Unhappy Days for America

Julie Blackmon
‘Baby Toss,’ 2009; photograph by Julie Blackmon from her book Homegrown. It includes an introduction by Billy Collins and an interview with Reese Witherspoon, and is published by Radius Books.

Robert Putnam made the leap from the academic prominence he had already achieved to something much broader in 1995 with an article in the Journal of Democracy called “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Whenever an article in a small publication causes the kind of sensation that “Bowling Alone” did—it generated a great deal of enthusiasm in government and in the foundation world—it says something about the intellectual climate of the moment when it was published. Putnam’s main point was that community life outside government and business—the proliferation of voluntary organizations that observers since Tocqueville have noted as a special feature of American culture—had severely eroded. He presented this apparent decline in “social capital” as alarming, and his argument had a powerful effect on people who had grown up in a world of Parent-Teacher Associations, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, and bowling leagues, and who now lived in circumstances where such institutions didn’t seem to exist.1

Bill Clinton was a few years into the project of restoring the Democratic Party to national power, after a period in which the Republicans had won five of six presidential elections. He had done this by moving the party to the ideological center, but he had just suffered a terrible defeat in the 1994 elections at the hands of Newt Gingrich and his allies. There was a sense of fragility around the liberal recovery. Putnam’s emphasis on social capital and civil society offered a way of expressing the Democrats’ customary concern for improving the lives of ordinary people without venturing into the perilous territory of calling for new government programs, like the failed Clinton health care initiative, which conservatives would find it easy to caricature. Gingrich’s favorite characterization of what he was against was “the liberal welfare state”—but calling for the restoration of bowling leagues and other such associations seemed immune to being affixed with that deadly label. For liberal foundations, barred by the tax code from overtly participating in politics, the idea that stopping the deterioration of social capital might be the main focus of the liberal project offered a legal way of funding a grand, benign transformation of American society.

Two years ago, Putnam published a moving article, consistent with the vision of “Bowling Alone,” about the coming of severe economic and social inequality to his hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio, which sits on the shore of Lake Erie midway between Toledo and Cleveland.2 Putnam was born in 1941. When he was growing up, he wrote, Port Clinton had been a relatively classless place in which everyone knew everyone else and almost all his friends lived in two-parent households. People in his generation overwhelmingly wound up rising higher…

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