Bowling with Robert Putnam

A conversation with the author of Bowling Alone

AI: Good afternoon, Dr. Putnam, and thanks for agreeing to talk with The American Interest. Let’s begin with your personal history, rather than your life as one of America’s preeminent social scientists. I see you were born in January 1941 in Rochester, New York. What were your folks doing up there in the snow belt?

Robert Putnam: I can’t really remember. We didn’t stay long in Rochester. My father was in the service, and World War II was about to include the United States just the December after I was born. We moved around a lot during the war, and the family ended up in Ohio after it was all over. We lived in a place called Port Clinton, a town of about 5,000 people. My father needed a place to try to get back to normal after the war, and Port Clinton provided that.

AI: What was life like in that small town? I ask because I’m wondering how a small-town kid grows up to become fascinated with political sociology.

Robert Putnam: I’ve pondered, too, what influence my early days in Ohio might have had on my interests, but at the time I never thought much about politics as a field of study. When I went off to college, to Swarthmore, I intended to study chemistry and physics, maybe become an engineer. My family was Republican and Methodist, quite active in civic life and at church, though not in politics as such. We were a middle- to lower-middle-class family. My father was a builder, my mother taught school, and Midwestern Republicanism did not seem very ideological in those days.

AI: More like something one inherited, like the family china?

Robert Putnam: Something like that. I realize now that Port Clinton was the sort of place I’d cite today as being rich in social capital. People trusted and looked out for each other. Civic groups raised fellowships for local kids to attend college, that sort of thing. I’ve never set out to idealize the place, and I don’t idealize it: There were many limits on what someone could experience there. I used to visit when my parents were still living, but not ever to live there after leaving for college. It was a terrific place to come of age, however.

AI: I know how you feel. I’m a decade younger than you, and where I grew up—in northern Virginia—wasn’t as small or isolated as Port Clinton. But my old neighborhood in the 1950s was a kind of Ozzie-and-Harrietville, too, and so was the old Philadelphia suburb my three kids grew up in, Bala Cynwyd.

Robert Putnam: Well, it was in another Philadelphia suburb, Swarthmore, that I did begin to think more seriously about politics. You know, people talk about the Sixties generation, and when they do, they mean the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, the era of protest and counterculture and all that. But there were really two Sixties generations. The earlier one that I was a part of was deeply affected by the aftereffects of World War II, the civil rights movement and the idealism of the Kennedy Administration. I met my future wife at Swarthmore, the woman I’m still married to nearly a half century later, and our first date was when she took me to a Kennedy-for-President rally in October 1960. I got caught up in all that. On January 20, 1961, when I was a junior, we took a train from Philadelphia to Washington and stood at the back of the crowd when Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Even now, as I’m talking with you, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. I’m a little embarrassed about that, frankly, because now it seems so jejune and hokey, but back then it had a huge effect on me. It’s basically why I moved away from physics and chemistry, first to psychology and then to political science.

AI: How did your thinking about social trust, and social capital as you call it, develop over the years as you moved from the Kennedy inauguration all the way to The Beliefs of Politicians in 1973, Making Democracy Work in 1993, Bowling Alone in 2000 and now your new paper on diversity, “E Pluribus Unum”?

Robert Putnam: I’m not sure it actually has changed much, to be honest. The particular details of how you measure social capital vary if you’re talking about 21st-century America or 17th-century Italy, but the core idea is very simple: Social networks have value. Social networks have value in part because when there is a dense network among the members of an organization or community, they tend to follow a rule of generalized reciprocity, doing things for one another in the expectation that down the road someone else will return the favor—just like those folks in Port Clinton raising fellowships for other people’s kids to attend college.

There is one way in which my view of social capital has evolved since I was writing Making Democracy Work, because I realized there was a mistake in it. When I was writing I picked up from James Coleman—who originally introduced the idea of social capital to me—the notion that, by definition, any consequence of social capital had to be positive for society; if it was not positive, it wasn’t social capital. After writing the book, but even before it was published, I realized this was a logical mistake: It would mean that any claims about the consequences of social networks would be tautological. So I explicitly changed my view in something published later that year to say that, of course, you could have social networks with negative consequences.

AI: Mafia gangs, for example.

Robert Putnam: Mafia gangs, sure, or al-Qaeda. I regret making the mistake in the original book because some people might still miss the correction, even though it happened 15 years ago.

AI: In the book you make a critical distinction between bonding and bridging aspects of social capital. Why is that distinction important?

Robert Putnam: Bonding and bridging aspects of social capital have different consequences. Bonding social capital links you to people just like you, same gender or age or race or what-have-you. Those sorts of links are good for some things and not for others. If you get sick, the people who bring you chicken soup probably represent your bonding social capital. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, represents your ties to people who are unlike you, who are of a different race or generation. For a modern and diverse democratic society, bridging social capital is important because, if you have a society that has tons of bonding but no bridging, you have a society that looks like Beirut or Baghdad.

AI: This is an anticipation of your more recent work on diversity, isn’t it?

Robert Putnam: It is, yes, but in that very context I think it’s important to keep clear that I’m not saying, and never have said, “bonding, bad; bridging, good.” Lots of people assume that the two are in some kind of zero-sum relationship—that if you have a lot of bonding, you can’t have bridging, and if bridging goes up, bonding must come down. That is both logically and factually false. Whites in America who have more white friends also have more black friends. So it’s not bonding or bridging—there can be both, and there can be neither.

AI: Tell me about the Saguaro seminar. I’m fascinated by it because this has been an attempt to go beyond studying American civil society to actually doing something about its frailty. And have you experienced any “ivory tower” dissent about going out into the so-called real world?

Robert Putnam: At the Kennedy School, it’s not that countercultural to go out into the world. There are a lot of people there who have used a similar technique. I got the idea from a colleague named Mark Moore, who had set up something similar to the Saguaro seminar on community policing about twenty years ago.

Besides, I feel pretty strongly that academics have an obligation to engage with subjects that are of interest to our fellow citizens. I expressed that view as president of the American Political Science Association; it was the subject of my presidential address. Academics have a very cushy life, and the quid pro quo, as I understood when I got into this job, was that we have an obligation to try to bring at least some of our insights, ideas and findings into a wider societal conversation. I don’t mean that we have “the truth”, and that we social scientists are all sublime philosophers looking down and telling a rabble of poor heathens how to fix things. That’s not my view at all. But we do gain a particular kind of insight from the work we do, and it’s useful for all concerned to engage with people who have different experiences, and see if your ideas can contribute to the conversation.

That’s essentially what the Saguaro Seminar was about. Most of the members were not academics; they were people like Stephen Goldsmith, Barack Obama, Jim Wallis, George Stephanopoulos and a bunch of other “real world” people. The academics in the Seminar tended to talk more than their fair share, but even so, there were only five or six academics in that seminar compared to about twenty practitioners. It was intended to be a very diverse group, and we didn’t reach consensus on a single “to do” list, but we got some good practical ideas out of it. For example, we worked out the idea of a “social capital impact statement” that would consider the social capital implications of governmental actions, whether it is “urban renewal” projects that destroy real communities or a wider interstate highway that encourages sprawl. Lew Feldstein, head of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and my practitioner-partner in running the Seminar, is now the national leader in a movement to spread social capital impact assessment across the country. Some things we talked about didn’t work—that’s always the way it is. But it was one model of how academic work can filter into the public domain.

AI: The world being the way it is—which is to say in need of repair here and there—it’s always struck me that social science Ph.D.s have an obligation not to lock themselves away in a library somewhere and pretend the rest of the planet doesn’t exist. Still, you work on sensitive issues that can be taken out of context, manipulated, and used in ways you don’t intend. I understand that’s why you’ve been so careful about how to release the results of the recent diversity research.

Robert Putnam: True enough. There were a lot of people on the Right who warned that I would encounter political correctness criticism from the Left, and I thought I might, too. But I’ve gotten almost no criticism from the Left. I have gotten criticism from the Right over this diversity project, oddly enough. My argument about diversity and immigration is double-edged: Learning to live with diversity is difficult, but not impossible. I thought that the Left would attack me for saying “difficult”, but they mostly haven’t. Instead, I’ve taken a lot of flack from the Right for saying “not impossible.” This is nothing new: There’s been a lot of academic criticism of my work. That’s totally normal, of course; that’s what academics do. But I have rarely taken flack that I consider unfair, including on this most recent work on diversity.

AI: I’ve been fascinated with your work’s concern that our proud and noble tradition of self-government may be turning into a spectator sport. When I first read Bowling Alone, in the form of the 1995 Journal of Democracy essay before the book came out, I thought, “Hey, this stuff is exactly right. This guy’s been reading my mind, only it sounds a lot better when he says it.”

Here’s what I mean: I’m ten years younger than you, but when I was a kid we used to just show up at the ball field and self-organize into games. My kids’ generation, on the other hand, doesn’t do that anymore. They expect their parents to organize their time. This seeming incapacity to spontaneously organize is the result of some message that’s getting to our kids at a very young age, and as you’ve observed, it’s clearly having an effect on associational life in this country. But I don’t really understand what that “bowling alone” message is and how it’s being delivered.

Robert Putnam: I don’t know exactly, either. I once quixotically went in search of what I called a “kick the can” index. Kick-the-Can was a game that was probably even around in your day—

AI: It was, but its popularity was waning.

Robert Putnam: We’d play it all the time when I was growing up. Every day we’d come home from school and play Kick-the-Can with the kids in the neighborhood. People of our age probably know the rules even now. My grandkids are wonderful kids, really special, smart and creative, really public-spirited kids, but they rarely have an opportunity to engage in that kind of self-directed, neighborhood-based activity.

AI: Yeah, we used to play Spud and designer variations of Hide-and-Seek and all kinds of games. And we all knew not just the rules, but also the special vocabularies that went with these games—even the poetic rituals for choosing up sides: One-Potato, Two-Potato, Engine, Engine No. 9 and all that. We learned from each other, as kids of different ages, older kids with younger siblings hanging around played together. Kids don’t seem to do this much anymore; they seem to be divided up more finely into age cohorts, so the transmission process has suffered.

Robert Putnam: There are two different streams that flow into the future from that past you’re talking about. You and I probably know one of them in our own social circle. My grandkids represent the upper part of the American population in class terms: They have soccer leagues (and the soccer moms and dads that go with them), and cello lessons and so on—all planned and programmed.

Even so, kids from that sort of background tend to be social and civic participants when they get older. Recent work we’ve done, but that’s not yet in the public domain, suggests that high school seniors today from upper-middle-class backgrounds are more involved in civic activities than kids like them used to be: more likely to go to church; spend more time with their parents; are more self-confident and have higher academic aspirations. White kids from lower-class backgrounds—and the data show that it’s a matter of class, not race—on those same measures are less involved in civic activities than lower-class kids used to be, less likely to go to church, spend less time with their parents. Compared to working-class kids a generation ago, they’re less self-confident, have lower aspirations, and, in general, express less trust in other people.

In other words, there’s a widening class gap among America’s kids, moving toward almost a two-tier caste system. If you look at the upper class, you might say, well, it’s kind of a shame that kids don’t devise their own Kick-the-Can games, but after all, they do have soccer leagues and so on. Working class kids don’t have anything: They go home after school and watch TV alone or play around on the Internet, or something. Or maybe get into trouble.

AI: I guess it’s reassuring that over-programming parents—“helicopter parents”, as they’re sometimes called—aren’t making loners out of all of us. I still can’t see that it’s healthy, however. Wealthier parents have the money to organize their kids so the kids don’t have to do it themselves, but it’s not clear they’re really doing their kids any favor by depriving them of the chance to become self-reliant.

Robert Putnam: Part of what’s going on, I think, has to do with changes in family structure: the two-career family and the divorce revolution. For good reasons and bad, we’ve basically outsourced a lot of our activities. We don’t cook as much and don’t work to keep the house clean so much, so upper-middle-class parents probably spend more time with their kids today—the opposite of the latch-key supposition. People who have money are using it to gain more time with their kids; they’re finding ways to compensate for perhaps busier and often longer work schedules. That’s the right trade-off; I’m not being critical of it. That choice simply is not open to poorer, have-not parents, and their kids bear that burden.

AI: Let’s turn now to the diversity research. It makes perfect sense that in a given neighborhood or community where the members are from different cultural backgrounds, people will lack reciprocal expectations of the behavior of others, so they’re naturally going to be more reluctant to trust or rush to help others. But how did you control for the possibility that low community participation was not merely because of diversity, but because of the presence of immigrants and second-generation Americans who hadn’t yet acquired the habits of participation in a mass democracy?

Robert Putnam: It’s important to understand methodologically exactly what we did. We interviewed large numbers of people—some of whom were immigrants, but most of whom were not. The tendency toward “hunkering down” in the presence of diversity was true for new and old residents alike, true for both the minority and the majority, for blacks and whites, Asians and Latinos, and in just about the same amounts. So the reason can’t be that the “hunkerers” are those who simply haven’t yet learned the right moves in our society. Even people like me, whose ancestors have been here for 300 years, are hunkering in the presence of diversity. It’s everybody: WASPs and non-WASPs; first-generation Russian Jews and their third-generation grandkids who are now doctors and lawyers; the grandchildren of both Italian and Swedish immigrants.

AI: But someone has to run our communities and govern the country. Who are the ones left standing at the end of the day with so many “hunkerers” in our midst? Might we not get lucky, and find that some of the old WASP gatekeepers who (for all of their imperfections) used to stand guard over public standards are making a comeback?

Robert Putnam: Not likely. Those left standing, I fear, are more likely to be less public-spirited people who are drawn into leadership for motives other than a sense of the commonweal. Do we want to have a politics driven solely by what an individual can get out of it, whether a WASP or a non-WASP? I don’t think so.

AI: I want to talk a little about the intersection of the “bowling alone” and the “diversity” portfolios. Clearly, when you say that even the well-off in our society are hunkering down—the more counterintuitive results you got—you’re not saying that the presence of diversity is the only reason for this, right?

Robert Putnam: Absolutely right; I’m not saying that. Many things affect civic participation—how much education you’ve had, how long you’ve lived here, and so on. So it’s clear that factors other than diversity account for some of the data. It’s just that everybody, well-educated and not well-educated, old-timers and newcomers alike, is affected negatively by increasing diversity. Holding constant socioeconomic resources, mobility, and many other things, as well, everybody is less likely to be engaged when they’re living in a more diverse town or city. That’s the research conclusion I found most startling: It’s not just that in the context of diversity people are less trusting of people who look different. It’s that in the context of diversity people are less trusting even of folks who look just like them.

AI: I can think of several explanations for declining trust even within homogeneous groups that have little to do with diversity, but maybe I’m missing something. First, I’m sure you’re aware of the late George Gerbner’s “mean world” syndrome—the idea that, thanks to watching so much television, people are more afraid than they used to be because terrible events are depicted vastly more often on television than occur in reality.1 Might the “mean world syndrome” explain some of the hunkering down?

Robert Putnam: It’s possible. But keep in mind that we’ve controlled for the crime rate. It is true that the higher the real crime rate in your neighborhood, the more you hunker down. But controlling for that, between two places where the crime rate is equal, you’ll see more hunkering in the more diverse of the two.

Now, that doesn’t fully answer your adaptation of the Gerbner hypothesis. Gerbner wasn’t just talking about crime, he was talking about people’s perceptions of crime. But even here I think diversity may play a role. There is something to the view that, holding constant however wealthy or safe or crime-ridden your neighborhood really is, the more diverse your neighbors, culturally and ethnically, the less likely you are to be able to read anybody. When someone from down the street looks you directly in the eye, does it mean, “Hi, I’m glad to have you in town”, or does it mean “You better watch your back”? Since we’re not as good at reading speech patterns from different cultures, the net effect is that in all the non-verbal cues we pick up there’s a lot more “noise”, a lot lower cultural signal-to-noise ratio, especially in areas of new diversity. That may lead most people to assume the worst of everybody else and hunker down. Moreover, trying to interpret those cross-cultural signals is probably stressful and tiring—what psychologists call “cognitive overload”—so that at the end of the day, you want to veg out in front of the TV, not go to some neighborhood meeting.

AI: That reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ argument in The Death and Life of Great American Cities about people being out on the streets. It’s cyclical: The more afraid people are, the less they go out; as people go out less often, the neighborhood gets worse for being abandoned to less savory characters; and people go out even less; and so forth, in a downward spiral.

Robert Putnam: That’s right, but it’s also important to note, as Jacobs did, that things can and do change both ways. I don’t think the “hunkering down” effect is a permanent, unalterable condition. Let me tell you an anecdote from one of the community studies we’re doing.

Adrian, Michigan, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit, happens to be an unusual place because it is very diverse, with lots of Latinos, but the diversity is old diversity. Latino migrant farm workers settled down there beginning in the 1940s, and the Hispanic population today is mostly second- or third-generation American. One consequence is that today’s white leadership in town and today’s Latino leadership went to school together. Someone in their fifties today went to Adrian High School in the 1960s. So when the Anglo police chief or school superintendent meets with local Hispanic leaders, they are not meeting strangers. These are people who grew up together and played high school sports together. Bridging social capital is present, in other words. And that connection means the diversity doesn’t have the same significance sociologically—the diversity is not so strange or unfamiliar as diversity in the “new immigrant destinations” in the South and Midwest. Those towns have no more diversity than Adrian, but it’s new diversity.

AI: The “mean world” syndrome is one hypothesis that might explain the “bowling alone” phenomenon without direct reliance on diversity, but of course there are others. For example, back in the 1950s and 1960s, there weren’t as many women in the full-time, away-from-home workforce or as many single parents raising kids as there are now. It was before the rise of the private child-care industry. I think that means there were more people actually in the neighborhood on any given weekday, more face-to-face interactions from more people walking around. And I do mean walking, because more cars and the far-flung suburbs seem increasingly also to be isolating factors. So there were more people interacting, more women in particular, and the PTAs and the church associations—the sinews and capillaries of social capital generally—were provided by women. If they’re literally not there anymore, that’s got to have an effect.

Robert Putnam: I think you’re right that it has an effect, and while it’s not necessarily related to the diversity thing, it could be. Remember that when we were growing up, as an historical matter, immigration was at an all-time low, since immigration had been halted in 1924 and not resumed until 1965, and we had lived with black-white ethnic diversity for longer. So we lived in a relatively more homogeneous society back then, and those women in those neighborhoods were not only interacting more with each other, they were pretty homogeneous, too.

On the issue of women working outside the home, I agree that that’s a factor in the “bowling alone” story, but it’s complicated. Lots of different things were happening at the same time, but it doesn’t mean they were causally related. One thing that happened over this recent period is that the Red Sox have gotten better and the Yankees have gotten worse—

AI: Thank God.

Robert Putnam: —but that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow linked to the diversity problem. But certainly the impact of the two-career family is a major one. We’re in the midst of a large study on the effects of workplace issues on social capital, so I have thought a lot about this. There has obviously been a huge change in the nature of the workplace over the last thirty years as women move into the paid labor force, and that’s had a side effect on families and communities. Let me illustrate with an historical comparison.

Around 150 years ago or so, the industrial revolution had a huge effect on communities. When people were working on farms, child labor meant picking beans in the back field with mom, which wasn’t so bad. Afterward, when people were working in factories, child labor meant sewing shirts in sweatshops, which was obscene. But it took a while for people to realize that the consequence of the changes in the workplace meant we had to change our understanding of how work fits into the rest of our lives. And it took even longer for us to change the labor laws (outlawing child labor, for example), which happened thirty years after the problem began to emerge.

In my view, we’re now in the aftermath of an equally large change in the workforce, and that is women going to work. The industrial revolution consisted of a third of American workers moving from fields to factories. More than a third of American workers have now moved from kitchens to offices over the last thirty or forty years, and we’ve had nothing like the conversation we need to have about the implications. Nearly everybody seems to think of this as a private problem, and the most frequently asked question in America at eight o’clock every morning must be, “Who’s going to pick up the kids?” Nearly everyone thinks of it as their own problem, just as everyone used to think sending little Suzy to work in a factory was their own problem.

Of course, with the industrial revolution people gradually came to see their private problem as a collective, public issue. We’re not there yet when it comes to grasping the consequences of this transformation. We have not yet incorporated it into our understanding of how work fits into family and community life. That’s the larger frame in which I’d answer your question: Yes, it’s true that the stay-at-home mothers in the neighborhood were doing important social work, but it doesn’t mean my wife should quit her job—and I know that’s not what you meant to imply. It does mean that we have to craft new understandings, rules and maybe even laws that make it easier for all of us to fit our family and community obligations with our professional ones.

AI: Let me raise a third hypothesis relevant to the “bowling alone” portfolio and maybe the “diversity” portfolio, too. One reason for the fact that people seem more apathetic when it comes to civic engagement is that, on the one hand, many political issues seem more complicated than they used to be, but on the other, new communications technology seems unwittingly to segment our time into smaller chunks. Maybe people seem frustrated because they sense new problems at work—the whole gamut of challenges over biotechnology comes to mind—but they can’t put together enough consecutive minutes to think seriously about them, so they give up.

We have a political system now, too, where we don’t have ward politics as we used to. Politicians don’t campaign as they used to either; instead, as Joe Klein and others have argued so persuasively, they spend their time on the phone trying to raise money to buy television ads. So our political discourse has been impoverished. The average citizen looks at all this and says: “The problems are often too complicated to understand without some kind of special expertise, and no politician is talking much sense, so I give up imagining I can do anything about them, whether I join the PTA or not.”

Robert Putnam: I agree with part of that and disagree with the other part. I don’t think there’s any evidence that most problems are more complicated now than they were a generation or two ago. I don’t know that solving the problem of day care is any more complicated than solving the problem of how to integrate schools, or that fighting terrorism is intrinsically more complicated than fighting fascism or communism. I don’t know that deciding on the right gasoline tax regime is any more technically complicated than designing and building a national highway system.

But I agree very much that we’ve changed the structure of our discourse. It’s hard to know what’s the chicken and what’s the egg in this scenario, but I think it’s true that we used to manage our problems through the context of social capital, which is just my jargon for saying that we would have discussions about them at church picnics, or on the bench at the bowling alley while waiting for our turn, or around the table over lunch at the Rotary Club, or at union halls and so forth. We were engaged in civic discourse, exchanging views on integrating the schools or constructing a highway system or the Russians or whatever the problem was. And now we don’t, because hardly anyone goes to those places anymore. We’re not at the church picnic or the bowling alley; we’re sitting at home watching TV.

Consequently, we talk to the politicians not through some big capillary system that begins with ward committees and ends in the office of a congressman; we talk to them through focus groups, and we don’t even do it collectively. They listen to us through focus groups and polls, and talk to us through television ads. Not only does it not work as a means to run a democracy; it’s way more expensive. It probably did cost a lot of money to support all those bowling leagues and so on, but it now costs a ton more to do all that polling and message management and television ads.

In this area as in so many others, we’ve substituted financial capital for social capital. You no longer have an Aunt Sadie to help you find a date, so you turn to an online dating service, paying for the services of or eHarmony. Rather than taking care of your aging parents yourself, you pay for someone else to do it. I don’t mean to sound overly critical or to be judgmental here. I’m just noting that in a score of areas in American society, we now pay for things that we used to get accomplished through social capital.

It’s fine if you have the money for it, but many people don’t have the money. The trend of substituting financial for social capital clearly does disproportionately benefit the people who can write the checks. To attain that level of social or political influence previously, people had to go to the neighborhood meetings or the church clubs. Now they can wield massive influence without ever having to listen to another human being.

AI: It seems to me, too, that bridging capital in particular is affected by technological change. You used to go to the bank and meet a teller; now you go to the ATM. You used to go to the gas station and someone would pump your gas; now it’s self-serve and you never have to encounter another living, breathing human being, even at some car washes. People from the upper and upper-middle classes simply don’t interact with people from other classes the way they used to. They don’t even see them, let alone interact with them. This makes me uncomfortable.

Robert Putnam: Last night I was in Waco, Texas, speaking to a group of Baptists. I’m now about to give a talk at Holy Family, a Catholic megachurch, and then I’m going to a reform Jewish synagogue, where I’m speaking after services tonight. So I’m trying my best to reach into various communities, and I’m learning a ton in that way. This goes back to our discussion of academics: I’ll learn a lot more from talking to the folks at the Catholic megachurch than they’ll learn from me. But you’re right: Technology does affect social interactions, and just as we have not attained a decent understanding of what women’s rapid migration into the workforce really means, we have not attained a decent understanding of the social impact of the information revolution either.

AI: Whether it’s a “bowling alone” problem or a “diversity” problem, or some mixture, there’s no denying that America has problems and that we need to think about solutions. In that regard, this issue of The American Interest presents a proposal for a National Service American Dream Account—basically the idea of a “baby bond” but one linked to voluntary, but hopefully widespread, national service. The idea combines aspects of the old Civilian Conservation Corps and the GI Bill, but in a more comprehensive way that integrates various aspects of public service, including domestic service, Peace Corps and perhaps military service. What do you think about public policy aiming toward creating a national service culture?

Robert Putnam: I’m very much in favor of fostering a service culture. I like the idea of the baby bond linked to national service. A lot of us think that national service of a formal, mandatory sort would be desirable, but we also know it’s not going to happen, if you look at the polls. The kids on whom we would be imposing this are very much against it. But a voluntary program on the scale you’ve described would be a positive step.

One thing, however, that a purely voluntary approach might not fully address is the issue of bridging social capital. One of the most important things about the military draft was that it brought younger people from all sorts of different social backgrounds into the same bases and foxholes. If you watch Ken Burns’ recent documentary The War or read memoirs from that period, it’s clear that that shared experience was a big deal for just about everyone involved. 2 It was a big part of why the World War II generation was as public-spirited as it was. It wasn’t just because they had been in the service, but because they had served with people who were very much unlike themselves. I even think it’s hard to imagine the civil rights revolution without it having been preceded by World War II, even though I recognize that the U.S. armed forces were segregated during the war. It wasn’t a direct consequence, but the pervasive notion that “we’re all in this together” was a contributing factor in the background to the civil rights revolution. Maybe the “baby bond” national service concept can provide the right kind of incentive for national service, pulling in not just kids from the Ivy League, but also kids from the “wrong side of the tracks.”

AI: I think the same sort of motivation that attracted you to the New Frontier will continue to attract people in higher income brackets to serving the country. I think the American Dream Account idea could lead in the end to a good mix, maybe as good as that produced by the draft, producing a tremendous supply of bridging capital. I just hope we get a leader in the next administration with the courage to see that, get behind the idea, and push it through.

Robert Putnam: I want to resist getting drawn into the presidential sweepstakes, but I very much agree with what you’ve said.

AI: Knowing your work, I’m not surprised. Thank you so much for talking with The American Interest.

Robert Putnam: It’s been a pleasure.

1. See Joseph Turow, “Industrial Folklore: George Gerbner’s (Tele)Vision”, The American Interest (Summer 2006).
2. ”A Conversation with Ken Burns”, The American Interest (September/October 2007).

Appeared in: Volume 03, Number 3 | Published on: January 1, 2008
Robert Putnam is a Harvard political scientist and author of the classic Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital (2000). His recent, controversial study, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century”, charts the implications of social and ethnic diversity on the civic health of the United States.
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