Robert D. Putnam has a cure for what ails American society--three cures, actually: new rules to let working parents spend more time with their families; more extracurricular activities at school; and more groups, from Rotary Clubs to amateur brass bands, to get folks out from behind their computer screens.
Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, believes he has identified a central crisis of our time--the decline of group activity. Not only are Americans voting in smaller numbers than before; they are also joining fewer bowling teams, attending fewer PTA meetings, even eating family dinners together less often. And that, Putnam says, is making us less happy, less healthy and less wise.
Five years ago, Putnam published his findings in an obscure journal under the memorable title, "Bowling Alone." His article struck a national nerve that American life was becoming too disconnected.
Now Putnam has expanded his argument into a book, also called "Bowling Alone." And he has launched what he unashamedly calls "a great crusade" to turn back the tide of alienation and get Americans to start joining groups again.
The centerpiece is a five-year program to study experiments on civic reengagement in more than 30 cities and towns, including Los Angeles. It is an effort to find out what, if anything, can persuade Americans to reconnect with each other.
To promote his argument (and his book), Putnam is traveling the country, giving lectures, signing books, and exhorting citizens to join something--anything. (He's in Los Angeles today.)
If you've ever wondered how new ideas are spread, here's one way: a lone professor, all fired up, talking his way from one city to another. (Well, not all that lone; Putnam has an endowed professorship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, more than $1 million in funding from the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies, and a Web site.)
Putnam's basic idea, presented in a flood of arresting statistics, is not only that Americans are falling out of the habit of doing things in groups, but that this change is a serious problem--and that it can be reversed.
Some of his evidence is well-known, like the decline in voting and other political activity (64% of voting-age Americans voted in 1960, only 49% in 1996). More intriguing are what Putnam calls "informal social connections." The proportion of married Americans who usually eat dinner with their families has dropped since 1977 from 50% to 34%. "Picnics per capita," a number he found in marketing surveys, have plummeted by 60%. And while more Americans are bowling today than ever before, membership in leagues has tanked; instead, people are bowling alone (or, at least, in small, informal groups).
The consequence, Putnam argues, is not only an increasingly disconnected society, but also increasing individual malaise, physical illness and even suicide. By joining just one group--a garden club, a political movement--you can cut your risk of dying next year in half, he says.
So it's worth trying to fix. Last year, Stephen Goldsmith, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, asked Putnam for three things politicians could do to help promote civic and social activity.
Putnam's reply: "First, there's a package of education reforms we could make. We know things that work. We know that extracurricular activities in school increase civic participation later in life--and we've just gone through a period of school boards cutting their funding for extracurriculars. We know that small is better, that smaller schools promote more participation. We know that community service works, when it's well-designed.
"Second, we need to think about ways to create blended virtual and real communities"--to encourage people to use the Internet as a tool for connecting with each other and forming new groups, rather than merely as "a kind of nifty television set" for solitary use.
"Third, we need new rules for work, community and family." The massive move by women into the labor force "had a profound effect on family life and community life," Putnam notes. "It has created major problems in terms of day care and elder care. But in terms of labor law and labor practices, we still talk about those as personal problems."
He adds: "Barring an economic catastrophe, the most important issue in American politics will be this. Everybody feels passionate about" these issues. "They'd like time off with their kids."
There has been one disappointment: Putnam hasn't found a politician willing to take up his ideas and run with them.
"A politician who can tap into this need and provide solutions will go a long way," Putnam said.
He's talked with aides to both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But neither of the presumed presidential nominees has picked up on his ideas--yet.
"It's not their fault. It's not incumbent on them to come up with concrete ideas. That's the job of people like me."