So, Is It Back to Bowling Alone? | The Nation


So, Is It Back to Bowling Alone?

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Civics Lessons

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David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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This mostly cheerful rendering of citizenship in America ought to be assigned in civics classes because it makes a useful antidote to antipolitics. But the tune sounds a bit like whistling while walking past the graveyard.

In his examination of twenties politics, for instance, Schudson focuses on political marginalia: the emergence of a newly influential class of experts, the number crunchers and the deep thinkers. But the things that really mattered go unmentioned: the exclusionary immigration policies (only white Western Europeans need apply for citizenship), the shabby ethics of Teapot Dome and Herbert Hoover's fecklessness when confronted by economic collapse. Nor was the politics of the forties really so Capra-esque, with PTAs and boys' clubs "radiat[ing] the true spirit of democracy," as Schudson proclaims. Then, as in the eighteenth-century town meetings whose claims to democracy Schudson is so rightly skeptical of, women, blacks and those from the wrong side of the tracks had no place.

The account of contemporary citizenship delivers a useful reminder that for those who were disfranchised as recently as the sixties, life is now remarkably better. Still, that quiet revolution was essentially concluded a generation ago. Ever since, the equality-minded have been on the run, as the rule of laissez-faire, abetted by both parties, has made the commons a barren place.

We know this story all too well because we are living through it. Who could have imagined in the "malaise" days of the late seventies that by the nineties the cold war would be over, the economy roaring and a Democrat possessed of rare political talent occupying the White House? And who would have dreamed that in such circumstances, with such an unparalleled opportunity to do good, the record of Washington's accomplishments during the decade would chiefly consist of regressive welfare legislation and a budget balanced without regard for equity? With the income gap widening and affirmative-action programs facing extinction, the poor and minorities are by most measures worse off than they were twenty years ago. The federal courts--which even in their liberal heyday were never the "locus of civic participation" that Schudson imagines--have become architects of reaction.

The woeful state of civic life isn't precisely captured in the idea of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam's catch phrase "bowling alone," but there's good reason why that phrase has become a cliché. The survey data suggest that Americans are more likely to be loners, turning to TV or the Internet rather than getting involved in civic groups (or informal organizations like bowling leagues) that generate social capital. The network of associations that Tocqueville praised over a century and a half ago is increasingly a rarity. In politics as in ordinary life, the ethic of the marketplace reigns.

Businessmen spend tens of millions trying, sometimes successfully, to buy their way into governors' mansions or seats in Congress. Political action committees, which were originally a way to democratize politics, have had the perverse effect of concentrating power. The corporate gigantism brought about by the recent wave of mergers is creating powerful new players on the Washington scene. It's no surprise that three-quarters of the population no longer believes public officials are interested in ordinary people--up from 58.9 percent in 1973, when Watergate and Vietnam sorely tested Americans' faith in their leaders.

In the borderland between public and private life, the entrepreneur has ousted the citizen. Parents demand vouchers or charter schools, not public schools, for their children, so public education suffers from malign neglect. Barnes & Noble and barnesandnoble.com replace the public library and the local bookstore. Wal-Mart wipes out Main Street. Private security guards outnumber police officers. An estimated 3 million American households live in gated communities, 20,000 of them, protected from the outside world by an apparatus of surveillance. Even towns planned according to the citizenship-minded tenets of the New Urbanism are mainly run by rules--no laundry hanging in the backyard--rather than by those who live in them.

More and more, we join health clubs, nodding hello to the person on the next StairMaster, and mail checks to organizations like the Sierra Club. Is that what civic life has been reduced to?

The Good Citizen skimps on or skips these unhappy facts of modern life. "We live in a new complexity, not a transformed simplicity," Schudson writes. "We do not need to beat ourselves with the stick of the past." While that's true enough, there is no doubting the widespread dissatisfaction with the present. To conclude that things aren't better or worse than in the past, just different, evades the pivotal question that this account invites. It's the question Aristotle asked: How should we order our lives together? How does the three-centuryhistory of the meaning of citizenship in America help us figure out a conception of the good citizen that works for our times--and how might we get from here to there?

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