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Contrary to assertion, we are not "bowling alone'

The moral state of the United States is the subject of enormous concern. Of late, it has been argued that many Americans are retreating from civic action into purely private spheres. The people that Alexis de Tocqueville once celebrated as a nation of joiners are, in this view, increasingly "bowling alone."

Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam sees in contemporary America a "democratic disarray" that is linked "to a broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter century ago." His article Bowling Alone has prompted a mountain of discussion.

Tocqueville was right when he argued that American democracy could not survive, or at least couldn't flourish, unless individualist citizens, confident in their ability to improve the social order, continued to join with others to address common needs. I would agree, then, that any sign of substantial decline in the country's civic life should be viewed with great alarm. But is there in fact any such decline? This isn't a matter of opinion: Contemporary civic life is charted by a vast array of empirical data.

These data contradict Putnam's argument. He writes that "by almost every measure, Americans' direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation."

The best available information says otherwise. The Citizen Participation Survey, conducted in 1989-90 under the direction of political scientists at the Roper Center, found many areas where the rate of political engagement had climbed substantially from the 1960s through the 1980s. Purely party-related activity did drop over this span. Growing numbers, though, reported contacting government officials, working with others on community needs and forming groups to help solve local problems.

Even voter turnout doesn't fit the thesis of diminished participation. Presidential turnout in 1992 was exactly middle of the pack for the period beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first election up to the present. Turnout in 1988 was about what it was in 1948; that in 1976 about what it was in 1932; and turnout in 1992 was almost exactly what it was in 1936 when FDR, the history books tell us, energized the country and won his massive triumph.

Putnam has made much of the fact that parent-teacher association membership fell sharply _ by 56 percent _ from the early 1960s through the early 1980s. Yet if this decline is disheartening as an indicator of eroding social capital, then the 28 percent rise since 1982 should be seen as demonstrating aheartening recovery.

Actually, the main development affecting PTA membership in the 1960s and 1970s was the growth of unaffiliated PTO chapters. Local parent-teacher groups didn't disband. Instead, to avoid having to send half of all the dues they raise to the national PTA headquarters, they disaffiliated and operated independently. This has continued.

The real question, of course, isn't membership as such. It's one Putnam alludes to, but then doesn't confront, when he observes that "parental involvement in the educational process represents a particularly productive form of social capital." Indeed it does. Happily, such involvement hasn't diminished. Surveys show parental participation to be very high and if anything increasing.

In other areas, too, the data tell a story of more, not less, engagement. Surveys by Gallup and Princeton Survey Research Associates show a large increase in social service activities over the past 20 years. The non-profit organization Independent Sector has been tracking volunteering over the past decade, and it has found Americans giving their time for all manner of groups and causes in huge numbers _ and the numbers aren't declining. The robust rates of volunteering by teenagers, civic America's next generation, are especially en-couraging. Even older organizations that confronted problems as the ranks of women in the labor force swelled (such as the Girl Scouts and Red Cross) now report their volunteer ranks holding strong.

Philanthropy is another key part of the nation's civic life. Private philanthropy _ most of it from individuals, not foundations or corporations _ rose from a per capita figure of $88 (in dollars of 1993 purchasing power) in 1930 to $522 in 1995. Americans' inclination to set up foundations, small ones as well as giants like Ford and Rockefeller, has long been a distinctive feature of the society. In the 1980s, the last decade for which systematic data are available, about 180 foundations (each with $1-million or more in assets) were established annually _ a rate equaled in 20th century experience only in the 1950s.

If so much experience refutes the picture of American civic life as in decline, why has the argument struck such a responsive cord? One reason, I think, is that civic participation, much like ethical standards and moral conduct generally, always leaves much to be desired. This doesn't mean that things are sliding. But, since we can do absolutely nothing about past deficiencies in civic engagement, present ones are always "the worst." Researchers have polled the public for60 years now, and they have consistently found majorities worried about erosion of civic participation, the work ethic, ethical standards and the like.

In fact, though, various developments are expanding the range of public engagement. The technological revolutions of our post-industrial era have given larger proportions of the public advanced educational skills and new communications tools. They have freed broad segments of the populace from grinding physical toil. And, by extending material abundance, they have widened the range of individual choice, thus inviting millions to explore civic life in ways previously out of reach for them.

Tocqueville argued that individualist Americans believed they were obligated to make personal efforts on behalf of social amelioration, and that their society was congenial to such efforts. Contemporary research shows we still hold these norms. This being so, it is unlikely indeed that we would use the enhanced participatory possibilities that post-industrialism provides to "bowl alone." And, the data show, we haven't. Individualist America in its post-industrial era is a vigorously civic America.

Everett C. Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Hartford Courant