KATHA POLLITT: Debunking Putnam's Bowling Alone

The only things I like about bowling are the shoes and the beer. Maybe that's why I can't get excited about Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist whose slender article "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" in the January 1995 Journal of Democracy has spawned more commentary than Hamlet, including a profile in People, and brought him tete-a-tete with President Clinton, whose State of the Union address he helped inspire. Putnam argues that declining membership in such venerable civic institutions as bowling leagues, the P.T.A., the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts, the Elks and the Shriners is an index of a weakened "civil society," the zone of social engagement between the family and the state. Why should you care about the leagues? Because, says Putnam, they bowl for thee: A weak civil society means less "trust" in each other, and that means a less vigorous democracy, as evidenced in declining electoral turnouts.It's the sort of thesis academics and pundits adore, a big woolly argument that's been pre-reduced to a soundbite of genius. Bowling alone -- it's wistful, comical, nostalgic, sad, a tiny haiku of post-industrial loneliness. Right-wingers like Francis Fukuyama and George Will like it because it can be twisted to support their absurd contention that philanthropy has been strangled by big government. Clintonians and communitarians like it because it moralizes a middle-class, apolitical civic-mindedness that recognizes no hard class or race inequalities shaping individual choice: We are all equally able to volunteer for the Red Cross, as we are all equally able to vote. Putnam's prime culprit in the decline of civic America -- television -- is similarly beyond the reach of structural change. It's as though America were all one big leafy suburb, in which the gladhanders and do-gooders had been bewitched by the evil blue light of Seinfeld and Friends.At least Putnam doesn't blame working mothers. Still, the discussion around "Bowling Alone" is peculiar in a number of ways. How many of those who praise its thesis fit either half of his theory, I wonder: Is Bill Bradley a Shriner? Does The Washington Post's David Broder bake cookies for the P.T.A.? If not, is the boob tube to blame? As Theda Skocpol noted in her politely devastating rejoinder to Putnam's follow-up article, "The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," in The American Prospect (Winter 1996), Putnam seems to place both the burden of civic engagement and responsibility for its collapse on the non-elite classes. Tenured professors may be too busy to sing in a choir (Putnam's former avocation): The rest of us are just couch potatoes.Although Putnam is careful to disclaim nostalgia for the fifties, his picture of healthy civic life is remarkably, well, square. I've been a woman all my life, but I've never heard of the Federation of Women's Clubs. And what politically minded female, in 1996, would join the bland and matronly League of Women Voters, when she could volunteer with Planned Parenthood or NOW or Concerned Women of America, and shape the debate instead of merely keeping it polite? It's probably going too far to argue that the decline of the Boy Scouts is directly related to its barring of gay and non-believing lads. But should it really surprise us that such a stodgy organization has a hard time finding volunteers?Or take those bowling leagues. Putnam treats these as if they arose merely from the appetite of individuals for fellowship and tenpins. But in fact they came out of specific forms of working-class and lower-middle-class life: stable blue-collar or office employment (businesses and unions often started and sponsored teams) that fostered group solidarity, a marital ethos that permitted husbands plenty of boys' nights out, a lack of cultural and entertainment alternatives. It would be amazing if league bowling survived the passing of the way of life that brought it into being, nor am I so sure we need mourn it. People still bowl, after all. In fact they bowl more than ever, although they consume less beer and pizza, which is why league decline bothers the owners of bowling alleys. And despite Putnam's title, they don't bowl alone. They bowl with friends, on dates, with their kids, with other families. The bowling story could be told as one of happy progress: from a drink-sodden night of spouse avoidance with the same old faces from work to temperate and spontaneous fun with one's intimate friends and relations.No, the whole theory is seriously out of touch with the complexities of contemporary life. If church membership is down (good news in my book), it's hardly because people are staying home to watch TV. More likely, organized religion doesn't speak to their spiritual needs the way (for example) self-help programs do. Putnam dismisses the twelve-step movement much too quickly. At the very least, its popularity calls the TV-time-drain theory into question. I know people who've gone to A.A. every day, for years. As for building social capital, my own brief experience with Alanon more than fifteen years ago is still my touchstone of ordinary human decency and kindness. What's that if not "trust"? My membership in the P.T.A., by contrast, is motivated mostly by mistrust: As another parent put it, we join the P.T.A. to keep our kids from being shafted by the school system.Putnam's theory may not explain much about the way we live now, but its warm reception speaks volumes. The bigfoot journalists and academic superstars, opinion manufacturers and wise men of both parties are worried, and it isn't about bowling or Boy Scouts. It's about that loss of "trust," a continuum that begins with one's neighbor and ends with the two parties, government, authority. It makes sense for the political and opinion elites to feel this trust -- for them, the system works. It's made them rich and famous. But how much faith can a rational and disinterested person have in the set-up that's produced our current crop of leaders?Love your neighbor if you can, but forget civic trust. What we need is more civic skepticism. Especially about people who want you to do their bowling for them.


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