The Book Club

Bowling Alone

Dear Bob–

Let me kick off this exchange by congratulating you on having turned a Phrase–“bowling alone”–that has struck a chord with the American public, or at least with those of us among the upper-middle-class cognoscenti that purport to explicate the true meaning of this vast nation to its less-well-off and less-well-educated residents. Indeed, since the publication of your essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” in the January 1995 issue of the Journal of Democracy, the term has become widespread enough among our class that I feel no real need to define it or the phenomenon it seeks to describe.

This is no small or insignificant feat. Lord knows I’ve tried to do the same thing since joining the staff of Reason back in 1993 as an assistant editor and have only succeeded in the lamest, most unacknowledged ways. Back in 1998, for instance, in a column for the Webzine, I dubbed the 1990s “The Decade of the Penis.” Despite the phrase’s obvious relevance in describing a period that spanned Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, the rise of Howard Stern, and the presidency of Bill Clinton, it never really caught on (though a better-known Web site effectively certified my insight by running a remarkably similar piece on the “Decade of the Infamous Phallus” a few months later). Similarly, in a 1997 cover story for Reason, I used the admittedly clunky phrase, “the Buddhafication of American children” to describe baby boomers’  absurdly overprotective attitudes toward their kids these days; I was pleased just this morning to read a syndicated columnist who proclaimed “the Buddhafication of children has become the new rock ‘n roll for aging hipsters.” Whether “bowling alone” will hold up over the long haul like, say, “the cultural contradictions of capitalism,” or “the lonely crowd,” is anyone’s guess. But it’s already created an extremely catchy way of talking about the perceived decline of civic and social life in contemporary America. I’m sure the book version of your argument will be warmly received by all the people who matter.

This is all the more impressive since your basic contention–that Americans are more socially isolated and disconnected than ever before–is extremely dubious on its face (we may be closer in agreement on the related issue of whether “social capital” is a prerequisite for a happy and satisfied life). Your book of course marshals all sorts of impressive data on absolute and/or relative membership declines in all sorts of official groups–ranging from political parties to labor unions to the PTA to the Masons to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union–to support your argument. But your stats are pretty effectively countered by those offered up in Everett Carll Ladd’s The Ladd Report (Free Press, 1999). Ladd, executive director and president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at UConn, argues persuasively that when one looks beyond traditional markers of public activity and peers into newer forms of community life, “the country’s civic life isn’t declining, but rather … transforming itself to meet modern conditions without losing positive energy.” Maybe it’s not so bad, after all, that the Temperance Union is having trouble getting any new blood these days–especially if the slack is being picked up by newer groups, both formal and informal, that bring value and meaning to people’s lives. Ladd makes an especially good case that this is precisely what is happening in all sorts of ways. His argument rings truer for me partly because of personal experience: Though I officially belong to very few organizations, I’m at no loss for social connections and interactions, both related to work and home. On paper, I may appear “alone,” but if anything I have more social commitments–both deep and shallow–than I can handle.

I’m sure you can muster more data to disprove Ladd’s contention (and I’m almost certain you will). But I’m equally confident that you’ll agree that these grand-scale debates are rarely settled simply by appeals to numbers and statistics (which isn’t to say they aren’t important). There’s a certain amount of internal logic to these sorts of arguments that’s worth examining, if only because such debates are ultimately fought on symbolic grounds.

Although you explicitly eschew “the declensionist tradition,” which holds that “community bonds have weakened steadily through our history,” your book is clearly in that mold: “The ebbing of community over the last several decades has been silent and deceptive. We notice its effects in the strained interstices of our private lives and in the degradation of our public life,” you write in a chapter titled, “Toward an Agenda for Social Capitalists.” But earlier on in the book, you note that “a society characterized by a generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful one. … Trustworthiness lubricates social life.”

You argue that since around 1960, American society has effectively pissed away its store of social capital, its surplus of reciprocity and trust. My question for you, then, is: What do you make of the generalized massive increases in wealth and education over the past several decades? In 1960, according to Census data, 41 percent of all adults over the age of 25 had earned a high-school diploma; in 1998, that figure had jacked up to 83 percent. Even more amazing are the college figures: 7.7 percent of American adults in 1960 had BAs or better; the equivalent figure today is 24 percent (and about two-thirds of graduating high-school seniors are now going on to college). The Census also finds that about 67 percent of Americans own their own homes, the highest figure ever; 90 percent of households own cars. Other generally accepted metrics of well-being–crime, teen-age pregnancy rates, poverty–have been heading down over the past several years. Despite scare stories to the contrary, economic mobility appears to be doing pretty well, with most individuals sliding up the income scale substantially over time (this is reflected in those home- and car-ownership rates, among others things). How could any of this be happening if what you’re talking about is true? Doesn’t your social capital theory hold that the opposite should be happening–that as our communal ties fray, our economic conditions should too?

Let me ask another, related question. There’s a clear trend to the 40 charts in Appendix III of your book, “The Rise and Fall of Civic and Professional Associations”: Virtually all of the memberships grow until maybe 1960 and then hit the skids (for good, apparently). Yet who among us would rather be living in 1960–much less 1950–than today? Although these are certainly good times for the vast, overwhelming majority of (though not all) Americans, the current times are by no means perfect. Still, there’s no question that, overall, it’s easier to be who you are–either as an individual or a member of a group: You’re likely to have more options for work, for partners, for living arrangement. If such progress has come at the expense of the measures you use to tally civic involvement, who really wants to complain that the social register is a bit short at the end of night?