The Civic Virtue of Singing Together

September 07, 1994|By DAVID R. BOLDT

Philadelphia -- What, we all might wonder, could the number of choral societies in 12th-century Florence possibly have to do with the reinvigoration of American democracy at the end of the 20th century?

Quite a lot, if one takes seriously the thesis put forward in ''What Makes Democracy Work -- Civic Traditions in Modern Italy'' by Harvard government professor Robert D. Putnam.

Many do take it seriously. ''It powerfully changes the normal debate about what you do in a society if you want to have viable political relationships,'' says William M. Sullivan, a professor of philosophy at LaSalle University and co-author of ''Habits of the Heart,'' a best-selling analysis of what ails America.

What Mr. Putnam has done is rate the effectiveness of the Italian regional governments that were created in 1970, and then figure out why some have functioned better than others.

A mesmerizing succession of charts and graphs make it abundantly clear that the most important precondition for successful democracy is this: Have large numbers of citizens involved in organizations whose memberships cut across class and other social dividing lines.

The groups need not have anything to do with government directly. They can be soccer clubs or bird-watching groups. Anything helps that has the effect of making citizens feel more connected to one another -- and thus more aware of their communal obligations.

Mr. Putnam calls this ''civic community.'' It creates ''social capital'' that, in his analysis, can be spent to create a better society.

Since coming out last year, the book has been a quiet sensation as it has circulated through the inner circles of politics and academe. Mr. Putnam has gotten fan mail from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, among others. But the book hasn't burst forth into the public consciousness.

Part of the reason may be a bad title. The Economist, one of the few major publications to review it, said, ''Here is a book that masquerades as a routine study of Italian regional government, but is actually a great work of social science, worthy to stand alongside De Tocqueville.''

Some of the implications may be too hot to handle. As The Economist continued, ''If [Mr. Putnam's] claims are correct (and they almost certainly are), then politicians will have to think again about democracy's prospects in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.''

That's because Mr. Putnam's research, seen in the most dismal light, seems to indicate that people either have it, or they don't, when it comes to aptitude for democratic government.

In Italy, he found, patterns of civic community remained unchanged for centuries. ''If you know how many choral societies there were in a city in the 1300s,'' he says, half-seriously, ''you can predict how long it will take the government to process a medical insurance claim today.''

The author sees a brighter side to his findings. He believes that once the connection between civic community and the success of government is understood, the process may be open to manipulation. That is, government effectiveness might be improved by encouraging the growth of civic community.

This is particularly likely to be true in the United States, which, until recently, had a demonstrated proclivity for civic community. De Tocqueville wrote at length (and approvingly) about the American mania for joining. Many historians get rhapsodic in describing what Mr. Putnam would call the ''associational life'' of 19th-century Philadelphia.

Civic engagement, however, has gone into a tailspin in America during the last 20 years. Everything from PTA-meeting turnouts to league bowling has declined precipitously. Even the frequency with which people get together with neighbors is down sharply. Not coincidentally, Mr. Putnam would argue, so has the citizens' faith in government.

His premise is infectiously intriguing. Viewed through the lens of his research, many aspects of public policy take on new shades of significance. Both midnight basketball leagues and neighborhood schools suddenly seem more vital. But as he himself wrote recently, ''reweaving [America's] social fabric'' will neither a short nor a simple process.

David Boldt is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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