Benjamin King, Brigham Young University
Book: Bowling Alone
Author: Robert D. Putnam
Community building requires vigilant struggle against the tendencies of disassociation. Disassociation is a dysfunction that requires adequate long-term remedies to overcome. Any good doctor knows that it is preferable to treat an illness at the level of its root cause. It is never satisfactory to merely mitigate symptoms and ignore the cause of the symptoms. For the same reason, Bowling Alone is the most important book for our politicians to read. In analyzing the startling decline of civic engagement in America in the last 40 years, it brings to light the root causes of the breakdown of community in contemporary America.
Bowling Alone provides insights into the principles of how communities thrive or die. Such principles could conduct our leaders to laying our communities on much more solid foundations than those that simply allow the people to subsist. From hundreds of pages of statistics, social patterns emerge that conclude that most social ills are caused by an underlying breakdown of reciprocal relationships. Putnam demonstrates that in any community, problems are solved not necessarily by directly addressing them, but more when fundamental needs of connection and cooperation are met. These needs are met through volunteerism, civic engagement, and creation of social networks in the work field, in the neighborhoods, in the churches, schools and community clubs. For instance, Putnam statistically demonstrates that a well-connected community is a far better deterrent of crime than mere law enforcement. Such principles constitute smart medicine. They generate long-term and real solutions, not short-term patch ups.
Politicians often approach social organization with a view that solutions are found in policy schemes and in answers external from people. Putnam reveals instead that broken bonds are what lie at the root of social problems. The effects of weak community ties show up in statistics linking them to lessened physical health, slower economies, and even generally poorer attitudes of happiness and satisfaction. Such poorer attitudes and depleted resources breed environments in which crime, social isolation, and community dysfunction can take hold. Individuals in disconnected communities typically withdraw their contribution to communal activities because they feel that no one else is contributing. Bowling Alone displays how community organizations collapse once the expectation arises that too few people will participate. Politicians stand in a position to reverse this vicious, downward spiral effect through building channels of community interaction. Such interaction becomes the means for directing resources and exchanging and disseminating knowledge. “Social Capital” is Putnam’s term for people coming together for achieving common goals. Social capital is the strongest antidote against social breakdown.
A politician could garner a career’s worth of ideas from this book for inspiring and instructing the public about becoming active in the community. A new generation of politicians steeped in this understanding may learn to restore withering communities by guiding them in the effective practice of these ideas. It is and ought to be the statesman’s craft. In Bowling Alone, the enemies of our communities are uncovered, and they are us.