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

Robert Putnam

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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Section 4, Chapter 21 : So What? (Democracy) | Summary

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Summary

Representative democracy—America's form of government—requires the participation of citizens. Putnam describes how early founders of the American government worked to ensure all citizens (at that time defined as white male landowners) would have access to opportunities to take part in political decision-making.

Over time, says Putnam, political and quasi-political groups formed to help further participation in democracy. These included neighborhood groups, PTAs, political parties, and advocacy groups. In addition, individuals joined clubs and groups that used political tools such as meetings, rules of order, and democratic voting to make decisions. Participation in such groups built skills for participation in the political process.

While volunteer organizations may build the skills required for political involvement, however, Putnam notes they are also likely to lead to polarization and extremism. In addition those groups with greater access to education, money, and status are more likely to see political outcomes favoring their agendas. In short, says Putnam, "Voluntary associations are not everywhere and always good."

Nevertheless, says Putnam, citizenship requires participation. "If participation in political deliberation declines," he says, "our politics will become more shrill and less balanced." He notes people with very strongly held and extreme views are more likely to actively participate and that moderates—though they outnumber extremists—are more likely to be passive observers of democratic decision-making. The result, not surprisingly, could be increasingly polarized politics with a large number of citizens sitting out campaigns and elections.

In conclusion, says Putnam, "The performance of our democratic institutions depends in measurable ways upon social capital."

Analysis

Putnam in this chapter predicts increased political polarization and decreased participation by moderates. His concerns, it seems, were well founded. Since 2000, when this book was written, American politics have, indeed, become more polarized. Moderate views have taken the back seat to extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. In fact, in 2014 a guest post in the Washington Post noted, "The dramatic polarization of our political parties is here to stay" and attributed this effect to "long-term historical and structural forces" set in motion as far back as the 1960s. The author of the piece, constitutional law professor Richard Pildes, suggests a focus on managing the consequences of polarization to "promote more effective governance."

It's important to note, however, that increased social capital might not be the answer to political extremism. It is true, says Putnam, involvement in local civic organizations can lead to very positive political outcomes. On the other hand, he says, social and volunteer groups have the capacity to create, rather than ease, extremism and political tensions.

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