In an early blog post, I mentioned Robert Putnam’s discussion in Bowling Alone of declining participation in political parties. My thought then was that the best way forward was for me and millions of others to become more engaged in the Democratic Party. Since then, I’ve been to meetings of the Allen Country Democratic Party and of the Allen Country Democratic Party Women’s Club, and somehow it feels . . . like the past. This is not going to be a post with a clear thesis, because I’m reaching for something here, trying to understand why these meetings feel like the past to me, whether it matters, and what would feel more contemporary to me.
My life was very different in 2000, when Bowling Alone came out. At around the same time, I also read some other sociological research demonstrating how much happier people were when they were affiliated with multiple groups, and I remember rather smugly counting up how many groups I was a part of: my church, a women’s prayer group, the attachment parenting group, two book groups, La Leche League. The specific groups might have changed when I left religion and as my children grew older, but what happened instead was that after I went back to work full-time in 2005, the number of groups dropped to zero and then one, the community orchestra I’ve played in since moving to Indiana in 2006.
My (limited) efforts to connect with other groups in Fort Wayne haven’t been all that successful. Several years ago, I took my kids to an “interfaith prayer service” for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Afterward, there were cookies and coffee in the church basement, and I noticed how the apparent unity in the chapel turned into groups from various churches sitting at tables together. We knew no one there, because, as I joked to my children, we were the only actual INTERfaith people there, as in “between faiths” the way one might be “between jobs.” Some time later, I queried a religion-based homeless shelter about volunteering and mentioned my lack of church affiliation. I never heard back. In some ways, then, my lack of religious affiliation likely diminishes my ability to connect with groups in this very religious small city.
And that is undoubtedly at least part of why attending Democratic Party meetings doesn’t feel like a good fit for me. Not just because the Democratic Party members seem, by and large, to be more religious than I am, but also because it feels like the past, like meetings and church dinners at the United Methodist Church I went to as a child.
I’ve tried and tried to understand what I mean by saying “it feels like the past,” and I think Robert Putnam’s book may be the best way of explaining it. In his book, Putnam is describing (and also valorizing, perhaps undeservedly) civic and group membership for the sake of connectedness, and maybe we could lump together all of those activities that he studies—party membership, church membership, Elks’ Lodge, bowling leagues, and so on—as having meetings where the purpose is in large part strengthening the group.
The problem with Putnam’s vision of good-old-the-way-things-used-to-be is that the benefits are concentrated, not dispersed. If I am a member of six or seven groups, and I get cancer, I will have many people bringing me casseroles. If I am not a member of six or seven groups—perhaps because I am single parent of two children with a full-time job, as I personally was for many years after my divorce, or if it’s because I am working two jobs, or am mentally ill, or have English as my second or third language, or feel unwelcome in a group I try to join because of my race or ethnicity, or any of a thousand other reasons why I might not be able to participate in many groups—no one is going to bring me a casserole when I’m sick.
The civic, social, and religious connectedness of the 1950s and 1960s worked for the in group, for in-group people in groups. Can’t we do better now? Robert Putnam can’t undo what the Internet and other technologies have done to make it possible for individuals to curate their social experience—we can seek out like-minded people, online discussion groups for niche interests—but the present social landscape becomes every bit as insular as a 1950s lodge meeting when we work to create a virtual echo chamber to shelter us from difference.
And that’s the thing, the reason I think there is something I like about the Allen County Democratic Party—it is the most diverse group I have ever been part of (however tenuously and tangentially I am a part at the moment). But I want to go to meetings and not have them feel like the past. How? What do I mean? What do I want party politics to look like? I’m still trying to figure this out.
Rachel E. Hile