Robert Putnam has become an academic celebrity in the US with his views on the decline of civic virtue. Nicholas Lemann says that his ideas are popular because they are politically convenientby Nicholas Lemann / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Why is there such a wide variation in the social and economic health of different regions and ethnic groups and, for that matter, of different societies all over the world?
A Harvard professor, Robert Putnam, has come up with an answer which has aroused academic and political interest on both sides of the Atlantic. It came to him, curiously, studying Italian local government.
Putnam discovered that local authorities in the prosperous north of Italy outperformed the ones in the benighted south. In itself this is not surprising, but the reasons given by Putnam are. In Making Democracy Work, he showed that northern success was not simply a case of the rich getting richer; regional government officials, for example, are less well educated in the north than in the south. Instead, he found the north’s secret to be a quality that Machiavelli called virtu civile (“civic virtue”)-an ingrained tendency to form small-scale associations. “Good government in Italy is a by-product of singing groups and soccer clubs,” he wrote. Civic virtue both expresses and builds trust and co-operation in the citizenry; it is these qualities-which Putnam called “social capital,” borrowing a phrase from Jane Jacobs-that create a fertile ground for political and economic development.
What causes some societies to become more civic-minded than others? In Italy, Putnam said, the north-south difference dates from the 1100s, when the Normans established a centralised, autocratic regime in the south, and a series of autonomous republics arose in the north. The southern system stressed what Putnam called “vertical bonds”: it was rigidly hierarchical, with those at the bottom dependent on the patronage of landowners and officials rather than on one another. In the north small organisations such as guilds and credit associations generated “horizontal bonds,” fostering a sense of mutual trust. Putnam stressed the “astonishing constancy” of the north-south divide: it survived the demise of the independent northern republics in the 17th century and the Risorgimento in the 19th century.
Putnam contested the prevailing view in the social sciences that civic virtue is “an atavism destined to disappear” with modernisation, which replaces small organisations that operate by custom with big ones that operate by rules. Instead, he said, even the biggest and most modern societies cannot function well if the local civic dimension is weak.
When Putnam brought his theory home to the US, it created a sensation. His article “Bowling Alone,” published in January 1995, had a great impact. In its wake, Putnam was invited to Camp David to consult with Bill Clinton. His terminology has heavily influenced the past two state of the union addresses; he was even mentioned in the musings of Senator Bill Bradley about his disillusionment with politics.
The thesis of Bowling Alone is that “the vibrancy of American civil society”-the magic variable-“has notably declined over the past several decades.” Putnam gets his title from the finding that between 1980 and 1993 league bowling declined by 40 per cent while the number of individual bowlers rose by 10 per cent. The rest of his evidence is less whimsical: voter turnout, church attendance and union membership are down. The percentage of people who trust the government and who attend community meetings has dropped. The leading indicator for Putnam-membership in voluntary associations-is down. Look at the Boy Scouts, the Lions, the Jaycees, the Masons, the Red Cross, the Federation of Women’s Clubs: “Serious volunteering declined by roughly one sixth” from 1974 to 1989. For Putnam, the true import of these changes is that they predict a broader decline in economic vitality.
Earlier this year, Putnam stated his thesis more firmly, in an article in the American Prospect called “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” He found that Americans who were born after the second world war are far less civic-minded than their elders; the reason is that they grew up after the advent of television, which “privatises our leisure time.”
Bowling Alone struck a nerve in part because it provided a coherent theory to explain the dominant emotion in American politics: a feeling that the everyday quality of our society has deteriorated severely. It appeals to liberal politicians, who see in it the possibility of a rhetoric they can use to address an issue that has been owned by conservatives. Putnam’s work also suggests the possibility of solving our problems through relatively low cost association-strengthening local initiatives that do not require higher taxes. This appeals to Democrats, who want to put forward a programme that is not vulnerable to anti-tax rhetoric, and to foundation executives, who want to believe that the limited grants they make can reap large social benefits.
There are, however, a few problems with his theory. For one thing, the Italian Putnam conflicts with the Bowling Alone Putnam. According to the Italian version, once civic virtue is in place, it is meant to be durable over the centuries; it cannot vanish in a generation as Bowling Alone suggests. Assuming the Italian Putnam is right, then the dire statistics in Bowling Alone may reflect merely a mutation rather than a disappearance of civic virtue. Perhaps civic virtue has found new outlets.
To test this idea I spent a couple of days telephoning around in search of examples of new associations. Putnam mentions several in Bowling Alone, but dismisses them as replacements for the lost bowling leagues, either because they do not involve regular face to face contact (cyberspace forums; the 33m-member American Association of Retired Persons) or because they do not encourage people to build lasting ties (Alcoholics Anonymous). The most dramatic example I could find is US Youth Soccer, which has 2.4m members, up from 1.2m ten years ago and from 127,000 20 years ago. As a long-standing coach in this organisation, I can attest that it involves incessant meetings, telephone calls, and activities of a kind that create extensive civic links between people.
Another intriguing statistic is the number of restaurants in the US, which has risen from 203,000 in 1972 to 368,000 in 1993. True, this probably means that fewer people are eating a family dinner at home. But from Putnam’s perspective, that might be good news; it means that people who are eating out are expanding their civic associations.
The number of small businesses, too, has about doubled since 1970. These can be seen as both generators and results of civic virtue, because they involve so much personal contact and mutual trust. A small subset, community development corporations (which promote associations locally in the hope of a later economic pay-off), have grown from 500 to 2,200 over the past 20 years. Individual contributions to charity (still made by more than three quarters of Americans) rose from $16.2 billion in 1970 to $101.8 billion in 1990. Although church attendance is, as Putnam says, down, the Pentecostal denominations are booming. Membership in the PTA is also rising, although it is still far below its peak in 1962–63. Home ownership is high and steady, and, as Putnam admits in Bowling Alone, Americans move less frequently now than they did in the 1950s and 1960s.
Weighed against all this, the statistics in Bowling Alone are still impressive. But let us say for the sake of argument that Putnam’s thesis that civic virtue is collapsing in the US is not true. What accounts for it being so widely accepted as gospel?
I have lived in five American cities: New Orleans, Cambridge, Washington, Austin, and Pelham, New York. The two that stand out in my memory as most deficient in the Putnam virtues-the places where people tend not to have elaborate hobbies and not to devote their time to neighbourhood meetings-are Cambridge and Washington. The reason is that these places are the big time. Work absorbs all the energy. It is what people talk about at social events. Community is defined functionally, not spatially: it is a professional peer group rather than a neighbourhood. Hired hands, from nannies to therapists, bear more of the civic virtue load than is typical.
To people living this kind of life, many of whom grew up in a bourgeois provincial environment and migrated to one of the capitals, the Bowling Alone theory makes sense. It is natural for people to assume that if their own life trajectories have been in the direction of reduced civic virtue, this is the result not of choices they have made, but of a widespread national trend.
Another reason for the appeal of Bowling Alone is that it challenges high-spending liberal social policy. Putnam himself wrote: “Classic liberal policy is designed to enhance the opportunities of individuals, but if social capital is important, this emphasis is partially misplaced. Instead we must focus on allowing space for religious groups and choral societies that may seem to have little to do with politics or economics.”
A political challenge to Putnam’s theory would run like this. There has been relatively little general decline in civic virtue. To the extent that the overall civic health of the nation did deteriorate, it was confined mainly to 1965-75-when, for example, crime and divorce rates rose rapidly. Instead, the overwhelming social and moral problem in the US is the disastrous condition of poor neighbourhoods, almost all of which are in big cities.
The model of a healthy country but with needy ghettos would suggest a programme much closer to the “liberal social policy” from which Putnam wants us to depart. Rather than assume, with Putnam, that such essential public goods as safety, decent housing and good education can be generated only from within a community, we could assume that they might be provided from without-by government. If quite near the ghettos are working class neighbourhoods (and not insuperably distant are suburbs) of varying ethnic character and strong civic virtue, then the individual opportunity model might be precisely the answer for ghetto residents: an opportunity, to move to a place that is part of the healthy American mainstream.
The difficulty with such a programme is that it is politically inconvenient. It would involve, by contemporary standards, too much action on the part of the government, with the benefits too skewed toward blacks. The idea of an entire US severely distressed in a way that is beyond the power of government to correct is more comforting.