If that doesn‘t represent social capital, I don’t know what does. But Putnam bulls on: He belittles environmental groups as mere direct-mail operations, feeding on high membership turnover. He even claims (with no supporting footnote) that Greenpeace has lost 85 percent of its membership since its foundation. Even if this were true, it would miss an important point. For 15 years, Greenpeace has been building its activism on the Web. Putnam variously claims that neither the environmental movement nor the Net has conjoined people significantly. But he misses how the two might together produce a civic engagement that neither institution could create alone. It may be too early to say whether similar combinations can revitalize government or even increase participation in what is (I agree) our waning dialogue between the governing and the governed. But smart politicians have already learned not to ignore their e-mail.
To repeat, things happen for reasons. Environmental groups speak to our fears for the present and future, while many organizations whose decline Putnam deplores typify an America that no longer exists. The Odd Fellows, the Fraternal Order of Woodmen, the Moose, the Eagles thrived in a repressed, small-town USA, and their survival may have as much to do with their after-hours bars as their social standing. Even the larger social organizations that managed to adapt to 20th-century industrial-urban society are vanishing. Reporting on the early-1990s closing of Los Angeles‘ massive Scottish Rite Temple, I talked to a Masonic administrator who said his venerable organization was reverting to the small, local “Blue” lodges from which it grew in the 1800s. At their urban peak (according to Sinclair Lewis and his successors), the Masons constituted the central nervous system of the white-male, Protestant business community. But that’s not the business community we have in the 21st century.
Okay, some organizations are victims of social change. But did their social capital really vanish? Reviewing Bowling in the L.A. Times, UCSB professor Richard Flacks observed, “We have traded some social capital for more personal autonomy, for rights for women and men, for greater social tolerance . . .” This actually suggests a quantity theory of social capital: that it‘s a fixed sum which, lost in one area, shows up in another. Over 30 years, the capital formerly spent on small-group associations may have broadly extended the definition of whom most Americans are willing to accept, understand and love.
But what about that decreased trust in our society? Significantly, Putnam charts the national social-trust apex as corresponding to the all-time peak of public confidence in government during the mid-1960s. But he doesn’t say what the government did with all that trust: the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution; the foot-dragging on civil rights enforcement; increased American involvement in a Vietnam War few of us wanted; COINTELPRO. Then came the double assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King in 1968; the Chicago convention; the election of Richard Nixon; Watergate; Iran-Contra. Now there‘s a whole generation that doesn’t even remember what trusting the government was like; they don‘t trust the media, their elders or themselves. Until this historic wound is healed, we’ll go right on being distrustful. And we‘ll go on bowling, if not alone, with only our friends.