You’ve probably heard of Robert Putnam’s celebrated book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community about how social capital as forged in community groups such as bowling leagues creates “social capital’ that empowers citizens to tackle problems. Well, in “Bowling For Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33” Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer, and Hans-Joachim Voth show that it can also empower citizens to overthrow the government and institute a fascist dictatorship:
Social capital – a dense network of associations facilitating cooperation within a community – typically leads to positive political and economic outcomes, as demonstrated by a large literature following Putnam. A growing literature emphasizes the potentially “dark side” of social capital. This paper examines the role of social capital in the downfall of democracy in interwar Germany by analyzing Nazi party entry rates in a cross-section of towns and cities. Before the Nazi Party’s triumphs at the ballot box, it built an extensive organizational structure, becoming a mass movement with nearly a million members by early 1933. We show that dense networks of civic associations such as bowling clubs, animal breeder associations, or choirs facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party. The effects are large: Towns with one standard deviation higher association density saw at least one-third faster growth in the strength of the Nazi Party. IV results based on 19th century measures of social capital reinforce our conclusions. In addition, all types of associations – veteran associations and non-military clubs, “bridging” and “bonding” associations – positively predict NS party entry. These results suggest that social capital in Weimar Germany aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.
Ooops! In a related vein, I note that in my lifetime hand-wringing about citizen disengagement seemed to reach a peak in the late-1990s. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and social movements both for and against it, and the large movement on behalf of Barack Obama in 2008 and the Tea Party movement against him in 2009, have all transformed the situation quite a bit. And yet in retrospect the late-1990s were the best of times. We had such a sustained period of low unemployment that both wages and labor force participating were rising smartly. People didn’t care so much about politics. It was nice.