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Can We Become a Country of “Joiners”?

A new documentary explores Robert Putnam’s life and work.

Chicago History Museum/Getty

At the turn of the century, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, a data-heavy book about the collapse of civic participation in the United States—exemplified by the decline of participation in bowling leagues—and its baleful consequences for American democracy. Now, nearly a quarter-century after the publication of Putnam’s landmark book, and with many of the trends he identified showing no signs of abating, I spoke to Rebecca and Pete Davis, co-directors of Join or Die, a new documentary on Putnam’s life and work, which argues that the fate of democracy hinges on our becoming a country of “joiners” once again.

How did you become interested in Putnam’s work?

PETE DAVIS: I’m a former student of Bob’s and took his Community in America class. Most of the political science classes I was taking at the time focused on centralized power: We learned about the president, Congress, various legislative models, national elections, constitutions, international diplomacy—the political world seen from the top down. What was so special about Bob’s class was that he called us to pay attention to something very different: ordinary neighborhood connections, associations, and movements—the political world seen from the ground up.

Meanwhile, as a news producer at NBC, my sister Rebecca was reporting on many symptoms of the civic decline Bob documented in Bowling Alone—from school shootings and veteran suicides to the housing crisis and towns being ripped apart by political polarization. And she was feeling called to tell a larger story that struck at the root of these symptoms.

Why is the formation of local clubs and civic associations so central to the story of American democracy?

REBECCA DAVIS: Behind the popular stories of individual heroes, revolutionary moments, and sweeping trends, you can always find associations. The movements we celebrate—abolition, civil rights, suffrage, gay rights, even the American independence movement itself—were constituted of various associations, clubs, unions, congregations, leagues, assemblies, congresses, and conventions where ordinary Americans met routinely. Many major technical innovations started in hobbyist and cooperative associations. Mutual aid societies and congregations are part of the story of every immigration wave in American history.

We also talk about how clubs are the place where people learn civic skills. It’s associations where we practice how to run a meeting, give a speech, plan an event, organize a protest, resolve tensions, recruit collaborators, spread ideas, build bridges, and gather and wield power.

There have been many explanations for the broad atomizing trends Putnam observed in Bowling Alone. Which do you find most convincing?

PETE DAVIS: There is not one clear answer. However, in Bowling Alone, Bob found two interesting clues. First, he found a good amount of evidence that the popularization of television was a significant factor—the timing lines up, and there are many studies hinting that watching television replaced social and civic activity in our weekly schedules. (You can imagine how this might translate to other screens we’re spending time in front of more recently!) More profoundly, Bob found really strong evidence that the civic decline was generational. The same people who were civic 50 years ago in their thirties are still civic today in their eighties—it’s their kids who are less civic than their parents, and their kids’ kids are, in turn, even less civic than they are. So something must have gone on in the generational transfer of civic habits.

However, both we and Bob think these are just hints—and that there is a much bigger story than “television and ‘kids these days’ killed civic life.” The best metaphor for what I think happened is the idea of an “unraveling,” where one trend fed another trend which fed another trend, and you wake up 50 years later and the fabric is gone.

How has the rise of social media and digital life more broadly affected the developments Putnam observed in the book? Have things gotten more bleak?

REBECCA DAVIS: Bowling Alone came out in 2000, years before the rise of smartphones and social media, so at the time Bob could only speculate on their effect. But that does tell us that it’s not the case that things like iPhones and Facebook caused the decline. Rather, the question is: Did they exacerbate the decline, and, interestingly, did the fact that these technologies were designed during an age of civic decline affect how they were designed? And in turn: What would more pro-social and pro-civic technology look like?

What are things politicians and legislators can do to help make the United States into a country of “joiners” again?

PETE DAVIS: They can promote economic policies that give Americans the time and space to participate in community life—for example, fair scheduling laws that push back against chaotic work schedules; leave policies that create time for care work; and shortened workweeks and increased holidays (with no loss in pay) that create more time for communal activities.

I also think politicians can help redirect some of our attention and energy away from the palace intrigue of Washington politics and toward civic work in our own neighborhoods. We have been inspired by Senator Chris Murphy’s efforts to call attention to our loneliness crisis. Politicians ask us to vote every four years, but we need more encouragement to perform another, perhaps more significant, four-letter action for our democracy: Join!

That’s why this year we are taking the film on a community tour across the country—our Join Up! Tour 2024. Until it opens in theaters on July 19, the only way to see the film for now is, appropriately, together—by hosting a community screening, which you can book at Host.JoinOrDie.Film.