Robert Putnam – Bowling Alone

The line between the political and the nonpolitical within a democracy is never clear. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed how politics became a common part of life for the average person. Civic engagement shifts from the activities of an organization into the demands of the community without any interruption. Robert Putnam follows a long tradition of political scientists who recognize the role of the nonpolitical on political governance. But Putnam did not simply touch on these ideas. They are the focus of his work.

The publication of Bowling Alone introduced the ideas of Robert Putnam to a wide American audience. It was a best-seller and was read in book clubs across the nation. This is a book that has had an impact beyond the academic community. Yet it does not make compromises with intellectual rigor. It has become a classic of political science. I cannot offer any excuse for graduate level political science students who have not added this book to a required reading list. Moreover, it is easily accessible. It is available at nearly every public library and as an audiobook on Audible.

The data in Bowling Alone is nearly twenty years old but its conclusions are relevant today. Civic engagement in the United States has not recovered from the passing of the Greatest Generation. Americans remain less engaged in their communities. The digital age is likely to exacerbate the problem as people become connected to others online rather than directly in their community. Of course, social networks have begun to help people connect. But it also allows the population to segment into their own personal interests or identities.

The great irony of the current era is it is more diverse than it has ever been, yet people are sheltered within social networks where they feel comfortable. The civic engagement of the past forced people to know their neighbors. Differences were reconciled because there were no other options. Because communities were less diverse those differences were never great or extreme. Racism and economic policies also worked to keep communities homogenous. Nonetheless, differences of opinion did exist. And people learned to reconcile those differences within social organizations. Today it is too easy to walk away from a disagreement. Civic organizations have contributed to increasing polarization as they have begun to reflect distinct value systems.

Putnam wrote this classic before the proliferation of the smart phone. And Millennials had not entered the work force. The Baby Boomers were middle aged. And Generation X had recently entered the workforce. He saw a critical change in how communities interacted within the United States. There was no single cause that has led toward this sociological change. Indeed, he largely finds it is a generational change. Despite the great interest in political change among the Baby Boomers in their early years, they became largely disengaged.

The central insight of this work, of course, is that civic engagement is tied to political engagement. Putnam shows how the decline in civic engagement mirrors the decline in voter participation and other forms of political participation. He analyses multiple forms of political participation to show they have declined across the board. But Putnam seems to imply there is an even closer link between civic engagement and political activism. Indeed, the type of civic engagement determines the way people participate in politics.

This book was written at the end of the Twentieth Century. The Republicans had just begun their Conservative Revolution. But politics lacked the polarization of today. Bill Clinton campaigned as a New Democrat who balanced the budget and reformed welfare while George W. Bush called himself a Compassionate Conservative. Both political parties worked to erase large differences as they campaigned to the middle of the political spectrum. Putnam does not discuss polarization, but he seems to expect consequences from the lack of civic engagement. Perhaps civic engagement has begun to rebound yet there is a distinct difference in the type of engagement. And Putnam helps us understand this phenomenon. Its relevance is perhaps more important today for the study of politics that when it was originally written.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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