Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam is an astute observer of American life. Putnam is the author of many books, including Bowling Alone (2000) and Our Kids (2015) which draw on hard data and on people’s stories. Bowling Alone documents the decline of “social capital” in the United States; citizens “have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and our democratic structures.” Americans attend fewer events with neighbors than in the past, and are less politically active and civic-minded. Our Kids shows that the American dream is increasingly out of reach for students from low-income families, and that policies that once supported young people no longer do. In public schools, for example, it can cost $1,600 per year for a student to play on the high school football team, whereas a generation ago it was free. For students from low-income families football is now out of reach.
As a student Putnam was influenced by President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve the nation (“Ask not what your nation can do for you …”), and he has since consulted for three American Presidents. Drawing on his experience teaching generations of undergraduates, Putnam compared his own perceptions as a student with attitudes today and said in a recent interview:
“[If I were a young person in college today] I hope I would have enough self-confidence and enough knowledge of history [to know I could use my talents to try to help the country]. This is not science fiction that I’m talking about; Americans have done these kind of things – not every day, we’re not perfect people – we have actually looked at problems and figured out how to fix them. And that sense is just so missing from our current dialogue today.”
Putnam was thinking of problems and solutions of many kinds, over more than a century, including creating and supporting public schools, developing boys’ and girls’ clubs, building the interstate highway system, implementing effective environmental regulations (e.g., taking lead out of gasoline, reducing acid rain), and going to the moon. Problem solving was done routinely by political parties, which often worked together, and also by government agencies and strong civic institutions.
Today many people have lost faith in institutions, creating a vicious cycle in which lack of trust erodes participation, which further erodes trust. An example is that voter turnout for congressional mid-term elections in 2014 was little more than a third of the eligible population (36.3%), the lowest in more than seven decades. Voting rates for young people ages 18-34 are especially low (under 25%), and have fallen substantially over the decades. The comedian Samantha Bee aired two segments on her television show Full Frontal (here and here) aimed at encouraging more young people to vote, including in mid-term elections.
In a democracy, the growing lack of participation in elections and of faith in political institutions reflects the fact that citizens no longer believe they collectively have the capacity to identify and solve problems. Climate change is only one example of a major problem without an appropriate and far-sighted solution. Growing income inequality is another; crumbling national infrastructure is a major problem; and there are more. Serious problems and a corresponding lack of solutions are a concern in many cities, states and localities, not only at the federal level. Voter participation in the U.S. is lower than in many other developed countries.
Do you want American society to change for the better? Then choose an issue—growing student debt, the minimum wage, potholes in local streets, or whatever may especially concern you—find a group, volunteer, do the hard work, participate, vote! Don’t always sit on the sidelines.
Many of my friends as well as members of my family are and have been active in politics and/or civic affairs, providing useful models of action throughout my life. As a child I thought that being civic-minded and politically active were things that responsible grown-ups naturally do.
Plenty of people are not so fortunate in having good role models, yet it still puzzles me to watch some of those I know avoid any significant involvement with civic or political affairs. These people act as if democracy were a kind of spectator sport, as if it were up to other people, but not them, to do the hard work that a democracy requires. Large numbers of people are disappointed or disgusted by the results, namely an increasing lack of timely, thoughtful, and effective action on a wide range of vital issues. Yet whether a growing number of people will connect the dots and link the problems American society faces to widespread disengagement from civic and political affairs, and to their own behavior, I cannot say.
(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)