Who Wants to Be a Legionnaire?
The New York Times, by Margaret Talbot
In 1995, Robert D. Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, published an academic journal article that in remarkably short order achieved the kind of name recognition usually reserved for John Grisham novels. ”Bowling Alone” made the case that Americans were no longer the energetic joiners they had been as recently as the 1950’s. It wasn’t just voter turnout and grass-roots political activism that had declined since 1960 or so. Membership was falling in the old-line do-gooder organizations, from the P.T.A. and the League of Women Voters to the Elks and the Shriners. Informal ties of all sorts were unraveling, and Americans were becoming an ever more isolated, cynical and anomic lot – detached from civic life, deprived of the social networks that develop when communities are more closely knit. The rueful example contained in the title lent Putnam’s argument much of its mass appeal: Americans still bowled, sure, but Putnam had discovered that they were much less likely to do so in leagues than they had been three decades ago. They were lonely bowlers now, making their strikes without benefit of a hearty clap on the back or a beer bought by the guys.
Within months, the ”Bowling Alone” thesis had generated an enormous amount of attention, and almost as much agreement. Politicians on the right liked Putnam’s emphasis on the importance of private initiative rather than government action. Liberals warmed to his call for a renewal of grass-roots movements. Less partisan readers seemed to respond to the article’s quantification of a general malaise – the sense of things gone vaguely wrong that is reflected in polls showing most Americans believe our society is less moral and honest than it used to be. Putnam was profiled in People, interviewed relentlessly about his own habits of civic virtue and invited to Camp David to confer with President Clinton.
Before long, though, a backlash set in, and Putnam’s data began to take a beating, especially from other social scientists and pollsters. Yes, some of the older associations had lost members, the criticism went, but that was because many of them had become outdated or irrelevant, and new ones had taken their place. The P.T.A., for instance, had atrophied only because many parents had grown disaffected with the national organization and formed their own offshoot, the P.T.O., while others had started school-based groups with no national affiliation at all. The Jaycees and the Scouts might be dwindling, but associations in general were multiplying – the number of nonprofit organizations listed in the Encyclopedia of Associations leapt from 10,299 in 1968 to 22,901 in 1997. Environmental organizations were doing particularly well: Greenpeace claimed 250,000 members in 1980 and 1,690,500 in 1996, and its growth was typical of organizations like it. Meanwhile, small groups – book clubs, prayer fellowships, support groups – were flourishing. Volunteering was actually up, as Everett Carll Ladd, the director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and one of Putnam’s chief critics, pointed out, and so was charitable giving. And while it was true that league bowling decreased by almost 40 percent between 1980 and 1993, surely the explosion of interest in youth soccer leagues went some way toward making up for it. What Americans were experiencing was not the extinction of civic life but its reinvention.
Now Putnam has produced a book that attempts to answer his critics and to amplify his case. And in many ways he succeeds admirably. Most important, he has supplemented the data culled from membership rolls of various organizations with data from annual studies like the DDB Needham Life Style survey that ask individual Americans to report on their own habits and affiliations. Those surveys suggest that while nominal membership in community organizations has not actually fallen much at all, active involvement – measured by number of meetings attended and leadership positions held – has fallen markedly. While it’s true, Putnam acknowledges, that the sheer number of voluntary organizations has grown, many of these are essentially lobbying and direct-mail operations, with big Washington staffs, few if any local chapters and no membership requirement save the willingness to write a check.
”Many Americans continue to claim that we are ‘members’ of various organizations,” as Putnam writes, ”but most Americans no longer spend much time in community organizations – we’ve stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers and stopped going to meetings. And all this despite rapid increases in education that have given more of us than ever before the skills, the resources and the interests that once fostered civic engagement.” Moreover, his new data suggest that informal gatherings have become less common too. In the late 70’s, for instance, the average American entertained friends at home about 14 times a year; now it’s more like 8.
Even the good news isn’t as good as it seems, Putnam argues. Per capita charitable giving nearly doubled between 1960 and 1995, he concedes, but this is ”hardly surprising,” since our incomes and our spending on practically everything have increased at an even greater rate. As a share of our total income, philanthropy has actually shrunk. Volunteering has clearly increased – about half of all Americans say they do some sort of volunteer work, up from a quarter in 1977. But much of it is one-on-one tutoring, for example – and so it doesn’t create the multiple ties among people that Putnam calls ”social capital.” Support groups and the like are certainly proliferating, but they foster self-involvement as much as they do community participation. Voter turnout and the trust Americans profess in government – two of the least contested statistics in Putnam’s arsenal – are still down. So is church attendance, except among fundamentalists. And so on. All in all, it’s enough to support the basic contention that civic life – that realm of collective and often altruistic endeavor that belongs neither to the market nor to the state – is indeed weaker now, and even to justify a certain nostalgia for the 1950’s.
What it is not enough to justify is Putnam’s overarching narrative of decline. Despite the changes in, and even the slackening of, associational life, it’s hard not to see America as a nation of joiners still. The Internet is awash in fans, hobbyists and ideologues seeking fellowship in cyberspace and often beyond. And, as Putnam himself acknowledges, Americans are still more likely to be involved in voluntary associations – and indeed to sign petitions, work for political parties and join in election campaigns – than the citizens of almost any other industrialized nation. The only measure on which we lag behind other democracies is voter turnout, which makes you wonder whether a civic-virtue approach like Putnam’s is really the best way to understand the problem. Maybe a history of political parties or even of the logistics of registration would be more to the point.
For Putnam, different kinds of social capital are mutually reinforcing. The more we get together – whether it’s to give blood, get out the vote or pound back some brewskies – the more civically engaged we’ll be. But some forms of social capital are not mutually reinforcing and may even be antagonistic. Volunteering may go up, for example, as it seems to have done among 20-somethings, just as voting goes down; skepticism about the impact of voting can feed the desire to do something more practical, like ladle out soup to the homeless. Surely not all social capital is equal, or equally valuable. Putnam knows this – he admits that some groups (urban gangs, militia movements, the Ku Klux Klan) put the norms of reciprocity to ”malevolent, antisocial” purposes. But even among the wholesome examples of social capital Putnam catalogs, there are some that ought to matter more than others. Should we really care as much about a falloff in card playing as we do about low voter turnout? At some level, Putnam seems to think so, and the effect can be unintentionally comic: ”American adults still play 500 million card games a year, but that figure is falling by 25 million games a year. Even if we assume, conservatively, that community issues come up in conversation only once every 10 card games, the decline of card playing implies 50 million fewer ‘microdeliberations’ about community affairs each year now than two decades ago.” Why assume that people had more or better ”microdeliberations” about ”community issues” playing poker than they do now with their co-workers or on Internet discussion groups?
Where Putnam’s decline narrative becomes most questionable, though, is in his explanation for it. Surveying the social landscape, he comes up with two leading causes for the waning of civic engagement. One is generational replacement. The unusually civic-minded cohort born in the 1920’s and formed in the crucible of wartime patriotism is beginning to die off, only to be replaced by more cynical and libertarian boomers and Gen Xers. (Not much to be done about that, absent another good war.) The other is television, the heavy watching of which, Putnam says, is ”the single most consistent predictor” of low civic engagement. TV not only ”steals time,” it breeds ”lethargy and passivity.” It’s a familiar enough complaint, but Putnam doesn’t have much evidence to convince us that the heaviest TV viewers are the same people who would have been out planting community gardens and rustling up blood donors in the golden age of community service. His other leading suspects – suburban sprawl and the time crunch for working women and their families – each account, Putnam concludes, for at most 10 percent of the problem.
Putting aside the rather arbitrary assignment of a percentage value, how could the movement of women into the paid labor force possibly matter that little in this particular social equation? It’s not only that women have traditionally been more avid social capitalists then men, and now have much less free time to exercise that avidity. It’s that the very women who are working the longest hours – educated professional women – are the same group who in the past founded the benevolent societies and filled the ranks of the social movements that virtually defined America’s civil society. During the Progressive Era, it was female volunteers who led the fights for child labor bans, factory inspection, stronger food and drug laws and the like. These women ”built a rationalized organizational network,” as the historian Mary Ryan put it, ”that was nearly as sophisticated in its own way as the corporate business world.” For years, the fussy small-town clubwoman and the Carrie Nationish crusader were instantly recognizable figures of caricature precisely because they were ubiquitous in American life. Their descendants not only have careers, they also have children later in life, in the midst of what would once have been their prime volunteering years.
Putnam resists focusing on women’s paid labor as a drain on civic engagement. Everybody, he says, is less civically engaged – not only working women but men and nonworking women as well. But if the women who led community efforts in the past are busy elsewhere, and those efforts fall into desuetude as a result, that reduces everyone else’s opportunities to participate in one too.
Television viewing certainly makes a more politically palatable target than women’s paid labor. Not many of us leap to the defense of couch potato-ism as a civic virtue, whereas quite a few of us defend the expansion of autonomy and opportunity for women. But to say that the large-scale entrance of women into the labor market has exerted a significant effect on community life is not to deal in blame. It’s to accept the reality that we are all in this together now, men, women and children. Women who work all day at demanding jobs have fewer hours and less energy to devote to community activities. And sometimes freedoms that we would not want to renounce come at the expense of social connectedness. We could certainly try and make adaptations to the new reality that would, among other things, foster civic engagement – making it easier to work part time, for example. (Women who work part time are more involved in volunteering than any other group, including women who don’t work outside the home.) But it may be that with women in the paid labor force, we will never enjoy quite the level of associational life we had in the 50’s. And in the end that trade-off may be worth it.