In 2000, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone explored the decline in “social capital” in America from 1950 to 2000. In all areas of life, from the mundane—fewer Americans joining bowling leagues, instead choosing to bowl alone—to the potentially culture changing—fewer Americans participating in groups such as labor unions, religious organizations, and political parties—people’s group and community involvement had declined. He noted the high point for voting in 1960, when 62.8% of voting-age Americans voted in the presidential election between  John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and the low point of 1996, when only 48.9% of voting-age Americans participated in the choice among Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Ross Perot.

So much social capital in this 1950s photo!

Along with the decline in voting rates, he found a concomitant decline in numerous types of political and civic engagement, as illustrated in the table below:

Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, Chapter 2, Table 1, p. 45

Importantly for his thesis, Putnam noted a connection between the rate of declining participation and the extent to which particular activities required connection and cooperation with other people. For the activities in the top half of the table, “each of these activities can be undertaken only if others in the community are also active. Conversely, the activities (in the bottom half of the table) that have declined most slowly are, for the most part, actions that one can undertake as an individual. . . . In other words, the more that my activities depend on the actions of others, the greater the drop-off in my participation. . . . it is precisely those forms of civic engagement most vulnerable to coordination problems and free riding—those activities that brought citizens together, those activities that most clearly embody social capital—that have declined most rapidly” (pp. 44-45).

In the conclusion to his book, “Toward an Agenda for Social Capitalists,” Putnam noted that “reweav[ing] the fabric of our communities” would not be an easy task. “It would be eased by a palpable national crisis, like war or depression or natural disaster, but for better and for worse, America at the dawn of the new century faces no such galvanizing crisis” (p. 402). Then came 9/11. In “Still Bowling Alone: The Post-9/11 Split” (2010), Putnam and his colleague Thomas H. Sander offered a follow-up to the original study. They discovered that Americans who were of college age or younger at the time of the attacks had a greater commitment to volunteerism and more interest in and engagement with political affairs than older generations.  In the nation as a whole, voting rates increased from the low point of 1996, as illustrated in this figure:

Figure from FairVote:

But their 2010 research uncovered a distressing split between levels of political and civic commitment for higher-income and lower-income young people: “Over the last thirty years . . . white high-school seniors from upper middle-class families have steadily deepened the degree to which they are engaged in their communities, while white high-school seniors from working or lower-class backgrounds have shown a propensity to withdraw from (or never undertake) such engagement.  . . . If the United States is to avoid becoming two nations, it must find ways to expand the post-9/11 resurgence of civic and social engagement beyond the ranks of affluent young white people” (pp. 13-14).

In the week since our presidential election, many would agree that it has felt like the United States has become “two nations,” and surely we can draw a straight line from Putnam and Sander’s concern about the political disengagement of working-class white youths in 2010 to some of the Trump votes in the Rust Belt states this year.  Putnam’s prescient comment in 2000 about the ability of disaster to renew people’s commitment to building community and social capital may apply at the present moment. The Trump presidency promises to be a disaster for many, including some of those who voted for him. I and many others have committed ourselves to becoming part of a stronger Democratic Party, but Putnam’s work reminds me how much work we have to do to strengthen the social connectedness of the nation as a whole, not just our political party.

Rachel E. Hile


One thought on “Our Political Engagement Is a Bigly Disaster. Sad!

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