Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Study Guide

Robert Putnam

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Course Hero, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Study Guide," February 6, 2018, accessed October 21, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bowling-Alone-The-Collapse-and-Revival-of-American-Community/.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Section 2, Chapter 2 : Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital (Political Participation) | Summary

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Summary

According to Putnam, while Americans in 2000 were more politically involved than people in many other countries, the rate of political involvement was on the decline. In fact, the number of eligible Americans who voted in elections dropped from 62.8 percent in 1960 to 48.9 percent in 1996. This was the case even though Jim Crow laws, which made it difficult for African-Americans to vote in the south, were repealed. The cause of this decline, Putnam says, is generational. While older generations voted regularly, younger people did not. As the older people died, new voters did not replace them.

Putnam sees a decline in voting as a symptom of a bigger problem. Overall, he says, fewer people participate in political activities. For example, he says, interest in current events dropped by 20 percent between 1975 and 2000. Roper polls show younger people read fewer newspapers and watch less news on television. In addition, while there is still a strong interest in national elections, and people do identify with political parties, fewer are loyal to and involved with their political parties.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Putnam says, increasing numbers of people worked for campaigns, ringing doorbells and stuffing envelopes. But by 1996 those numbers had dropped radically. Yes, the political parties were getting money from members. But they were losing grassroots participants in the political process. Putnam describes "rising alienation" from the political process; he describes Americans as "turned off" and "tuned out" from politics.

Many political activities, such as meetings, rallies, and grassroots action, require groups of people. Just one or two people simply can't take action. The result: while people felt politically empowered during the 1960s, by 2000 they felt disengaged. Says Putnam: "Today's cynical views ... undermine the political confidence necessary to motivate and sustain political involvement."

Analysis

Putnam's description of changes in American political engagement appears to be even-handed. On the one hand, he says, people are voting less, but on the other hand they are still engaged in national elections. On the one hand, people are participating less in political organizations, but on the other hand there are more such organizations.

Putnam's apparent objectivity, however, is contradicted by some of the language he uses to describe cultural change. For example, in describing the rise in political organizations with paid staff he says, "This picture of vigorous health seems a bizarre parody" because it coincides with a declining rate of party identification. In his description of general change leading to lower voting turnouts, for example, he says: "Again, the Grim Reaper is silently at work, lowering political involvement." Such charged or "loaded" language is one of his persuasive techniques for convincing his readers to accept his views of the statistics he uses.

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