When one looks at the current state of American life and culture, there seems to be a declining commitment to the community. This is extraordinarily problematic: the atomization of society leads to personal isolation and the abrogation of political participation. How can the republic survive if we cannot even talk to each other? A plethora of normative issues arise from this crisis, and eminent political scientist Robert Putnam described all of the issues of this phenomenon in his seminal work Bowling Alone. Conservatives should readily turn to this text as a means to diagnose the issue and look for solutions.
Robert Putnam puts forth an argument that describes the causes and effects of America’s declining civic and communal engagements, what he terms social capital. Social capital may be defined as the connections among individuals and social networks, and the norms of reciprocity in those networks. He did not invent the concept (the progressive L.J. Hanifan conceived it), but Putnam asks why social capital has consistently declined in the decades prior the 21st century. There are two forms of social capital: bridging and bonding. Bridging happens when people of different social dimensions come together because of a specific commonality. Putnam gives the example of black churches that have members of the same race and religion, but they have different economic classes. Bonding happens when groups must look inward and attempt to exclude others form the organization. One form of this is terrorist organizations like the Klu Klux Klan.
It seems that every aspect of people’s social capital has declined, including political, civic, and religious aspects. Politically, Americans have consistently done less over several decades to participate in the process. Of the voting age population, only about half actually go to the polls. Putnam further argues that, according to Roper polls community involvement, everything from petitioning to running for office, declined since the early 1980’s. Organizational membership, like the PTA or Knights of Columbus, has also reduced over relatively the same time period. Membership peaked in the later 1950’s, but it has consistently gone down since then. The only type of civic membership that has increased is for organizations like the AARP that do not require a significant amount of participation by its members. Even religion has not been exempt from this trend. Although America has historically been a religious country, membership in mainline Protestant churches has dropped precipitately while membership in evangelical and fundamentalist churches has increased. The latter, though, has not been enough to offset the decline of mainline Protestant churches. Therefore, those who are religious are increasingly conservative theologically.
Putnam lays out several possible explanations, but he ultimately rejects each of them as being able to explain everything. The pressures of time and money on people, especially two-career families, have contributed roughly 10 percent of the decline in social capital. In addition, suburbanization and the “sprawl” of communities prevent people from having community and increasing isolation by 10 percent. The largest contributor by itself is television, which accounts for 25 percent of the decline in social capital. People constantly watch television rather than go to club meetings or having friends. Finally, a third of the change is related to a generational effect. Those born during the baby boomer years are far less likely to engage in civic and social affairs than their parents. This leaves roughly 20 percent that needs to be explained.
I would add to these explanations a primary cause: modern liberalism. Modern liberalism places the individual above everything else. This is a corruption of the Aristotelean notion that the individual’s desire to flourish is the person’s primary importance, but this does not eliminate their commitment to the community. Yet modern liberalism has attempted to turn the private sphere into the public sphere and eliminate the individual’s responsibility to the community at large. This is the root cause of why the baby boomer generation has chosen to shun political participation, the decline of marriage, economic conditions that force both parents to work, etc.
In response to all of the issues with declining social capital, Putnam believes there is something to do about it. He turns to the Progressive Era in America where social reformers actively led policy initiatives that increased communal and political activities. The two main thrusts that Putnam believes will support social capital are education and religion. For education, he wants to see a civic education curriculum that does not only focus on the structure of government, but how students can help their community. Along with this, educators need to promote volunteerism and community involvement, especially through extracurricular activities like sports or band. Conservatives can actively use this understanding to promote education reform that encourages community amongst those in K-12 education. Perhaps conservatives could use legislation to make civics part of the national curriculum, forcing students to participate in community service as a means to serve others and encourage the development of social capital.
Religion for Putnam is not some call to revival: what Putnam means is that religious leaders will have to call for a pluralistic, social “great awakening.” This is where I disagree with Putnam. Instead of a pluralistic, social great awakening, there needs to be a more robust Christianity to take the place of the anti-intellecutal fundamentalism that has run rampant in American churches. To move away from fundamentalism is not to give up orthodox teachings. Examples of this are William Lane Craig, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr, and even C.S. Lewis. What America needs is a thinking faith that properly challenge the ills of society and encourage community based on thought and faith.
Ultimately, Putnam encourages Americans to stop sitting on their couches watching television. People need to go out into the world, make friends, have drinks, and enjoy their community instead of sitting alone and contributing nothing to the world. He is absolutely right on this point. Americans need to get out into the community, read great works, and stop spending hours consuming mindless entertainment. Rather than shutting themselves off from their fellow man, Americans need to engage with the world around them.