In 1995 Robert D. Putnam authored an essay titled Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital which in 2000 was followed by a book titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
As described in Wikipedia: “Putnam surveys the decline of “social capital” in the United States since 1950. He has described the reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans used to found, educate, and enrich the fabric of their social lives. He believes this undermines the active civil engagement which a strong democracy requires from its citizens.
Putnam discusses ways in which Americans have disengaged from political involvement including decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, serving on committees and working with political parties. Putnam also cites Americans’ growing distrust in their government. Putnam accepts the possibility that this lack of trust could be attributed to “the long litany of political tragedies and scandals since the 1960s” (see paragraph 13 of the 1995 article), but believes that this explanation is limited when viewing it alongside other “trends in civic engagement of a wider sort” (par. 13).
Putnam notes the aggregate loss in membership of many existing civic organizations and points out that the act of individual membership has not migrated to other, succeeding organizations. To illustrate why the decline in Americans’ membership in social organizations is problematic to democracy, Putnam uses bowling as an example. Although the number of people who bowl has increased in the last 20 years, the number of people who bowl in leagues has decreased. If people bowl alone, they do not participate in social interaction and civic discussions that might occur in a league environment.
Putnam then contrasts the countertrends of ever-increasing mass-membership organizations, nonprofit organizations and support groups to the data of the General Social Survey. This data shows an aggregate decline in membership of traditional civic organizations, supporting his thesis that U.S. social capital has declined.”
From a purely local viewpoint I can certainly agree with the concept that local involvement in community has decreased. I have been a member of the Masonic fraternity for over 40 years and have watched a steady decline in membership and an increase in the average age of members. My wife and I have been active in organizations such as Lions and Boy Scouts and observed a similar decline. Other groups such as The Grange and religious organizations also reflect these trends. I have been involved in numerous discussions that attempted to pinpoint the causes of this social readjustment and develop ways to turn the tide.
That will be an ongoing and difficult project for several reasons.
First, for over half a century we have witnessed a staggering erosion in the attributes of leadership, morality, self-reliance and personal responsibility. The strength of America was based on these virtues, since they all combined to produce the cement which bound our citizens together into a society which shared sufficient common values to withstand the vicissitudes of life experienced by all. Neighbor helped neighbor. Civic organizations resulted in friendships and contributed to the common good through charitable activities, benefiting through the dedication and leadership of those who worked toward the good of a community. “Leading by example” was achieved by organizing and contributing, through which everyone from the head of a group to the hard workers who made sure that things ran smoothly played a responsible and admirable part.
To quote a perceptive friend with a military background, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team'”.
Second, with the explosion of “Big Government” and the increasing intrusion of bureaucracy into the very fabric of our daily lives, many people have been lured by the siren song of entitlements and “let the Government do it”, the promise of entitlements which are supposedly designed to provide a comfortable existence for all without the involvement of the average citizen (other than to provide the money needed to cover the burgeoning costs bureaucratic control). Rules and regulations in many cases prevent the distribution of food and services to the needy unless such are performed under the supervision of various levels of government.
Third, there is some justification for the speculation that with the proliferation of television, video games and other forms of individual-centered entertainment the need for community and fraternal organizations as sources of social involvement has declined.
Fourth, the “Me Generation” has been constructed and avidly reinforced by numerous government entities (primarily through education bureaucracies, which are abetted by the news and entertainment industries) that focus on the persistent weakening of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Divisiveness is eagerly promoted through the formation of special interest groups, identity politics and class envy.
Last, and certainly not least, a dearth of leadership is prevalent, buttressed by a disintegration of ethical and moral fiber evidenced by far too many politicians at all levels who have morphed into what can best be described as a permanent ruling class. This utter corruption of what was designed to be operating structure of a representative republic has resulted in the present high point of what Putnam refers to as “Americans’ growing distrust in their government”. Both the Legislative and Executive branches of our government are approaching record levels of disapproval ratings.
And yet leadership is still to be found throughout our land. Civic groups continue to lend support for those in need. Over the past couple of years our Masonic Lodge has been contacted by groups of active citizens who have asked to use our facilities for fundraising suppers to benefit neighbors who have experienced misfortune. These organizers have exercised leadership in stepping forward to help others and have been remarkably successful in their efforts.
Many other groups and organizations have had similar and ongoing successes – without having to contend with “assistance” from government entities. How unfortunate that most of these talented and intelligent people would never consider entering the world of politics. We could certainly use their abilities – but who with any brains wants to run for public office these days and face the savage attacks from those currently in power who fear that they will be toppled from their lofty and privileged positions?
During a recent discussion, one of the members of the group insisted that we need to define the causation of the decline of civic and fraternal participation. I would argue that the problem is clearly obvious. What needs to be defined is the means by which the problem can be solved. There are no easy solutions, but most assuredly they will not come from the current political class in power. There is no such thing as “leading from behind”.
Who is in charge? The final answer – at least in the way that America was intended to be governed – is we, the people.