Bill Long 11/14/04
Second Thoughts on Social Capital
This evening at Willamette University Professor Robert Putnam, the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, held forth on the theme for which he has received considerable national attention--the decline of what he calls social capital in American life and possible ways to restore it. The ideas for his talk came out of his best-selling 1995 book Bowling Alone, supplemented by his more recent Better Together. His style was engaging, his humor infectious, his enthusiam contagious, his argument clear and easy to follow. All of this would have made for a wonderful evening for me except for the fact that I couldn't accept the first point that he made or, alternatively, if I accepted his first point it led me to conclusions diametrically opposite to those of the good professor.
Understanding Professor Putnam
Four questions actuated his concerns. (1) What has been happening to disconnect us from each other in American life over the past three or four decades? (2) What are these developments? (3) Why should anyone be concerned with these developments and (4) What can be done about it (i.e., to arrest the rather precipitous decline in the social fabric/capital in American communities)? The bulk of his presentation concerned the first issue.
From nearly every external and internal measurement that he could find, from church attendance and involvement in local organizations to hosting friends at home and going on picnics, it appears that Americans are increasingly withdrawing from connections and pulling back from ties of community and friendship. In chart after chart, Professor Putnam showed that the pool of "social capital" had shrunk about 50% from the early 1970s until today. Though he would identify television and the increased commute time to and from work as the major "culprits" for this declining involvement, he was not unsympathetic to a host of other social changes in American life over the past generation contributing to this worrisome decline in social capital.
And, make no mistake about it. It is a worrisome decline for him and should be for us. Increased crime rates, decline in support networks, even potentially dramatic personal health consequences are the possible results for us. What to do? Here the challenge is to try to develop not simply our "bonding" social capital, where we increase ties to those "like us," but also our "bridging social capital," by which we reach out to cultural groups unlike ourselves. The task as he sees it is to discover where some of these cultural groups are emerging and encourage their growth in forms that probably cannot be predicted at this moment.
Professor Putnam's presentation rested on an untentable assumption, is based on history only partially told and logically leads to a cynical argument that I know he does not want to promote.
(1) The untenable assumption is that the World War II generation, the "greatest generation," set the normative pattern for civic involvement in American life. In fact, I think a better case could be made from a study of American history that the WWII generation was an aberration and that any attempt to plot "declines" of involvement from the lofty levels of that generation and then posit it as a problem sets the problem on its head. Indeed, the WWII generation more than any other since 1620, with the possible exception of the generation around 1776, saw degrees of sustained unity and support for a national policy of war that is unprecedented in our history. And the reason for that degree of unity was recognized by Dr. Putnam--the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. To expect that kind of level of "civic support" to be replicated in our day is to secretely long for the kind of thing that stimulated the national unity of 60 years ago.
(2) Taking my next two points out of order, Putnam's argument therefore leaves him open to the question, "Why not pray for war? Why not hope for a dramatic kind of invasion on our soil, maybe a super 9/11, that would be transmuted into such a consuming desire for revenge and counterattack that it might lead to degress of civic involvement manifest 40 years ago? Professor Putnam gave no other historical fact or reason to believe that the roots for social transformation or for community involvement come from other sources than from the sense of national vulnerability through attack.
(3) Ah, but you say, he pointed to the creation of the vast array of voluntary societies in American life in the decades between 1890 - 1910 as a time in which America had decided to "create community" or "produce social capital" by founding such groups as diverse as the Boy Scouts, the League of Women Voters and Rotary International. But here is where Professor Putnam's history breaks down. Certainly he is right that those groups owed their origin to this period, with most of them actually arising between 1900 and 1910. But the reason for these groups has to be sought in the fact that the Civil War generation, the soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic, were dying off and, in order to preserve their legacy and respond to widespread perceived political corruption and economic inequality, these civic groups were formed. The "social capital," therefore, that led to the forming of these groups was from war, the bloodiest war ever seen on American soil.
The only two social forces that are strong enough to replenish the social capital that Professor Putnam wants replenished are war and religious conversion. Despite the apparent victory of fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity in the recent Presidential election, they will not "take over" American life. This leaves war.
But let's just stop for one moment and take a deep breath. When we do that, perhaps we can recognize that Professor Putnam has misstated or overstated the problem. America, in fact, does not lack for good ideas and social involvement today. It has sources of renewal within the minds and hearts of its people that are being manifest all around us. We are not poor in social capital. To suggest otherwise, which is what he does, unwittingly contributes to a climate which will bring about the context for the development of a WWII-type surge in social capital. Don't commit the flaw of trying to compare us to the World War II generation. Leave it to Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert to lionize that generation; let's realize that our own forms of organization and friendship are equally good, equally powerful and equally replenishing of the social capital. When we see things this way, we see that our accounts are not at all as low as Dr. Putnam would have us think.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long