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Recent Atlantic Unbound interviews:

Ahmed Rashid: Inside the Jihad (August 10, 2000)
Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist and author of Taliban, shares insights he has gained from years of unparalleled access to Afghanistan and its radical Taliban movement.

An African Voice (August 2, 2000)
His 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, marked a turning point for modern African literature. In his new book, Home and Exile, Chinua Achebe sees postcolonial cultures taking shape story by story.

In the Name of the Homeland (July 19, 2000)
Julia Alvarez, the Dominican-born novelist and poet, talks about her new historical novel, In the Name of Salomé, and about her need to write the stories that are hardest to tell.

Two Geeks on Their Way to Byzantium (June 28, 2000)
Richard Powers -- a writer who connects technology, art, and politics as few others can -- talks about his new novel, Plowing the Dark, and the age-old human search for the virtual and the eternal.

A Kinder, Gentler Overclass (June 15, 2000)
David Brooks, the author of Bobos in Paradise, explains why bourgeois bohemians are here to stay.

American Literature (June 1, 2000)
Sherman Alexie -- poet, novelist, short-story writer, Native American -- strikes out at the "eagle-feathers school of Native literature."

A Satirist in Full Stride (May 17, 2000)
George Saunders, whose new collection of short stories has just been published, may be the most talented goof-off writing fiction today.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Lonely in America

Robert Putnam argues that the time has come "to reweave the fabric of our communities"

September 21, 2000

Bowling Alone Once admired by de Tocqueville for a lively associative tendency and lampooned by Sinclair Lewis for excessive "joinerism," Americans today have retreated into isolation. So argues the political scientist Robert D. Putnam, who has spent much of his career measuring levels of civic involvement in America and abroad. Evidence shows, Putnam says, that fewer and fewer contemporary Americans are unionizing, voting, rallying around shared causes, participating in religious services, inviting each other over, or doing much of anything collectively. In fact, when we do occasionally gather -- for twelve-step support encounters and the like -- it's most often only as an excuse to focus on ourselves in the presence of an audience. Supper eaten with friends or family has given way to supper gobbled in solitude, with only the glow of the television screen for companionship.

In this land where self-reliance and rugged individualism have long been prized, some wonder how much a purported loosening of our social and civic bonds really matters. But in Putnam's view -- and according to his research -- our growing atomization in fact poses a grave threat to the nation's welfare. Just as we rely on financial capital, labor, and natural resources for the smooth functioning of our democracy, he contends, so too do we rely on "social capital" to foster cooperation, trust, and a sense of shared stewardship of the common good. Deficiencies in social capital, he warns, can lead to political disorganization, poverty, crime, neglect of children's education and welfare, and widespread loneliness and depression.

Putnam's theory seems to have struck a chord with many Americans. His article in the January, 1995, Journal of Democracy, "Bowling Alone," in which he first made this argument (and in which he pointed out that though more Americans than ever are bowling, bowling-league membership has plummeted), set off a flurry of debate about the state of America's civic and social life. Some called for urgent measures to redress the problem, while others questioned whether there is, in fact, a problem. People magazine prominently profiled Putnam, and President Clinton invited him to Camp David for a consultation. In 1997 Putnam launched the Saguaro Seminars, a series of meetings held around the country at which leaders and intellectuals considered "how we can increasingly build bonds of civic trust among Americans and their communities."

Since "Bowling Alone" first appeared, Putnam has devoted significant resources toward further testing of his theory (through demographic analysis, interviews, and reviews of existing data) that America's associational bonds are dissolving. In the spring of this year he published those findings, along with a consideration of possible causes of this phenomenon and what we can do about it, in a book of the same name. Bowling Alone, like the original article, has garnered considerable attention, and will likely go a long way toward raising awareness about the state of America's civic and social health.

Robert Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. He has written seven books and is a contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The American Prospect. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Jaffrey, New Hampshire. He recently corresponded by e-mail with Atlantic Unbound's Sage Stossel.

Robert Putnam
Robert Putnam  

Of America's depleted public life, you write that: "Naming this problem is an essential first step toward confronting it, just as labeling 'the environment' allowed Americans to hear the silent spring and naming what Betty Friedan called 'the problem that has no name' enabled women to articulate what was wrong with their lives." Bowling Alone and the attention it draws to our growing social-capital deficit seems to have special resonance in this election year, with so few Americans taking an interest in politics and such a small percentage of citizens likely to turn out to vote. In years to come do you think we'll be hearing about this social-capital deficit as a campaign issue?

Yes, I do. The most startling fact about social connectedness is how pervasive are its effects. We are not talking here simply about nostalgia for the 1950s. School performance, public health, crime rates, clinical depression, tax compliance, philanthropy, race relations, community development, census returns, teen suicide, economic productivity, campaign finance, even simple human happiness -- all are demonstrably affected by how (and whether) we connect with our family and friends and neighbors and co-workers.

And most Americans instinctively recognize that we need to reconnect with one another. Figuring out how to reconcile the competing obligations of work and family and community is the ultimate "kitchen table" issue. As practical solutions to the problem become clearer -- a radical expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act is my current favorite -- the latent public support for addressing the underlying issue will become an irresistible "market" for ambitious political candidates.

Is it fair to say that your book represents essentially a more fleshed-out and fully supported version of the argument you made in the original article? Or did your central thesis change in any significant way? Did any of the data you collected for the book surprise you or contradict your expectations?

The most surprising discoveries came when we unearthed several massive and previously unknown archives that showed that the down-trends were not limited to old-fashioned civic groups -- what I call the "funny hat" organizations -- but affected such intimate forms of connection as spending time with your family or having drinks at the corner bar or going on picnics.

I was shocked when I discovered that having dinner with your family had declined by about one third in the past twenty years. I mean, I knew that that was true in my own family, but I could hardly believe that in the whole country such a fundamental feature of social life had been transformed in such a brief period of time. It gradually dawned on me that the original article was not an exaggeration (as some critics had argued and as I had begun to half-suspect myself), but was actually an understatement.

The book also addresses some important issues that the original article neglected, like the role of urban sprawl, the pressures on two-career families, and (not least) what we can do to reverse the decline in social connectivity. The deep parallels between our current predicament and the problems facing America at the end of the Gilded Age had not occurred to me when I wrote the article, and I had not begun to think about how to "fix" the problem.

Have you discerned differences between the critical reception of the book and that of the original article? If so, what do you think accounts for that?

Yes. Actually, the direction of criticism has entirely reversed between the article and the book. Virtually all the criticism of the article said I was too pessimistic -- that if I had examined a wider range of evidence, things would not look nearly so bleak. So over the next five years I examined a much wider range of evidence, and it turned out that things were actually bleaker than I had originally thought.

The common rap on the book is that I am too optimistic, that the sorts of "cures" that I (or anyone else) can imagine cannot possibly reverse the increase in social isolation, for the underlying causes are too deep and intractable, that I'm guilty of "wishful thinking," as James Davison Hunter put it in The Weekly Standard. I'm now given more credit as a social diagnostician, but less credit as a social reformer. I have to say that this second line of attack is more troubling to me as a citizen, since my main purpose in writing the book was to trigger a debate about how to fix the problem.

But it's my impression that cynicism about the possibility of social renewal is more common in the salons of Cambridge and Manhattan than on the streets of Kalamazoo or Winston-Salem. Among the regular folks that I've been speaking with around the country, the more common attitude is "let's roll up our sleeves and see what we can do." In the end, I'm optimistic that once Americans see the nature of the problem, our collective creativity will produce solutions.

How do you respond to those who suggest that Americans today are not in fact less engaged than they once were, but that civic participation and social participation are simply manifesting themselves in new ways that (precisely because they are new and different) your research has failed to detect? Some have pointed out, for example, that alternatives to the old PTA are thriving, small businesses (which some say are themselves a form of healthy associational life) are proliferating, Gen Xers are socializing informally in coffee shops, and so on.

All I can say is "read the book." The specific "counter-examples" that you mention, along with dozens of others -- soccer leagues, self-help groups, reading clubs, grassroots environmental movements, health clubs, Internet chat groups, softball leagues, in-line skating groups, New Age spiritual groups, public-interest lobbying, workplace schmoozing, eating out with friends, spending time with your kids, and on and on -- are examined with all the evidence, pro and con, that I could muster. One critic complained that reading the book was like taking a sip from a fire hydrant. I honestly don't know of a single "new and different" form of civic and social participation that any critic has named that is not addressed in the book.

Some of these activities, like self-help groups, are in fact up, and others, like softball, are actually down a lot, but when you add it all up, the growing forms of social connectedness affect a much tinier fraction of the population than the shrinking ones.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interview: "America the Irrational" (November 3, 1999)
Wendy Kaminer, the author of Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, sees a disturbing decline of reason in our public life, and warns of the consequences.

From The Atlantic:

"The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," by Alan Wolfe (October 2000)
Intellectual creativity is flourishing in a precinct where many Americans would little expect it -- among evangelical Christians, who make up one of the largest and most politically significant groups in American society.

You describe religious faith as one of this country's most reliable generators of social capital -- "a central fount of American community life and health." And you urge in your final chapter: "Let us spur a new, pluralistic, socially responsible 'great awakening,' so that by 2010 Americans will be more deeply engaged than they are today in one or another spiritual community of meaning." But in her recent book Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials,  Wendy Kaminer argued that religiosity is in fact on the increase in America today and warned that it represents a threat to democracy in that it fosters irrational thinking and intolerance. Is this a valid concern?

You left off the last part of my exhortation, which ends with the words, "while at the same time becoming more tolerant of the faiths and practices of other Americans." The reason for that qualification is precisely that (as I discuss in some detail in my chapter on religion) some forms of religion that have grown in recent decades are unusually inward-looking.

Religiosity itself is not intrinsically irrational or intolerant -- in that I disagree with Kaminer. It is true that some forms of fundamentalism can become anti-democratic. On the other hand, most of the greatest advances in tolerance and democracy in American history, like the civil-rights movement, were deeply rooted in religious commitment.

Are the pendulum swings you describe between greater and lesser community life in America inevitable? What might America be like today if levels of civic engagement had continued their dramatic upward trajectory since the sixties? Was the period just prior to the decline in civic participation a golden age of community involvement toward which we should again strive? Or might so much community emphasis have become oppressive?

Too much of anything, including togetherness, can have bad consequences. My family teases me a lot about the fact that in order to write a book about the importance of togetherness, I retreated from the bustle of Cambridge to the wilds of New Hampshire.

I don't know if there is some kind of "golden mean" between excessive individualism and excessive communitarianism, and even if there is, I doubt we could rest there enduringly, because a society like ours is always in flux. The 1960s were perhaps, as I say in the opening paragraph of the last chapter, "a season for Americans to unravel fetters of intrusive togetherness." But I believe that it's now past time to begin to reweave the fabric of our communities, and all the polls I know suggest that most Americans agree.

What do you make of twenty-something Jedediah Purdy's recent call for a return to earnestness (in For Common Things), or Ted Halstead's establishment of the New America Foundation (with its mission "to train the next generation of public intellectuals"). Is there hope that the X generation may yet prove to be civic-minded?

From The Atlantic:

"A Politics for Generation X," by Ted Halstead (August 1999)
Today's young adults may be the most politically disengaged in American history. The author explains why, and puts forth a new political agenda that just might galvanize his generation.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Roundtable: "My So-Called Generation" (August 1999)
Can there be such a thing as a Generation X political agenda? Who are these Xers, anyway -- and who speaks for them? An interactive discussion featuring Tucker Carlson, Farai Chideya, Andrew Shapiro, Scott Stossel, and Ted Halstead, the author of The Atlantic's August cover story.

Absolutely. Ted's Atlantic essay on that subject was originally written as a paper in my Harvard seminar, and he and his colleagues genuinely inspire me, as do the social entrepreneurs that have founded groups like Do Something and City Year. Bowling Alone says that the single most hopeful sign of civic rebirth is the upturn in youth volunteering over the past decade. Next March a group of us will convene a national "Better Together" summit meeting of representatives of older, established civic groups and of younger, emerging groups to hammer out a shared agenda for civic renewal.

Your findings indicate that civic involvement during youth is one of the best predictors of civic involvement later in life. Does this suggest to you that some sort of training in civic-mindedness should be made an integral part of the American school curriculum?

Yes. Look, many aspects of the larger problem really are hard to fix, but as far as schools and civic involvement are concerned, we know that some things work. Smaller is better for social participation, so small schools (and schools within schools) work. Extracurricular activities work, so it was dumb to defund them in the 1980s. Extracurricular activities were invented in the Progressive Era precisely as a way of inculcating civic skills and values, and from a civic point of view, football and band and student government are anything but frills.

Service learning and community-service programs work too, so we should expand them. And well-designed civic education works, so we need to do more of it. By "civic education," I mean not merely "how many houses of Congress are there?" (though even basic civic information like that is a prerequisite for informed citizenship), but also "how can we get the streetlights on our block fixed?" Bill Galston recently founded the National Alliance for Civic Education for that purpose, and it is a great idea.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interview: "The Next Left" (May 1998)
Richard Rorty, the eminent philosopher and author of Achieving Our Country, argues that the American Left, if it is to recapture its relevance, must take pride in its past.

Recent philosophical works like Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven, Michael J. Sandel's Democracy's Discontent, and Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, have all critiqued rights-based individualism ("liberalism") in favor of group stewardship of the common good ("republicanism"). Are these books emblematic of a larger trend? Is republicanism supplanting liberalism as the dominant ethos in American intellectual life?

I am uneasy with "ism" labels, since they often obscure rather than clarify. I'm unhappy with the framework that opposes "liberalism" and "communitarianism," for example, because I don't think social connectedness and tolerance for individual diversity are necessarily in conflict. On the contrary, Bowling Alone shows that the most tolerant individuals in America, and the most tolerant communities, are those that rank high in social connectedness, not low. The supposed choice between freedom and fraternity is, in my view, a false one.

That said, I do think that intellectual attention to the value of community has increased in the past several decades -- I'd date the beginning with Habits of the Heart [1985], by Robert Bellah and his colleagues, and then the work of Amitai Etzioni. Just as the intellectual vitality of neoclassical economics in the 1970s presaged the larger political changes of the 1980s -- not all of which I personally favored, to be sure -- so too the communitarian intellectual currents of the 1990s may lead to larger political changes in the next decade or so.

You identify mindless television-watching as one of the major causes of our depleted public life. How deeply entrenched is television in American life? Will it be possible to combat television's appeal?

Frankly, this is the one arena in which I find it hardest to maintain my optimism. Both culturally and commercially, entertainment television is an incredibly powerful force, and it is particularly insidious in its effects on kids. Against that force, preaching seems a pretty feeble weapon. One of my most thoughtful critics, Alan Ryan, argued in the New York Review of Books that the civic renewal that both he and I want "certainly cannot be achieved by moral preachment to baby boomers and their children." On the other hand, as I glance at history, I sometimes think that preaching is the only thing that does bring fundamental change.

Intriguingly, the more realistic antidote to television might turn out to be the Internet, since most studies show that time spent surfing the Web comes at the expense of time in front of the tube. At least in principle, the Internet allows active, two-way communication, so I am hopeful that we might be able to make the Internet part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Do you have plans to experiment with your Bowling Alone Web site as a community-building tool?

Yes, along with the sister site, BetterTogether.org. We've been working with Paul Resnick, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan's School of Information, and others to see if we can come up with innovative ways of linking social entrepreneurs and of reinforcing face-to-face communities. I believe we need to get beyond the sterile debate about "virtual community" versus "real community," and think creatively about how to use the new technologies to widen and deepen and strengthen the face-to-face communities within which we spend most of our lives. Not all of the promising ideas for blending real and virtual communities will turn out to be successful, any more than every dot.com start-up will flourish. But if enough bright ideas are tried, some successful ideas will almost surely emerge.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on politics & society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Sage Stossel is a senior editor of Atlantic Unbound. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink." Her most recent interview was with David Brooks.

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