was the loss of the America that Tocqueville had described.

The second history to which Bowling Alone belongs, then, is not Professor Putnam’s intellectual biography, but the intellectual history of Bill Clinton’s presidency. One of the innumerable bright ideas with which Clinton came to the White House in 1993 was the ambition to reanimate the volunteer spirit. We had had the “me generation,” and what was needed was an “us generation.” He was not alone in so thinking. This was a time when the “communitarianism” advocated by the sociologist Amitai Etzioni was particularly fashionable, and many were looking for ways of rebuilding communities that had been wrecked by unemployment, crime, and all the varied sources of social decay. Professor Putnam’s fears for the health of American civil society thus fit as neatly into the anxieties of President Clinton’s first term as they fit into the anxieties of every European social and political theorist since the first French Revolution.

Bowling Alone had a curious beginning. In January 1995, Putnam published an essay of the same name in the Journal of Democracy, an academic publication with a small circulation. Putnam himself gives a wry account of what happened next:

Until January 1995, I was (as one critic later observed with perfect accuracy) “an obscure academic.” Although I had published scores of books and articles in the previous three decades (many of them, I immodestly believed, of greater scholarly elegance than “Bowling Alone”), none had attracted the slightest public attention. Now I was invited to Camp David, lionized by talk-show hosts and (the secular equivalent of canoniza-tion in contemporary America) pictured with my wife, Rosemary, on the pages of People. The explanation was not late-blooming genius but the simple fact that I had unwittingly articulated an unease that had already begun to form in the minds of many ordinary Americans.

He certainly had.

For the next three months, newspapers were full of reflections on Putnam’s article by commentators, politicians, and assorted professional moralists. From Putnam’s point of view, the attention was agreeable but disquieting; it was one thing to write an essay that struck a chord with the public, quite another to turn it into a polished and well-defended work of political science. Putnam’s essay raised many questions: Had Tocqueville been right in 1835; was the United States built around the self-governing democratic community; had that self-governing spirit declined; if so, what had undermined it; and if its loss was as serious as Putnam thought, what, if anything, might foster its revival? Neither the President’s Americorps program nor the communitarians’ exhortations to remember that we all have responsibilities as well as rights seemed quite adequate in the face of the social trends that Putnam described.

Putnam’s thesis was simple. Forty years ago, Americans went bowling as members of bowling leagues; today, more Americans than ever go bowling, but they don’t belong to leagues. Nor, of course, do they literally bowl alone. The image of echoing lanes populated by solitary bowlers is hardly in line with reality. “Strictly speaking, only poetic license authorizes my description of nonleague bowling as ‘bowling alone.’ Any observant visitor to her local bowling alley can confirm that informal groups outnumber solo bowlers.” They go in groups of friends, or with their families, classmates, or workmates. They go to celebrate birthdays, and to unwind after work.

What, said Putnam, they don’t do is organize themselves into leagues. Leagues need organization and they need a structure; they need secretaries and presidents; they depend on people who will arrange schedules, who will get in touch with the members of a team and will make sure that everyone shows up when they should. Belonging to a league imposes obligations on everyone else as well; if you’re a member of a team, you have to show up when the team is committed to play a match. Leagues, on this view, are builders of “social capital”; they inculcate the skills of organization, build relations of trust between members of teams, and lay the foundation for the social habits on which democratic self-government relies. In 1960, 8 percent of all American men and 5 percent of all American women were members of bowling leagues; in the late 1990s, the figure had dropped to 2 percent.2

  1. 1

    The Philosophy of Right described the institutions of modern society as “the Family,” “Civil Society,” and “the State,” roughly corresponding to institutions that can be sustained by private loyalties, those that underpin the legal and social arrangements of the market and must be sustained by a regard for fidelity to contract, and the constitutional arrangements of a modern liberal state that would be sustained by a mixture of national solidarity and respect for individual freedom.

  2. 2

    On the prompting of the editors of The New York Review, I prevailed on colleagues at the University of Virginia School of Law to take me bowling; for an enjoyable and enlightening evening, I am much indebted to Daryl Levinson and his friends. As a piece of empirical research, the evening was inconclusive. It is true we had to wait until 9:00 PM to bowl because the lanes were fully occupied by the Charlottesville bowling leagues; but this apparent conflict with Professor Putnam’s data is not decisive—Charlottesville is rich in voluntary associations of all sorts, from Rotarians onward, as perhaps befits a town that so cherishes the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

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