In 1995, Robert Putnam published that rare thing: a academic paper that broke through, made noise beyond the Ivory Tower. With Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, and his related book, he diagnosed a widely felt ill and gave us a vivid metaphor to represent it.
His central thesis:
"For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago -- silently, without warning -- that tide reversed, and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart by from one another and from our communities..."
I have a couple of quibbles with Putnam. One, his stuff occasionally veers close to Greatest Generation crap, as when he says the people who came of age in the 30s and 40s, were "exceptionally civic-- voting more, joining more, reading more, trusting more, giving more." Two, his analysis of the causes is weak; for example, he overstates the importance of TV and overlooks the concerted effort by corporate power to break the bonds between people, which Chomsky discusses here.
But the notion that our social and communal ties have frayed seems incontestable. Despite the internet, our connections to each other aren't as strong as they could and should be.
Voting may seem like a purely solitary act, but Putnam correctly links the decrease in voting turnout to the weakening of our social bonds. If we belong to an organization—a labor union, a church, a local political party—that urges us to vote, we're more likely to do so. Likewise, social pressure, a potent get-out-the-vote force, is more likely to come into play if we're close to our neighbors. More generally, if we're civic-minded, we're more likely to engage in this quintessential civic activity.
A new era of strong civic engagement won't magically appear; it has to be created. That's why I've been using this space to talk about the idea of making Election Day a national holiday—a civic celebration to cultivate a culture of voting.
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne