Put down the damn phone! The Bob Putnam Plan for a Better America

It’s no secret that there is something going on with the civic social structures in America today. While it may be attributed to more than just the fact that Americans don’t attend as many dinner parties or Kiwanis meetings, there has certainly been a decline in trust in our institutions, organizations, and our neighbors. It is not well understood whether this decline in social capital and trust is a symptom or the cause of our political polarization (or many other social problems), but a discussion on the topic is certainly worth having.

All this talk about social capital and its decline arguably began with the great “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” by Robert Putnam, published in 2000. It’s reputation as a scholarly tour de force is well earned; its pages are packed with data, but at the same time it retains its readability and narrative power. There are some who quibble about how Putnam defines social capital and thus disagree with his conclusions. But it is hard to doubt that there has been a clear decline in the last half-century in traditional forms of civic engagement, while problems that seem to be related (loneliness, the opiod epidemic, increases in suicides, political polarization, and the overall trust declines cited above) have gotten worse. One of my favorite thinkers working today, Arthur Brooks, has argued as much in the New York Times as well as his latest book. To be sure, this is an extremely complex subject and worthy of much more research and discussion. But it remains that any discussion must start with an understanding of Putnam’s work on the subject.

Putnam’s book is an exhaustive search into what he calls “social capital”, which he defines as “…connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them…” For Putnam this takes the form of the multitude of examples he spouts off throughout the book: Kiwanis Club, Boy Scouts, dinner parties, attending church, Parent-Teacher associations, professional organizations, bunco and bridge clubs, Green Peace, the Shriners, labor unions, veteran’s organizations…

Some may argue that these traditional organizations still exist, just in different form. For instance, Green Peace is still alive and kicking, with 250,000 members in the U.S., according to their website. But Putnam argues that while organizations still boast large memberships, the type of engagement has declined. Many of the most famous organizations in American civic life are now reduced to offices in Washington, D.C. with a few hundred thousand members scattered throughout the country who do nothing more than just send in a check once a year for member fees. The number of face-to-face neighborhood chapters of organizations like the Lions Club have declined precipitously.

Religious engagement, as anyone can verify anecdotally, has declined as well. While he points out that levels of religious belief have remained stable, this has changed since he wrote his book. I must point out that the number of very religious people has remained fairly stable, but that the number of “loosely affiliated” has declined. This means that the people who feel at least vaguely attached to some religious tradition, and thereby loosely bound to its basic teachings and traditions has declined, with some pretty profound implications for our civic life. Since churches encourage many types of civic engagement, this has obvious implications for social capital.

Putnam points out that workplace engagements have been on the decline as well. More people are working longer hours, are more anxious about their job security, and are switching jobs more often. This has resulted in less social contact with our coworkers. While many companies are trying to encourage better social connections in the workplace, it’s still an issue. The much-vaunted “gig economy”, while mostly debunked, points to a simpler fact: people change jobs more often than they used to and this has grave implications for our social lives.

Why does the decline of social capital matter? Of course Putnam has an in-depth answer for this as well. While some have argued that income inequality or racism has led to the decline in social capital, Putnam wants to argue the other way around: higher levels of social capital often lead to higher incomes. In fact, he argues, socially engaged people are generally healthier, happier, safer, and more politically engaged. There is obviously a chicken-or-the-egg argument going on here, but the correlation is obvious. The more social contact we have with different groups of people through work, school, church, various civic groups, etc., the better are our overall life outcomes.

There’s little doubt that being more socially engaged is a good thing to do if we want to help alleviate a host of social ills. But how do we get it back? The way I interpret Putnam’s argument could be summarized by something along the lines of:

  • Turn off the damn TV! And, probably more importantly today, put down the damn phone!
  • Spend less time at work and more time with people in your neighborhood.
  • The closer your home is to work, the better.
  • Putnam doesn’t say this, but I think it seems obvious (as others do): get involved with some sort of religious organization.

Of course there are no panaceas here, no sure path forward. To be sure the exhortations listed above are simply my interpretation of what we could learn from Putnam’s work. But there is historical precedent for the type of bottom-up change we need to see. The Progressive movement in the first part of the 20th century shows how concerted civic effort can lead to some serious changes. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

There are those who disagree with Putnam, arguing that the dominant norms of social engagement are simply changing. I think this misses the point. There is little doubt among psychologists that engaging via social media is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction. Indeed, this same type of value-neutral reasoning has led to some serious changes to the family structure in America, which has hurt the most vulnerable. But I digress…

While there is still some debate about the way forward, there is little doubt that a renewal of the old-fashioned civic engagement that Putnam favors would do many great things for our communities. There is broad agreement on this across the political spectrum, and there is some hope that things are getting better. But this is a war best fought in the daily grind of our individual lives. As we can see in the historical example of the progressive era, this has to start with everyday people right in our neighborhoods (here’s a good example). We don’t need yet another new government program telling us what we ought to do. Any renewal in our civic spirit will have to start from the ground up. It starts with putting down the damn phone!

If you have time, listen to the man in his own words

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