The Australian

By Mike Steketee

HARVARD University political scientist

Fewer people were joining trade unions, went to church or were politically active. There was a 58 per cent fall over 25 years in Americans attending club meetings. More went tenpin bowling but fewer belonged to bowling leagues. The retreat from civic engagement carried over to the personal: there was a 35 per cent fall in inviting friends to visit, 60 per cent in picnics and 43 per cent in families having dinner together.

Putnam's findings, based on extensive surveys, made a big impact, perhaps because they spoke to Americans about their own lives, including a loss of trust in fellow human beings. Australians can relate to it for the same reason. As a PhD student at Harvard, Andrew Leigh contributed to Putnam's research. After returning to Australia, he became an economics professor at the Australian National University. Last year, he joined the ranks of federal Labor MPs, as well as publishing Disconnected, the Australian version of Putnam's study and with similar findings. For example, active membership of organisations almost halved to 18 per cent between 1967 and 2004.

Do such trends matter and does so-called social capital compare in significance with physical or human capital? Increasingly the signs suggest yes. Putnam is in Australia as a visiting professor at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney to talk about the implications, including in lectures in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in the next two weeks.

Putnam attributed a large part of the bowling alone trend to generational differences, with the crises of the Depression and World War II drawing people together and turning Americans and Australians into nations of joiners. Television and increased time pressures, including more women joining the workforce, were other factors.

In an interview with Inquirer, Putnam is optimistic about developments on many fronts. His new, co-authored book American Grace, which deals with religion, documents how Americans, despite being unusually religious and polarised along religious lines, also are unusually tolerant.

That extends to Muslims, although they make up fewer than 1 per cent of the population. "American Muslims are remarkably well integrated into American society," he says, adding many have professional or business backgrounds. Though typecast as typical of American attitudes, he says Florida pastor Terry Jones, whose burning of the Koran triggered riots in Afghanistan that killed dozens, including seven UN employees, has very little support, even among right-wing Christian evangelicals. His congregation of about 100 when he first threatened to burn the Koran last year has since shrunk to 30, "and most of them are his relatives".

Putnam also sees a break in the downward trend in social capital, with the generation that became adults after September 11, 2001, more civic minded than older Americans. "9/11 had a big impact on these kids," he says. "The attitude was that we are all in this together. There were Mexican waiters, Irish firemen, Jewish bankers involved." On this reading, it was a disaster that drew people together, as did World War II and the Depression with earlier generations, although whether it has a long-term effect may be open to question.

But Putnam worries about two other trends: political segregation and an increasing class divide. "Growing political polarisation quite frankly is a damnable problem," he says. "It is almost impossible in America to have an adult conversation about any issue like healthcare. People revert almost instinctively to very shortsighted partisanship." He sees the decline in social capital as a contributing factor. Fewer people are brought together by mutual interests, irrespective of their different perspectives. "You didn't choose your bowling partner to make sure your politics fitted their politics."

Putnam says there are other reasons for what he describes in an ABC interview as the echo chamber that political discourse has become, including changes in the media. But the effect is that "ordinary Americans are more and more disconnected from personal networks that would help them interpret what is happening politically and enable them to share ideas. More and more we are stuck in this kind of strange echo chamber in which we send our views to the world and we hear back this crazy echo from other people who don't actually know." Those who have listened to talkback radio, particularly in Sydney, will understand what Putnam is talking about.

His second concern is based on research that has identified an increasing class division. Despite greater integration along religious and racial lines, there is an opposite trend when it comes to class, mainly, he believes, because of the widening gap in incomes. Americans are less likely today to marry outside their class. Children from lower classes are less likely to spend time with their peers or take part in community activities and have less confidence, while the trend for middle-class children is the opposite. "Kids coming from upper middle-class backgrounds are living in a different world now from kids coming from working-class or less well-off backgrounds," Putnam says, adding the sense of collective responsibility for children in a community has disappeared.

Putnam has had a receptive hearing from both George W. Bush and Barack Obama on this issue because it goes to core American values. He is arguing for a focus on early childhood education and child welfare.

"Historically, Americans aren't that concerned about equality of outcomes but they are very concerned about equality of opportunity," he says. "The real victims of this are kids. Almost everyone agrees on that, including Republicans. If you could get them to focus on it, you could get a pretty broad consensus on child-focused initiatives in the interests of equality of opportunity."

That would be easier in an era that was less polarised politically, where consensus is elusive even on issues on which there is underlying agreement.