The Book Club

Tolerance and Civic Involvement

Dear Nick,

It’s been an instructive two days for me and I hope for you. The most important disagreement between us, it becomes clear at the end, is not the use and misuse of numbers. (I leave aside the disconcerting fact that although you quote from the important Robinson study, you inexplicably end with evidence that is now 15 years old and has been superceded by more recent evidence from Robinson’s later work and other studies, as summarized in Bowling Alone.) Despite your opening remarks (which now puzzle me more than ever) that you agree with me on the importance of community, you make crystal clear in your concluding remarks that as long as you are comfortable enough and can tell everyone else to “f*** off,” you cannot imagine a better society.

I can. Of course, it would not be a simple rerun of the society of 1960. That was, as I argue at length in Bowling Alone, in many ways an intolerant (and surely a less affluent) society. But there are features of that society of 1960 that I do admire more than ours, for it was a less lonely and a far more public-spirited society. Keep in mind, Nick, that the civil rights revolutions whose benefits we all enjoy were not initiated by the wealthy boomers and X’ers you admire, but by less affluent African-Americans and women and young people who came of age in the 1950s. Do you think that we today match their commitment and vision? I do not. Do you think we are doing as much to remedy the injustices and intolerances in our society today as they did in theirs? I do not. I certainly don’t long for the injustice of those years, but it would be nice to recapture their commitment to fight against it.

You talk a populist game about elite domination, Nick, but it’s precisely the top echelons in our society who have done just fine in the last decade or so. Political power is more concentrated today, and so is financial and economic power. Civic re-engagement by the rest of us is not the only remedy for those ills, but it is hard to see how we can make changes without that engagement.
Underlying some of your argument, I believe, is a subtle and important assumption. You believe that the sort of community engagement and social connectedness that I value is incompatible with the tolerance for diversity that we both value. (One principle of tolerance and debate might be not to intentionally misstate others’ views, and you know perfectly well from reading Bowling Alone that my argument and evidence are not just about formal organizations, much less uniformed ones, but about all forms of social connection, formal and informal.) Like many others on both the left and right, you seem to believe that community and tolerance are fundamentally incompatible.

That is not a silly view at all; lots of smart people besides you have shared that view. “Might not the gain in liberty over the last few decades be worth the loss in community?” they have asked. Is there not a kind of iron law linking social capital and intolerance, so that the decline of social capital is simply “the flip side” of the rise of tolerant individualism? Don’t we face in the end a painful and even arbitrary choice of values–community or individualism, but not both? We no longer connect, but at least I don’t bother you and you don’t bother me.A tough choice–and I believe a false one. As an empirical matter, even among people of identical levels of education, individuals who are more engaged with their communities are generally more tolerant than their stay-at-home neighbors, not less. This was true in the 1950s and it remains true today. Social joiners and civic activists are as a rule more tolerant of dissent and unconventional behavior than social isolates. The most tolerant communities in America are precisely the places with the greatest civic involvement. Conversely, communities whose residents bowl alone are the least tolerant places in America.

Some community-mongers in the past have fostered intolerance, and their 21st-century heirs (like me) need to be held to a higher standard. That said, the greatest threat to American liberty comes from the disengaged, not the engaged. The most intolerant individuals and communities in America today are the least connected, not the most connected. There is no evidence whatever that civic disengagement is a useful tool against bigotry, nor even that tolerance is a convenient side effect of disengagement. In short, Bowling Alone articulates a more hopeful view, Nick–that together we can build a society even more tolerant and much more connected than the one we enjoy today.