Has the United States become a nation of perilous loners?

On Books

May 21, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

'Bowling Alone" has next to nothing to do with bowling, but a great deal to do with being alone. Subtitled "The Collapse and Revival of American Community," it was written by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 541 pages, $26). It is likely to become the buzz book of the summer -- the latest of a line that ignites raging popular debate.

Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was one such, in 1962. Carson's thesis, that we were poisoning the earth, turned out to be dead right. Charles A. Reich's "The Greening of America" was another, in 1970. Reich argued that America would become a nation of flower children -- and turned out dead wrong.

Putnam's core point is that the United States -- the people of the nation -- have gone unglued. I think he's right.

In the Progressive Era -- more or less 1890 to 1920 -- and in the immediate post-World War II period, there were enormous increases in group activities in America. More people were voting; clubs, charities and civic and political organizations sprouted and prospered everywhere -- Rotarians, Elks, Republicans, Kiwanians, Optimists, Democrats, PTAers.

Civic-mindedness was part of the 1940s-1950s wave, the aftermath of the success of World War II, perceived as a collective victory for civilization. Ever more prosperous Americans found themselves with more leisure time -- and energy. Putnam's book is about what happened next, in the 1980s and beyond.

It takes very seriously the political, social-scientific concept of "social capital" -- that networks joining people have real, calculable value to a society, an economy.

"Networks involve [almost by definition] mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere 'contacts.' Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity," Putnam writes.

He cites economist Robert Frank crediting Tom Wolfe, in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," with the concept of "the favor bank." To that, Putnam adds, "It was, however, neither a novelist nor an economist, but Yogi Berra who offered the most succinct definition of reciprocity: 'If you don't go to somebody's funeral, they won't come to yours.'... Equally instructive is the T-shirt slogan used by the Gold Beach, Oregon, Volunteer Fire Department to publicize their annual fund-raising effort: 'Come to our breakfast, we'll come to your fire.' "

So Putnam can be fliply hip. But mainly he is learned. A chaired professor of public policy at Harvard, he is a former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and has written six previous books. His credentials show in the authority of his analysis and his knowledge of history. He gives power to his arguments with voluminous citations of data carefully culled from an impressive array of professional and scholarly surveys.

In the 1960 election, 62.8 percent of voting-age Americans voted for president. In 1996, 48.9 percent did. The percentage of citizens voting has declined steadily -- despite ever-easing barriers to registration and to voting itself.

Between the period 1973-1974 and the last available to Putnam, 1993-1994, consider these declines in political and community participation among all Americans: serving as a club or organization officer, down 42 percent; political party work, 42 percent; serving any local organization committee, 39 percent; membership in a "better government" group, 19 percent.

There was not a single increase in participation in the 12 broadly inclusive activities studied. The average decline was 25 percent.

Environmental groups have grown in the last two decades, as have a few other highly focused efforts -- but charitable contributions as a percentage of income continue in a long, long decline.

There has been a nominal proliferation of national organizations, but they are generally big-money-funded paper efforts: With small and diminishing member participation -- or none at all -- many are simply lobbying fronts.

Union membership has declined from 32 percent of nonfarm workers in 1953 to below 14 percent today. Entertaining in the home dropped by almost half from 1975 to 2000. And, yes, membership in bowling leagues has dropped between 1960 and 2000 from 8 percent to 2 percent of American men, and from 5 percent to 2 percent among women.

Putnam seeks to understand both the causes and effects of the loss of American social glue. Certainly, television and the proliferation of other electronic entertainment and communication are major contributors to the breakup of associations -- though whether those are causes, symptoms or results is subject to debate.

Among the indisputable causes of the trends are the breakup of family structure, as is flight to and sprawl of the suburbs. At the top of Putnam's list of causes is what he calls "generational change" -- the decay of traditional social values in the oncoming generations.

Putnam's conclusions are a bit nostalgic, no small part grim, and tinged with the apocalyptic.

"We desperately need an era of civic inventiveness to create a renewed set of institutions and channels for a reinvigorated civic life that will fit in the way we have come to live. Our challenge now is to reinvent the twenty-first century equivalent of the Boy Scouts or the settlement house or the playground or Hadassah or the United Mine Workers or the NAACP."

How? Read the book. It's responsible, intricate and balanced. It's also full of convincing detail, avoiding the pitfalls of generalization that are inherent in reviews like mine. But Putnam's heart seems most intensely connected when he inveighs:

"Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens and more time in active connection with our fellow citizens."

Amen.

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