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.
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
They are, of course, neither the only nor the most important of the voluntary organizations to which Americans belong, although the American Bowling Congress pointed out that the 91 million Americans who went bowling during 1996 compared very favorably with the 65 million who turned out to vote in the congressional elections of 1998. And it is no doubt true, as some critics said at the time, that Putnam’s original essay struck a chord with journalists because journalists liked bowling, and picked up on a piece of imagery to which they were susceptible. Still, the example was well chosen. People don’t go bowling as an exercise in altruism, but for fun. It is an important paradox that we may join organizations for pleasure, companionship, or commercial self-interest but that in the process we acquire the skills of cooperation and the skills of leadership. We learn to trust one another and to make ourselves trustworthy in return. We learn to allow others to take responsibility for us, and we learn to take responsibility for them.
The importance of mixed motives is a truth known intuitively to organizers of church picnics, Democrat barbecues, and charity benefits; we may all sincerely wish to save our souls from Satan’s power, to save Trenton from the Republicans, and to save our local wetlands from speculative builders. That alone will not bring us together. You have to have a cadre of enthusiastic organizers to get that to happen; they find enough people who will turn up for the pleasure of each other’s company and the entertainment being offered.
Americans have always thought of themselves as a nation of joiners. The land of the free is also the land of the PTA, the volunteer fire department, Elks, Knights of Columbus, Rotarians, and Lions Clubs. It is the land of the bumper sticker proclaiming that you attended Tuscaloosa High, or Stanford or Berkeley. University fund-raisers on the European side of the Atlantic stare enviously at the innumerable Princeton (or Harvard or Yale or Stanford) alumni clubs, and wonder how it is that bright young things who are working sixty-five hours a week for a Wall Street law firm can find the time to be class secretary for the Class of ’85 into the bargain.
If Putnam is right, the United States is no longer a nation of joiners. Our willingness to write a check to the annual appeal from our class secretary, from the Sierra Club, or from local charities disguises the fact from us. There are more lobbying organizations than ever, and more professional fund-raisers and organizers to sustain them. Writing a check to a good cause is not, however, joining anything in particular and giving your time and energy to it. The truth is that the joiners are increasingly elderly; the baby boomers are non-joiners, and there is not much evidence that the children of the baby boomers are going to revert to the habits of their grandparents.
Is the situation novel? The same Americans who are given to congratulating themselves about the democratic quality of the American soul have always been tempted to believe that the Golden Age of civic virtue lies behind them. Putnam’s anxieties are not new. The thought that Americans might abandon the public square and retreat to private happiness is one that Tocqueville himself broached. America was a land of private happiness, and the domestic felicity of the Americans might have political drawbacks. Americans might forget that they were citizens as well as wage earners, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives. If that should happen, they would focus all their energy on their domestic lives and their attachment to the wider society would shrivel. Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man told us some twenty-five years ago that Tocqueville’s fears had been realized, and that the “privatization” of American life had been accomplished.
Tocqueville’s fears were also a tribute to the extraordinary economic success of America. Seventy years after Democracy in America, the German sociologist Werner Sombart wrote a short book, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? Its most memorable line offers a brutally plausible explanation: the socialist dream was “wrecked on the reefs of roast beef and apple pie.” Sombart knew that a great deal else came into the story—that the United States was an immigrant society; that it was criss-crossed by religious and linguistic particularisms; that racial antagonisms cut across class solidarity. But no one doubted that people who are prosperous and happy would rather stay at home to enjoy their well-being than mount the barricades on behalf of the socialist utopia.
The evidence offered in Bowling Alone suggests that it is only very recently that these thoughts correspond to the reality of American life. The peculiarity of the American desire to belong to all sorts of associations is that for several decades it contradicted the view that prosperity would erode engagement with the wider community. An interesting statistic in Bowling Alone recurs over and over again. Take almost any indicator of what Putnam calls “civic engagement,” and it starts from a low base in the early 1900s, rises until 1930, sags a little in the Depression, rises steeply through the 1940s and 1950s, peaks around 1960, tails off gently through the 1960s, and then declines steadily though not steeply for the past thirty years. The graph that records the rise and fall of league bowling is almost identical to the graph that records the rise and fall of membership in the PTA.
The Tocqueville-Sombart view that simple prosperity would keep us at home and away from community involvement is not borne out by the evidence; on the contrary, the only thing that put a dent in steadily increasing participation in community affairs during the first half of last century was the Depression. When World War II brought new prosperity to the United States, it seemed also to boost the public’s enthusiasm for joining the local chapter of any and every association; and the long postwar boom only continued the process. If prosperity does eventually cause a loss of “civic engagement,” it must do so only after a long interval. It is not impossible that this is the case. There is some evidence that the behavior of trade unions in Britain and the United States was affected by memories of the Depression until the 1960s, and that they did not dare to take advantage of the bargaining power that full employment had given them until they had become thoroughly accustomed to full employment as the norm. It might be that the habits that the war inspired persisted through fifteen years of peace in spite of the countervailing attractions of the disengaged life.
As befits a political scientist, Putnam is particularly concerned with the way the public has abandoned political parties—and to some extent politics itself. Actively participating in politics by running for office, canvassing on the doorstep, stuffing envelopes, and acting as a poll-watcher has always been a minority taste. Even passive forms of engagement such as attending rallies are not particularly popular; but here, too, the familiar pattern appears. In the early 1970s, one person in eight had attended a rally or a meeting in the previous year; twenty-five years later, it was one in twenty. In the early 1970s, one in sixteen had worked for a political party; twenty-five years later, it was one in thirty. Only the urge to hold office or run for office has remained more or less constant: about one person in a hundred feels it.
Why have people turned away from political parties and politics more generally? The most plausible reason is that they have lost faith in the political process, though this explanation has to be approached with some caution. There seems to be a two-way process at work: the less interest people take in politics, the more cynical they become about the motives and competence of political leaders, and the more cynical they are, the more disengaged they become. What we do know is that disengagement and distrust have increased together for thirty-odd years. Putnam reproduces a familiar but disturbing fact about trust in government:
In April 1966, with the Vietnam War raging and race riots in Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta, 66 percent of Americans rejected the view that “the people running the country don’t really care what happens to you.” In December 1997, in the midst of the longest period of peace and prosperity in more than two generations, 57 percent of Americans endorsed that same view.
One might think that when citizens give up on politics they would turn to self-help and become members of other sorts of informal social organization. The truth is the reverse. It is not people who are skeptical about government’s good intentions who run the Boy Scouts or the PTA. The evidence points unequivocally in the other direction. Loss of faith in the ability of governments to govern honestly and well appears to be part of a loss of faith in almost all institutions. The one apparent exception is the church, since overall church membership of all kinds hasn’t declined.
To a European eye, the American passion for church membership and churchgoing remains astonishing. And in Putnam’s inquest into declining civic engagement, religion is at first an exception to the pattern of unambiguous decay. “Measured by the yardstick of personal beliefs, Americans’ religious commitment has been reasonably stable over the last half century—certainly much more so than one might assume from some public commentary about the secularization of American life.” Since mainline Protestants and Catholics are more civically minded than their secular counterparts, one might take some comfort from the thought that American religiosity puts a brake on the declining institutional attachments that Putnam chronicles.
It all turns out to be much less simple than that. In the first place, Americans are—to put it delicately—prone to optimism when they answer sociologists’ questions about church attendance. Putnam writes, “Careful comparisons of survey respondents with actual counts of parishioners in the pews suggest that many of us ‘misremember’ whether we actually did make it to services last week. Estimates of the overreporting of church attendance range as high as 50 percent.”
Indeed, matters are worse yet. “Some scholars believe that the rate of overreporting is actually higher today than a generation ago, and if that is so, then the survey evidence may underestimate the falloff in actual church attendance. In short, participation in organized worship services is probably lower today than it was twenty-five years ago and is surely lower than it was forty years ago.” Secondly, when church members fill out time budgets—diaries recording how much time they spend in all the various activities that fill their lives—it becomes apparent that the time they devote to religious activities has declined by a quarter in the past two decades.
And finally, there is the question of the particular religious attachments people have. What appears to have been happening is what one might expect to happen to a generation that distrusts institutions. Private, individual belief has remained powerful, but commitment to mainline churches has waned. And it is only mainline churches that do much to promote social and political engagement. Evangelical churches are typically inward-looking, focused on their own affairs and on the believer’s salvation, and not on their duties to the wider world. The stability of total church membership disguises the shift from mainline, outward-looking affiliations to more privatized sorts of faith. Those who bowl alone pray alone, even if in both cases they do it in groups.
Before turning to the vexed question of what might explain the changes Putnam records, it is worth pausing to consider whether we ought to be anxious about them at all. A thorough-going skeptic might observe that the civically engaged 1950s that Putnam seems to hanker after were also the years of Senator Joseph McCarthy, of virulent anticommunism and social conformism. Meanwhile, in the deeply communitarian South it was a time of violent resistance to all and any measures intended to improve the position of blacks. The skeptic might wonder whether members of bowling leagues learned the sort of civic effectiveness that helped them to ensure that black migrants to Chicago were shut out of city jobs and walled up in the high-rise slums of Cabrini Green. Might the American citizenry not be better off watching television or bowling alone? More succinctly, isn’t the effectiveness of a community good or bad only to the degree that the community is committed to good or bad projects?
Putnam has two answers to these doubts—many versions of which have been thrown at him over the past five years. The first is that one of his major themes is the importance of social trust. Borrowing happily from Tocqueville, Putnam makes the obvious but underregarded point that living in a mutually trusting community is an economic bargain. People who trust one another can conduct business without constantly checking to see whether they are about to be betrayed, defrauded, or robbed; this dramatically reduces the cost of doing business. And not just business in the usual sense. If I sweep my sidewalk and yours confident in the knowledge that you will reciprocate when I’m not around, we both benefit. The economic damage done by distrust is vividly demonstrated in southern Italy: the mafia and the camorra have made a very good living by creating a climate of mistrust and then offering their own protection services as a remedy for the evils they have caused.3 In the United States, a measure of dwindling trust is the rise in the number of lawyers over the past thirty years, on the one hand, and the rise in the number of police, private security guards, and watchmen over that period. Where we employed eight security personnel per thousand employed civilians in 1960, we now employ fifteen, and the number of lawyers and judges has similarly doubled in the same period.
To the extent that the institutions whose decline Putnam laments served to reinforce trust and reciprocity, the loss is obvious, no matter what one’s view of the politics of the 1950s. It is a simple loss to a society to have to spend more and more of its resources policing itself. Moreover, the rot caused by distrust is persistent through generations; the horrors of the public education system in decayed inner-city neighborhoods is a sufficient argument in favor of safe, productive communities characterized by a high degree of mutual trust. The second answer, however, is that Putnam himself is not an unequivocal communitarian. “Figures like George Babbitt give social capital a bad name,” he readily concedes; the crucial question is whether the price of a tolerant society is social disconnection.
On the evidence we have, the answer is clearly that it is not. The cycles of sociability seem to move independently of the cycles of sexual, religious, and political conformism. There are also grounds for optimism in the fact that all the usual measures of tolerance and intolerance suggest that the more engaged we are with the outside world the more tolerant we tend to be. One important thing about George Babbitt is that he is, after all, a fictional character; in real life, the supporters of Joseph McCarthy were not the joiners but the socially isolated. The one exception to this good news is predictable enough: the most active members of fundamentalist churches are more intolerant than the less active. What is clear is that being a liberal who gives full weight to the importance of community involvement is not a contradiction in terms. And what is striking about the American experience in the middle of the twentieth century is that Americans became more tolerant as they became more socially engaged.
All of which raises the two obvious questions—why did social engagement rise and then decline, and what, if anything, might we do about the decline? There are a good many suspects in the case of the decline, and Putnam scrupulously interrogates them all: are we busier than we were; do we spend too much time watching television; do we live in the wrong sort of suburbs? None of them uniquely emerges as the villain of the piece, even though they all play a measurable part in the process of disengagement. The largest single influence seems to be generational change—that is, the replacement of a particularly civic-minded generation with one that is much less so. On all the indicators of civic engagement, from reading a newspaper through voting, from membership of clubs to taking an active part in informal social work, people born between 1920 and 1940 behave very differently from their children and grandchildren.
As they age and retire and die, the organizations they created and sustained age and die with them. Reversing the process will not be easy, and certainly cannot be achieved by moral preachment to baby boomers and their children. Knowing how to reverse it is partly a matter of knowing what it was that made the generation that Putnam describes as the “long civic generation” as civically minded as they were, and he devotes a thoughtful chapter to the battles fought by the reformers of the Progressive Era against the social evils and excesses of the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age. I have for many years shared Putnam’s belief that “in a number of deep respects the challenges facing American society at the end of the nineteenth century foreshadowed those that we face in our own time.” Like him, I admire Herbert Croly, the author of The Promise of American Life, without much liking the hierarchical and managerial flavor of his prescriptions, and I like the emphasis that John Dewey and Mary Parker Follett placed on the need to preserve very small scale, local, face-to-face communities without being at all sure about how it can be done.
Putnam is also plainly right, even if not particularly helpful, when he points to the importance of what William James called “the moral equivalent of war.” And he notes the beneficial impact of the very real wars of the last century on civic engagement, too. Still, I am not sure how reliable a compass any of this provides. One of the pleasures of reading Croly, the young Walter Lippmann, Dewey’s polemical essays, or Randolph Bourne is the adrenalin-fueled conviction that they know which social forces to throw into the battle against poverty, unemployment, corruption, and the sheer ugliness of an exploitative capitalist society. They certainly had their moral equivalent of war at hand.
Do we? Putnam ends Bowling Alone with a series of exhortations to his readers—but undercuts their force before he delivers them. “Creating (or re-creating) social capital,” he writes, “is no simple task. It would be eased by a palpable national crisis, like war or depression or natural disaster, but for better and for worse, America at the dawn of the new century faces no such galvanizing crisis.” Quite so. There are many people who are too poor, many who have inadequate health care, many who have boring jobs; there are many broken families, many unhappy children, and many people who feel that success has passed them by. But the prosperity of the past decade has much reduced their number, and if it continues, that prosperity is likely to reduce their number still further. Contemporary America is not a nation in crisis. Why then does he expect anyone to listen when he presents them with a task they do not know how to perform? Putnam writes,
I set before America’s parents, educators, and, above all, America’s young adults the following challenge: Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 the level of civic engagement among Americans then coming of age in all parts of our society will match that of their grandparents when they were that same age, and that at that same time bridging social capital will be substantially greater than it was in their grandparents’ era.
The awkwardness of the prose is evidence of the impossibility of the project. “Social capital” is a useful term for the social scientist; but the activist wants to get prostitutes off the street and into good jobs, or to bring our boys home from Vietnam, or to drive the crooks out of City Hall.
It would be mean-spirited to end on a grudging note. The world that Robert Putnam would like to live in is one that any decent person would wish to live in. Nobody wants to live in a world where politicians are routinely despised, where nobody knows their neighbors’ names, and scout troops collapse because no adult can give time to the young. Many inner-city neighborhoods are bywords for social failure, and Putnam’s hankering after a twenty-first-century revival of the America that Tocqueville described is a fitting reaction to such horrors. But he is too good a social scientist to be an entirely persuasive preacher.
August 10, 2000
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. ↩
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. ↩
See Diego Gambetta’s The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection (Harvard University Press, 1993). ↩