The Book Club

Community Matters

Dear Nick:

Thanks for your compliment on my word-smithing. You raise some interesting questions worthy of debate, and I look forward to our exchanges over the next few days.

Among those debatable questions is not whether Americans’ social connections have become weaker. Beyond your own “deep commitments,” you don’t really offer any evidence for your claim except to cite the book by Ladd. I have remained silent on that book since Ladd’s sad, premature death last year, because I was taught not to speak ill of the dead. (He actually died before my book was completed, so his book was hardly a response to mine.) However, since you and one or two other commentators have cited his work in critique of mine, I must comment on his work briefly.

Ev Ladd had a productive career as a political scientist, but his last book was not his best. The alleged evidence of civic vitality offered in the book is puzzlingly selective. For reasons of space I cite only a single example among many: Ladd cites Roper data from surveys in 1981, 1990, and 1995 that purport to show steady or rising political participation, but he fails to tell his readers that he selected those three surveys from a series of more than 200 identical surveys over the last quarter century. I report the full series in my book, and they unmistakably show steady long-term declines of 40 percent to 50 percent since the early 1970s. (As you know, I will be making those data, along with all the other original data in my book, publicly available at my Web site so that anyone can check both my arithmetic and my inferences.) Sadly, it is hard to avoid the inference that Ladd intentionally chose three isolated data points from the full set of more than 200 to suggest a contrary trend. It’s like selecting one hot July day in 1980 and one frigid January day in 1990 from daily temperature records to deny global warming. Why did Ladd not report the entire series of surveys from his own archive if he were seeking the truth?

Leaving poor Ladd aside, a reader of your comments who has not yet had a chance to read my book might assume that my evidence was limited to membership in old-fashioned organizations like the WCTU, but any reader of the book (like you) knows that is not true. On topics from philanthropy to road rage and from Mall marches to self-help groups, I present so many figures and tables that more than one reviewer has been left groaning at evidentiary “overkill.” When I present my argument to public audiences, as I did yesterday to 450 folks in Philadelphia and today to 300 in Chicago, there is lots of lively debate about the implications of Americans’ growing social isolation, but virtually no one questions the facts, because ordinary Americans know that what I’ve described fits their own experience. The Wall Street Journal, normally sympathetic to Ladd’s conservative views, concluded that Bowling Alone

is a minutely documented catalog of social disengagement of virtually every kind: political apathy, retreat from church attendance, eroding union membership, the decline of bridge clubs and dinner parties, volunteering and blood donation. There is a graph or chart for every one of them. … Mr. Putnam has proved his main point and proved it to what should be the satisfaction of any fair-minded reader.

 I’d be happy to continue our debate over the next two days about whether American’s civic engagement is rising or falling, since the facts overwhelming confirm my case, but would it not be more productive to move on to debate the meaning of this disengagement for American communities?

So let me try to move us to that more contestable terrain. As you know, though I explicitly dissociate myself from the view that everything has gone wrong in America since the 1960s, I do argue that the decline in social and civic engagement since then has been a net loss. I present lots of evidence that where social capital is more abundant, children and adults live longer, healthier, happier lives and democracy works better. Americans’ current worries about weakening bonds of family and community represent not vague nostalgia for a warm and cuddly past but a sensible aspiration for a more satisfying future. Overwhelming, Americans believe that community matters, and the facts (at least as I read them) confirm that belief.

I’m confused, however, about your own view, Nick. At the outset of your remarks, you concede parenthetically that “we may be closer in agreement on the related issue of whether ‘social capital’ is a prerequisite for a happy and satisfied life,” but toward the end you offer a florid defense of our current prosperity, and conclude that “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?” So which is it, Nick? Do community bonds matter or not?