Politics And America's Loneliness Epidemic : The NPR Politics Podcast Even before the pandemic, three in five Americans reported feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.

Communities with low social connectedness have higher rates of crime, lower educational achievement, and poorer physical health than more connected communities. As Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone documented more than 20 years ago, a frayed social fabric also makes governing much harder.

NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben talks to the author about how much worse things have gotten in the two decades since his book came out and what makes things him optimistic about the future.

Putnam's latest work is The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.

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Politics And America's Loneliness Epidemic

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Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture. And speaking of demographics, we are talking today about Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone." It is a classic. It is a towering example of a demographics book first published in 2000. And it's about how American social lives became fragmented, how we lost social capital and what that has done to our society. Bob is a political scientist with a long list of accolades to his name and an array of books, including 2015's "Our Kids" and 2020's "The Upswing." And he is here now. Bob, thank you so much for joining us.

ROBERT PUTNAM: Danielle, it's great to be with you again.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let's start with the basics for people who are just getting introduced to this book. You talk about the decline of social capital - as you term it in the book - and how that had all sorts of detrimental effects to people's happiness, to their health. But this being the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, I'm curious if you could talk a bit about the particular links to democracy you found. So what is social capital, and how does it affect our democracy?

PUTNAM: Social capital is a highfalutin term for what some people might call a community, that is, the connections that link us to other people - your connections or my connections with our family to begin with, but then also with our friends and with our community organizations, with our neighbors and extending out. It's been shown now for almost - well, for 30 or 40 years it's been known those connections have powerful effects on just about, honestly, just about everything. The growth rate in your neighborhood is higher. The quality of government is higher. Education turns out to be powerfully, positively affected. The more connected parents and communities are to the schools, the higher the performance of kids. The best predictor of a low crime rate in your neighborhood is how many neighbors know your first name. Over the last 50 years since the mid-'60s, roughly - late '60s, the level of social capital in America has been steadily declining. That was the story in "Bowling Alone." "Bowling Alone" was published now about 20, 25 years ago. But it turns out it's still - it's been going downhill still.

KURTZLEBEN: You talked about how social connection has continued to decline, which is interesting because it sure seems like political engagement, at least certain types of it - political expression has definitely gone way up.


KURTZLEBEN: But it's hard to look at all of that and say that it's healthy. I'm curious about your take on that.

PUTNAM: Sure. Well, the connection is complicated, and frankly, it's more complicated than I realized it was when I wrote "Bowling Alone" 25 years ago - 20, 25 years ago. There are many kinds - many different types of social capital, but I want to distinguish between social capital that links you to people just like you and social capital that links you to people unlike you. So my connections to other elderly, white, male, Jewish professors...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

PUTNAM: ...That's my bonding social capital. That's called bonding social capital. And the other kind, the kind that - connections that lead you to people unlike you, that's called bridging social capital. So it's bonding social capital and bridging social capital. My bridging social capital are my connections to people of a different generation or a different race or a different religion or a different gender or a different age. And both of those are valuable. If you get sick, the people who bring you chicken soup are likely to represent your bonding social capital. So we need bonding social capital. But bridging social capital, this is the, really, heart of the point I want to make. Bridging social capital - that's my jargon for saying your connections to people unlike you is way down. And that is encouraging polarization. Does that make sense? So...

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, no; it does make sense. And it brings me to a question that - let's talk about what's driving the decline in social capital. You, initially in your book, pointed to a lot of things like increasing economic inequality and also increased independent entertainment, like television.

PUTNAM: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: And now we have, of course, the internet - much more layered on top of that than it was in 2000.

PUTNAM: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: There was hope at the time that the internet would, you know, bridge us all, that we could find fellow travelers on the internet, good friends and that sort of thing, much like the telephone did. But, obviously, how it played out has been more complicated. What has your read been on that?

PUTNAM: Yeah. It's funny. "Bowling Alone" came out just five years before social media were invented - before. For a long time, for the first - after "Bowling Alone" was public, people said who needs bowling? We've got Facebook. And I spent a lot of time saying, oh, no; Facebook is not as good as bowling leagues.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

PUTNAM: You understand bowling leagues is a metaphor...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Yeah, absolutely.

PUTNAM: ...For the ways - the face-to-face ways in which we used to get together. And the scientific data began to show pretty soon that was not true. I mean, I won't bore you with all the evidence, but the scientific evidence was Facebook was not as good as bowling leagues. It didn't do all those wonderful things that I described earlier in our interview, that is, you know, lower the crime rate and improve education and make people happier and so on. All those things that real social capital does, the Facebook didn't do. That was a hard sell for a while, even though that's what the data said. And then came Thanksgiving, two Thanksgivings ago, and everybody in America knew that Zooming with grandma was not the same thing as hugging grandma.


PUTNAM: And we - and now it's suddenly overnight. I don't even have to make that argument, right? Does that make sense?

KURTZLEBEN: It absolutely does. And on that note, we have a clip queued up from the Facebook whistleblower, as she became to be known, Frances Haugen.

PUTNAM: Oh, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. You probably know exactly what we're going to play here. This is her testifying before Congress. She said this.


FRANCES HAUGEN: When you look at things like misinformation, Facebook knows that the people who are exposed to the most misinformation are people who are recently widowed, divorced, moved to a new city, are isolated in some other way. When I worked on civic misinformation, we discussed the idea of the misinformation burden, like the idea that when people are exposed to ideas that are not true over and over again, it erodes their ability to connect with the community at large because they no longer adhere to facts that are consensus reality.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm curious about your reaction to that, that idea of the cycle between misinformation and isolation.


KURTZLEBEN: Did you foresee that in 2000, and how much has that surprised or not surprised you?

PUTNAM: I talked to those original researchers two years ago, and they said, my God, Bob, you know, the fact of the matter is - I can't say this publicly, but Facebook is encouraging polarization. Facebook is encouraging isolation. It's quite the contrary to what our - you know, the narrative we've been selling. So yeah, she is right. I mean, of course, she's right. She's seen the data. And actually, in a strange way, I had also seen that data for this reason that they'd invited me in, and I got to talk to the inside people there who knew the truth.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we're going to take a quick break, and we will talk more about this in a second.


KURTZLEBEN: And we're back. I want to make sure we get to listener questions before we run out of time here. And we got a really great one from Joe Hancock of Bozeman, Mont. Here is a clip.

JOE HANCOCK: How much do you think that the rise of the 24-hour economy has affected civic engagement? As a shift worker, I find it virtually impossible to socialize with anyone.

PUTNAM: Joe is almost certainly right that shift work and, more generally, this kind of broader disconnection from regularity in the workplace...

KURTZLEBEN: Right, like gig economy - that sort of thing.

PUTNAM: The gig economy - exactly what I'm talking about. That is really bad for social capital, I mean, in just every possible way you can imagine. I mean, look, one example is that - and we talk about this in "The Upswing," and I talked about it in "Bowling Alone" - union membership is one very good example. It perfectly tracks this curve - downward now but upward in the preceding 50 or 60 years. And actually, even though I like my Starbucks coffee, I think the glimmerings of a union - of interest in unionization among gig workers and among Starbucks staff is exactly what it will look like if we're approaching a new upswing. I mean, that's what - the reason I'm hopeful is not that we've accomplished this pivot that I want. I want to pivot from an I society to a we society. And I'm not saying it's happened, but I am saying I can see real glimmers of hope. And we've talked about one of them - is this raising unions.

Another is - I've got to emphasize this. The turnout among young people in 2020, the last national election, was higher than it has ever been in American history with one exception - namely 1912 - which was the last time we were in this upswing. I mean, it's not an accident. It was young people who led us into the Progressive Era and this long upswing. They did it before, and - my fingers are crossed - they can be doing it again right now.

KURTZLEBEN: Let's switch from the micro to the macro. In terms of other redress for this decline in social capital, what kinds of solutions are there from a public policy standpoint to increase capital? I mean, a potentially extreme example I think of is national public service. But what...


KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Yeah. Is...

PUTNAM: No, that was going to be my first thing. So now I got to come up with some other one.

KURTZLEBEN: No, let's hear it.


KURTZLEBEN: I'm curious.

PUTNAM: OK. And I'm going to be drawing here largely on this new book, "The Upswing." One - the first glimmerings of hope the last time we did this did not come from Washington, did not come from Harvard. They came from small towns in the middle of America. I'd love to tell you the stories that - 'cause it's just remarkable. The really good policy ideas that then went viral back then, you know, in the Progressive Era, came from ordinary towns - Podunk - in the middle of America. And since I come from the middle of America, I'm not using Podunk as a pejorative. I mean, it's places like my hometown, Portland, Ohio.

KURTZLEBEN: Same here, yeah.

PUTNAM: And I - and so the first thing is decentralize. A second thing that I think is very important - and I've already said it, but I'm going to say it in this context - is our government ought to be encouraging by funding things like national service and things like meetings of local people with other local people across party lines. I mean, I've done a lot of talking around the country. For example, and not long ago, I was in Kansas City. In Kansas City, there's a local organization - wonderful local organization - that its purpose - it's a big - you know, it's a major organization in Kansas City. Their purpose is to bring together people from different walks of life across party lines to talk about shared local problems - the problems of the local library or the problem of the local schools or the problem of - and this is an extremely constructive, local-focused group or set of groups.

The last lesson I want to make - as much as I personally pay attention to national politics, I think if there are signs of renewal, it's going to come from the grassroots in America. And if we don't have great leadership - I think we've got pretty good leadership right now. But if we don't have great leadership, it doesn't matter. It's going to be at the grassroots where the long-run change of direction is seen. And therefore, you know, messages here - trust young people. Connect with people unlike you, and begin in your own backyard.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, there you have it. Good advice for everyone. This has been such a great conversation. Thank you so much for talking to us.

PUTNAM: Danielle, I really enjoyed it. You could probably tell I was enjoying it a whole lot.

KURTZLEBEN: Good. Great. Well, I hope our listeners did, too. Speaking of which, listeners, please join our Facebook group at n.pr/politicsgroup, and use Facebook wisely while you're there so you can be there and be ready when we announce our next book club pick. You will not want to miss it. Until then, I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, and thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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