We are bowling alone

Aquarter century has passed since Robert Putnam released “Bowling Alone,” his heralded work on America’s decaying social fabric. The book was sobering at the time. Things are worse now: Not only are we still bowling alone, but now we’re playing an altogether different game.

Putnam was fascinated by whether Americans were abandoning those very institutions — family, schools, places of worship, community organizations, even the voting booth — that, historically, have bound us together. Were we pulling back from those civic centers that gave our collective lives meaning, he asked? Were we forsaking those root organizations that provided us with a forum for understanding others and a venue for calibrating our moral compasses? Yes, he concluded. What he found was that there has been a marked deterioration of America’s connective tissue, a significant decline in social engagement. Americans were once “joiners”; they are decidedly less so now.


Putnam put Alexis de Tocqueville’s wonder to the test. When traveling around the United States in the 1830s, the Frenchman was amazed at the country’s capacity to foster, encourage and sustain “associations.” “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition,” Tocqueville observed, “are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.” “Nothing,” he wrote, “more deserves attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.” Putnam agreed: Nothing deserves more attention. The problem Putnam uncovered is that Americans are turning away from these associations; they are ditching their membership in civic life.

Take the church. Only 2% of Americans admitted to no religious affiliation in 1967. That number rose to 11% in 1990. Today, almost one in three Americans claim no religious connection. Places of worship once grounded Americans in a collective morality. That’s where people learned right from wrong. No longer.

The same trends have plagued the workplace. Union membership is way down from its peak in the 1950s. So is involvement in professional associations like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association. Disaffection is in the water, it seems. Americans no longer believe “associations” merit their time.

The political picture is a bit more nuanced, and this is where we are now playing a different game. For Putnam, voter participation is an important indicator of civic commitment. Indeed, the Harvard scholar noted the steady decline in voter turnout prior to 2000 and insisted that electoral apathy is part of the story. True enough. But participation in presidential elections has actually increased in the 21st century. From a high of 63% voter turnout in 1960 to a low of 49% in 1996, we’re hovering around the mid-50s these days.

Electoral participation is an important measure of civic engagement. But it is not completely telling. It’s apparent that a number of factors contribute to the ebb and flow of American voter enthusiasm. One of those factors is anger. Polarized electors are galvanized by hatred. A certain percentage of American voters are motivated by a desire to bury their partisan opponents; they are energized not so much by the appeal of their particular candidate, but by a deep dislike of the other. Donald Trump’s base believes Joe Biden and the Democrats stole the 2020 election; Biden’s base believes Trump and the Republicans want a return to Jim Crow. Neither is correct, and perpetuating the lies just exacerbates division. Pew Research Center data suggests a high percentage of voters are simply fed up with the candidates themselves, and with the political system as a whole. Robust turnout rates can thus be a consequence of loathing.

And therein lies the problem. The data seems to confirm that Americans are more politically engaged — of a certain type at least — and they feel more informed about the civic goings-on around them. And yet that deeper participation looks and feels a good bit different than the engagement Putnam had in mind. Anger at your partisan enemy might get you to the ballot box, but it will not get you to the bowling alley or to the corner diner to talk with that opponent. Distrust of the political other is not an adhesive; it’s a repellent, one that runs counter to the virtue of bowling leagues.

Putnam chose bowling leagues as his metaphor because he admired what those collectives used to do. At their height, they brought together different peoples, from different backgrounds and cultures, to share in a common purpose. You learned something about your bowling buddy, who happened to be Black, by flocking to the alley once a week. You learned something about your Jewish 10-pin partner by sharing the frustration over gutter balls and 7-10 splits. You learned something about your South Asian teammate, or your nonbinary team captain, by splitting a mediocre sheet pizza. Indeed, there was commonality in beer frames and ugly shoes.

Politics was once that way. I grew up in the Tip O’Neill era where “working across the aisle” was the political equivalent of bowling with someone who shared none of your background and even less of your life story. I grew up in a conservative household where my liberal views were respected even if not embraced. My father, from Selma, Ala., didn’t hate me because I thought Ronald Reagan was misguided, and I didn’t hate him because he thought Reagan was the second-coming of George Washington. We bowled together. Not literally, but we showed up and we talked, and we understood. We were never political teammates, but we were always committed to our league. And that made all the difference.

Breslin is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair of Political Science at Skidmore College and author of “A Constitution for the Living: Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation’s Fundamental Law.”

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