Robert Putnam on bowling alone and living together

Andrew Leigh:

Robert Putnam was once described as the General Motors of American academia, a compliment delivered before the auto maker was bailed out. He's produced nearly a dozen books on topics ranging from arms control to poverty. But these aren't just any books. They're both door stoppers and conversation stoppers, intensely researched, peppered with insightful anecdotes and rigorously analysed data.

I first got to know Bob when I took his Social Capital course in 2001, and spent a year working part-time as one of his research assistants. The team of half a dozen of us would analyse data or prepare literature reviews, and then present them to the others who'd pick them apart. Once Bob was satisfied we'd comprehensively tackled the narrow topic we'd been assigned, it'd be filed away as an input for him to use when writing the relevant section of his next book.

I'd never seen anything quite like it in academia. When I returned to Australia, I wrote Disconnected, a much shorter, Australian version of Bob Putnam's seminal book, Bowling Alone. Bob gave me thoughtful feedback on the draft even though he'd, by then, moved onto other topics. He isn't just someone who writes about the ties that bind. He practices social capital too. Bob, thanks for appearing on The Good Life Podcast today.

Robert Putnam:

It's great to be with you.

Andrew Leigh:

Now, I'm interviewing you today as a politician, but it strikes me that talking to politicians can't be that unusual for you because, 50 years ago, you did a PhD which involved interviewing 176 British and Italian members of Parliament. What drew you to that topic?

Robert Putnam:

Well, who knows what deeper things drive any of us? But at the time, I was trying to understand what made democracy possible. That is, what were the fundamental building blocks of democracy, of stable, effective democracy?

And there was a theory around which I found, actually, quite persuasive, that although the values of ordinary citizens was an important variable, and economic development might be important, and educational levels and so on might be important, the theory said that it's the values and the norms believed in and adhered to by practicing political leaders that was crucial.

If you had a political class who were, maybe, divided enormously over substantive things: "Should we have economic planning or should we not? Should homosexuality be legal or not?" But they differed violently on those things ... but actually, not violently.

They disagreed a lot, but they were able to contain that disagreement within broad boundaries of what the rules of the game were. So that was things like free speech and fundamental commitments to equality of opportunity, and so on. And I thought, at that time, that Britain was a good example of a stable democracy, and that Italy wasn't a good example of a stable democracy.

And that I might be able to see if there was anything to this theory if I talked to, roughly, 100 members of Parliament in each of the two countries, and then listened carefully. So this was not a survey, really. It was like this, actually. I sat down with a tape recorder and talked to them.

And the conversations were quite wide-ranging and then, because I'm a bit of a counter, we then later on, I and a research colleague of mine, went through all the transcripts of all these interviews, which parenthetically, turned out to be very valuable now.

It turns out that the Churchill Library in Cambridge, England wants the transcripts of these interviews, because they're now historically relevant. For example, I had a really long, interesting, hour-long conversation with a guy named Enoch Powell, who was, at that point, pretty trivial, but historically was anything put trivial. He was a-

Andrew Leigh:

Was this before his Rivers of Blood speech?

Robert Putnam:

Just before his Rivers of Blood speech.

Andrew Leigh:


Robert Putnam:

And there he is, sitting in the basement of the House of Commons, and we were talking about these things. Well, I was ... I mean, he seemed like a weird guy. But now historically, that interview, that transcript, is actually extremely important because I had a quite private conversation with the guy, who turned out to be historically important. Whether you like him or not is a different matter, of course.

So we analyzed all these interviews, and it looked like ... Look, this was my doctoral dissertation, so I wouldn't want to have my scholarly rotation rise or fall on it. But it turns now to be strangely relevant to our times because, basically, the research was consistent with the theory that the crucial, the saviors, the guardians of modern democracy would be politicians.

At least they, even across party lines, would insist on fair rules of the game. And if there's anything clear in my country now, and maybe in other countries, that isn't true any longer. I mean, I don't want to get too far into commenting on contemporary American politics, much less politics elsewhere. But actually, the most frightening thing to me, and to many Americans, about our current crisis is how unwilling politicians have been to impose basic norms of fairness on one another, on themselves, on their own side.

And that's actually why, this is not the subject of your interview, but why I am unusually worried about our current times. Because what I honestly thought, not just from my research, I just thought, "Well, that barrier is never going to be broken. Maybe it's going to be broken in Italy or some strange place, but it's not going to be broken in the Anglo-American democracies." And it is being broken, and it's dangerous.

Andrew Leigh:

So I'm here for your retirement conference tomorrow, and I've been to plenty of these retirement conferences and Festschrifts and so on, and typically they're a bit scatter-gun. It's colleagues and former students giving papers tangentially related to the retiree.

But your wife, Rosemary, has organized tomorrow's in a very focused way. You've got superstar scholars, people from William Julius Wilson, [Theodore Scotch Paul 00:07:52], Robert Axelrod, Jane Mansbridge. And then there's five panels on five big pieces of work: Two-level games, making democracy work, Bowling Alone, American Grace, and Our Kids.

So I wanted to go through each of those and just touch on them very briefly. The first, the 1988 article in International Organization, a highly reputed and really read foreign policy journal. Am I right in thinking that that notion of two-level games had its genesis in your work with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Carter White House?

Robert Putnam:

Yeah. And indeed, as I've been reflecting back on my work ... I didn't spend a lot of time doing that until this weekend. It's become clear to me that I've been getting by with a lot of help from my friends, and from a lot of unexpected sources.

Some people are influenced by their environment. Some people are not so influenced, they're a little more independent. I'm very much influenced by my environment, and so after finishing this first period of my work that you alluded to when you talked about the Beliefs of Politicians book, and I did a couple of other books in that vein, I then thought, "Well, let me put myself in a different world, and maybe I'll stumble on something there."

And so I decided to go off to work for a year or two on the staff of the National Security Council with Jimmy Carter. And the first thing that struck me while I was there was that most of our time on the staff of the National Security Council, this is at the White House, we're meeting three steps away from the Oval Office, and I thought we'd be talking about great issues of international strategy and so on.

But no. Most of the time, in our meetings, we were talking about domestic, American politics. We were talking about, "How could we get Senator Blowhard to support what he ought to anyhow?"

Andrew Leigh:

He's from Kansas, right?

Robert Putnam:

I'm not saying where he's from, but we wanted to put a dam there. Oh, we didn't want to put a dam there. He wanted a dam there. And so, we built the damn dam, not because it was justified in any terms of policy terms, but because we were playing domestic politics in order to achieve a broader goal, which was to get the Panama Canal Treaty ratified.

And the Panama Canal Treaty was a perfectly sensible thing, but there were some perfectly sensible people in America who, for whatever reason, didn't want it. And so we had to play ... It's as if we were playing two different games at the same time.

We were negotiating across the diplomatic table with the folks in Panama, but we were also negotiating behind us with a different table. And that kind of metaphor, that we're constantly negotiating at two different tables, struck me at that point.

It struck me even more markedly, memorably, actually, later on in the period that I was working there. I had been asked to manage a process within the US government, to come up with a stance for something called a "special session" on disarmament, which was a big disarmament negotiation going on at the UN.

And our main antagonists were the French, and so I was supposed to try to get out stance together and then negotiate it with my French colleague, who had all these various, sometimes crazy, things he was doing. But we got along very well, and so after the whole thing was over, we reached a consensus and the speeches had been given at the UN, I then took him out to lunch at a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue.

And we were having lunch at this table, and I was describing to him my surprise that my most difficult negotiation was actually with the State Department and with the Arms Control Agency. It was the Pentagon and I couldn't get them to agree, and he said, "The same thing's true for me."

And there at this table, I began using this metaphor that behind each of us was another table that had basically been invisible to the other person, but was actually more what I was doing, negotiating with these folks elsewhere in Washington than I was worrying about what the folks in the [inaudible 00:12:06] felt.

And he had the same reaction exactly, and so that experience, the next stage of my career actually, the next 10 years was spent, first of all, trying to figure out the logic of what came to be called "two-level games." And we could go through that, but actually, the metaphor is what counts.

The metaphor is, it turns out there's a lot of math that you could work on and so on, and use game theory to make it all very persuasive to mathematically-inclined people. But the core idea, which is that the people sitting at an international diplomatic table are actually, simultaneously trying to do two different things, and sometimes they help, but sometimes they don't help.

And then I ran into, while I was working on that project, a guy at ... I say, "a guy." He's now Sir Nicholas Bayne. He wasn't then. He was a senior diplomat in Whitehall, and he was interested in international summits and I was too, because I thought maybe that'd be a place where we could see two-level games.

And so then, Nicholas and I started off just ... We had lunch together because we were both at Chatham House, and then we got along very well, and now we're very old, very close friends and we co-authored a book on the summits called Hanging Together, on the western economic summits called Hanging Together.

So I'm now trying to step a little bit away, but the core of that idea is, if you just keep your eyes open to what's happening around you, and you're lucky to meet smart people, you can get along okay. And so, I'm proud of that work, but it's not proud in the sense that I did it. I mean, I got by with a little help from my friends.

Andrew Leigh:

But you did take that risk of stepping out of your academic career at a relatively young age, to get that slice of the practical world. And that seems to have been a risk which, for you, paid off.

Robert Putnam:

It sure did. Actually, that wasn't the way it quite appeared to me. I don't want to tell you the whole history of my life, but I had been turned onto public affairs in a very dramatic, personal way during the John F. Kennedy period, which was a couple of decades before the period we're now talking about.

And I had decided that I wanted to contribute in some way to public affairs, and I wasn't sure whether to do that as an academic, or do that in government. And this period working at the National Security Council was an opportunity, basically, for me to see, "Would I like working in politics, or would I prefer to be in academics?"

And I decided I would be better off in academics for the following reason. I'll try to be brief about this, but this is actually important for people trying to understand these two different roles. You occupy both of them. I've occupied both of them [inaudible 00:15:04]. You occupy them both simultaneously.

One Monday morning, I went into the office and [Zbig 00:15:12] asked me to write a memo for the president, urging the president to do X. I thought X was dumb. I didn't think it was immoral. I just thought, "It's not worth my time. It's certainly not worth the time of the president of the United States."

But even though I walked in every morning to the White House complex, I wasn't all that powerful, so I spent an inordinately long time, which was a week, I spent a week drafting that damn memo. At the White House, a week is like ages.

And it took me so long because basically, I didn't think it was a good idea. I repeat. It was not that I was being asked to do something immoral. It just seemed to be so trivial. And then I remember, very distinctly, looking out my window that Friday when I finally got it finished, and it was in the president's briefcase as he walked out to the helicopter on the south lawn and took off for Camp David.

And you might have thought, "Well, I put it in his briefcase, the most powerful man in the world, and he's taking off to Camp David this memo saying, 'Do X.'" But I didn't think that. I thought, "What a waste of a week." And I thought, "As an academic, I never work on something that I fundamentally think is trivial, because if I decide it's trivial, I just change and do something else."

This is what some of your listeners will know, but some may not know, academics basically have a very cushy, very attractive deal. We work really hard, but we decide what we want to work on. And what I learned at the White House is, no matter how powerful you are, even if you're the president of the United States, you basically don't get to choose what you work on. You've got to try to persuade other people to do what they ought to do anyhow.

That's when I decided, "I'm going to enjoy it more if I'm in charge of my own agenda rather than having to respond to other people's agendas." Does that make sense?

Andrew Leigh:

Absolutely. So I want to move on, then, to your next passion project, the deep dive into Italian culture for Making Democracy Work, which, if I can sort of sum up how I understand it, the finding that not only did Northern Italy have a higher preponderance of choral societies now than the South, but that that was also true hundreds of years beforehand. Did you go to Italy because you were particularly interested in Northern and Southern Italy as a case study?

Robert Putnam:

Absolutely, but-

Andrew Leigh:

Or was there also an aspect of just loving La Bella Piazza?

Robert Putnam:

That's a really good question. That took me 25 years to do that study. For the first 24 of the 25 years, I completely misunderstood what I was doing. It was only at the very end of this that I suddenly figured it out. And I won't go through the first 24 years, except to say that I was accidentally in Rome, doing some other project, and the Italian government fell, and for a long time, for two or three months, there was nothing I could do because the people I wanted to interview were just not in their offices.

And so, I was sitting there and then, sort of accidentally, they created a new set of regional governments that had ... Unexpectedly, they created these new regional governments all across Italy. There had never been governments of that sort, and now there were.

And I thought, trying to figure out something to do with my time, "Well, suppose I start studying those things now, and then they develop for a while and I'll follow them, and it'll be a little bit as if some political scientist had been around in 1789 when the US Congress is started, but I'll be doing the interviews, so I'll be able to provide evidence for how it changed from 1789 to God knows when."

So that was the concept of the project, and I was doing interviews all over Italy, and I admit that it was fun. That's an understatement. That every year, for nearly 25 years, I had to go to Italy every summer and spend two or three weeks in Bologna and in Florence and in Rome and in Milan, all for reasons of research, you understand.

Andrew Leigh:

Absolutely. This is the tough life of an academic you're referring to, right?

Robert Putnam:

Yeah. Exactly. And of course, it was a tax deduction because it was part of my work, not a ... Anyway, so there were a lot of mixed motives there. But I couldn't ever ... The findings were one-by-one interesting, but I couldn't figure out how to make them interesting to someone who wasn't already interested in the topic.

A friend of mine, Bob Axelrod actually, a long-time friend, said to me at about year 20 or 22, "Bob, until you can figure out why this project should be of interest to someone other than the three people in America who care about Italian local government, don't publish."

And that seemed like good advice to me, except I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out, "Why would anybody in the world, besides the three of us who studied Italian local government, care about it?" And I'll try to make this story brief, but it may be relevant.

So I was off in Oxford at Nuffield College for a term one fall. I was trying to work on this, but I still didn't have any really clear ... I'd written a lot of stuff, but it didn't add up to anything. And Rosemary, my wife, was still working at that point. She was teaching school and she couldn't get off, so I was living by myself in college, in just a room across the quad from the rest of the college at Nuffield.

And I couldn't sleep one night. God knows what I was trying to figure out. "How can I make sense out of this?" And I thought, well, I was across the quad there at Nuffield and the library was there, and I thought, "I'll go over and find some really boring book and put myself to sleep." And I did, walked in.

There was a big, thick book, which it turned out had just been published in the previous year or two, called "Social Theory." And I thought, "400 pages of social theory. That's just the ticket. I'll read that and it'll put me to sleep, and maybe something'll happen."

And I started reading it, and it turned out to be a book by James Coleman called, "Foundations of Social Theory." And there was a chapter in there on a concept I'd never heard of before, social capital. And I started reading this, and I had read ... A crucial part of the story, actually, is that by this point, I knew a lot of game theory.

And the logic of that chapter on social capital was rooted in game theory, so I was able to see ... I don't want to say that it was like Paul on the Road to Damascus, but it was a little bit like that. I, right away, could see that what ... James Coleman was not writing about Italian local government in the slightest, but he was writing about the importance of social networks, and why that could have really positive effects.

He called those networks, and so do I, "social capital." And there's a sense, Andrew, in which, before I went to sleep that night, I had seen, essentially, almost all the work that I would do in the next 25 or 30 years of my life. All the other books you're going to ask me about are about social capital in some way.

And I walked into the library never having heard the term before, and I walked out saying, "What an important idea this is." And then, of course, I didn't actually know all the books I was going to write, but pursuing the idea came to ... Even that story, there's a lot in it that involves not me, but involves Bob Axelrod, for example.

If Bob had not been beating up on me for 20 years to try to figure out, and if Bob and a couple of other people, Ken Shepsle and others, had not taught me a lot about game theory, my mind would not have been prepared when I walked into that library that night, to perceive what otherwise would have been a soporific book.

But then, actually, the writing of the book about Italian ... I had already written a lot about Italy, but then I finished having read that, and having ... There was another part of the episode that is maybe relevant here. Also, within a couple of weeks of that encounter, I was, again, also was kind of bored and Rosemary was not there, so I was wandering around late one night, and went to Blackwell's book store, which is right on the trail in Oxford.

And there was a historical atlas lying on the table, and I was just idling through it. I sort of leafed through this historical atlas, and came upon a map of patterns of ... It's not right to call them "democracy," but patterns of social connection and civicness in Italy, in the 14th and 15th centuries.

I looked at that. I'm pretty good at recognizing patterns, but anybody would have seen, that map in that historical atlas was identical to the map that I had myself drawn about places that were strong and weak in Italy, places where you could get your mail answered from the local government, in 1970.

And I thought, "How likely is it that that's an accident?" Right? And that's when I first began to see, there are these differences. These differences in social capital are extremely deep. And that's the part of the book that you remember is actually a direct, linear descendant of that rainy afternoon when I saw those two maps in Oxford. Anyway, that's that story.

Andrew Leigh:

They're wonderful tales of serendipity. So then you moved from looking at the stasis in social capital in Italy, to looking at the changes in social capital in the United States, first through an article for the Journal of Democracy, and then through Bowling Alone, which comes out in 2000, still, I think the book for which you would be best-known. Did you know that Bowling Alone was going to be something big as you were working on it in the [crosstalk 00:25:21]?

Robert Putnam:

No, absolutely not. I'll tell the connective tissue there very briefly. I came back from Oxford, and metaphorically, from Italy, having persuaded myself that I now did understand something about the roots of democracy, and they turned out to be quite deep, historically.

And then I was just, as an American citizen, I was worried about what was happening to American democracy. Now that seems like, "How could people not be worried about American democracy?" But at the time, it was slightly controversial, counter-cultural.

This is the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it was an era of triumphalism and so on. But I still felt that there had been a collapse in the effectiveness of American democracy. Certainly, if you asked Americans, when I was growing up, "Would you say you can trust the government to do the right thing?" When I was growing up in the '50s, the answer to that question was ... I've forgotten. 75% of people say, "Yes, you could trust the government."

And by the time I returned now from Oxford and Italy, that figure's about 25%. So there's been a huge change, basically, since I personally started to vote. When I started to vote, everything was great. And then I started to vote and the place fell apart.

And so I was, like a good social scientist, I was wondering, "Well, what could explain that besides my personal agency?" And because of the way things were happening at the time, I said to myself, "Well, I wonder if there's any connection between what I've been studying in Italy, namely social capital, not change but differences in social capital, and what I'm worried about as a citizen, namely that American democracy's been falling apart."

"I wonder, could it possibly be that there has been some change in American social connections, social capital, social networks over this period?" And initially, that was a quite random kind of thing. I saw a newspaper story that the parent-teacher organizations in Lexington, Mass, where I lived, were having trouble getting members to come.

And I thought, "Hm, that's interesting." And it was one of these strings. You kept pulling the string, and so I had no idea, when I started that, not even a vague hunch as to what I later on discovered, which is basically, it's true that it all began when I started to vote, but what had happened was, for reasons that we then spent a lot of time trying to figure out, all sorts of social connections in America basically had collapsed in the 30 or 40 years between 1965 and 2000.

And so I had stumbled, again, blindly stumbled onto what I think now was a big deal. And so, then I went off and gave a talk, a very obscure academic talk in Sweden, and I had to think of a title for it, and a friend of mine here at the Kennedy school, Jack Donahue, had learned a little bit about some of the evidence I was finding, and some of the evidence was that people were no longer bowling in leagues as much.

He said, "So you're finding that people are bowling alone?" I remember when he said that to me. It was no phrase at all, but I'm not very creative, but I can know a good idea when I hear it and I thought, "Oh, what a nice title for this obscure paper that I'm going to give."

So I gave the paper. And some even more obscure academic journal, the Journal of Democracy, said, "Would you publish that?" And I said, "Sure, why not?" And then, it was like the world blew up on me. It was picked up by a couple of, at the time, the leading political commentators in America, George Will on the right, and the equally famous David Broder, a famous progressive commentator.

And both of them said, "It's terrific. This article's terrific." And then from that, basically, within two weeks of that, the White House called me to say, would I come to Camp David and talk to the president and his cabinet about this?

Two weeks later, Rosemary and I were featured in People Magazine. I mean, we're just ordinary folks, right? And I went from one call from a journalist every year, to one call from a journalist every hour. And I don't want to sound falsely like I'm a naïve hick from the sticks, because now I know what was happening, but I didn't know what was happening at the time.

And it was like, "What in the world is going on, and what do I do about this?" And then, a lot of things you know, you probably have noticed this too as you become even modestly famous, that you're going to be subject to more criticism. You should be, of course. You should be, but it's not what an ordinary academic with one journalist call a year deals with.

And then, I suddenly realized, "Gosh, I hope I'm right about this." And I had decent evidence, but it wasn't perfect evidence. And a lot of people quickly reminded me that I didn't have perfect evidence for this article, and so I spent three or four years checking to see, "Could I be wrong here?"

It was actually a personally, deeply depressing period, because I thought, "I have made some dumb mistake here and the whole world is watching me plummet." But it turned out I was right after all, and the more we investigated other data sets, the more it turned out I was really right. I was more right than I thought.

I'm sounding now, falsely praising myself. It's not like I'm saying, "Isn't it wonderful I was right?" I'm saying, you cannot imagine how surprising it was to me to go through these big sweeps of being in People Magazine and the president calling me to figuring that the whole world understands that I'm a complete fool, to discovering, "Actually, I'm not such a fool and I was basically right." So a lot of things flowed from that, but that's the backstory, so to speak, of the article.

Andrew Leigh:

And then, following the book coming out, Bowling Alone coming out, you're very much a public star as well as being at the apex of the academic tree. You then begin working on quite a controversial topic, the interplay between social capital and ethnic diversity.

Robert Putnam:


Andrew Leigh:

And that's something which you were working on as early as 2000, but it wasn't until you received the Johan Skytte Prize, the Nobel prize equivalent for political scientists, in 2006, that you finally announced those findings.

And you were criticized by one journalist who said, "Academics aren't supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings." But do you still think it was right to hold back on those controversial findings until you'd settled in your own mind how to put the problem right?

Robert Putnam:

Actually, you're right about that journalist's comment, but you're wrong about what he meant by it. And if he were here, he'd correct you.

Andrew Leigh:

That's John Leo we're talking about?

Robert Putnam:

Yes, and in the Financial Times. And he had come to a talk I gave on these findings in Manchester, and I was walking up to the stage, he said, "How long have you been working on this project?" And I said, "I've been working on it probably three or four years."

And he said, "Why are you only now talking about it?" And I said, "Well, I wanted to be sure I had the facts right, because if I'm going to go out and say something seriously that has not just public implications but controversial implications, I wanted to be sure I knew what I was saying."

And so he took away from that ... I'm fixated on what he said, only because you've quoted it back. And what he said, if you go back to see what he ... He quoted me as saying, "I withheld publication until I had a politically correct answer." If you read what he said, that's what he said.

And that criticism of his was not that I had published, but that I'd withheld publication. According to him, because of political correctness, I had withheld publication until I could come up with some politically correct solution to the problem, which wasn't true.

I mean, it was false. It was factually false. He later on had to retract that part of it, because actually, as soon as I found the findings ... I mean, they were part of a larger study, and we had made a press release and I had issued statements, public statements, and spoken to public audiences about these findings.

So I was certainly not covering up what I admit was a finding that was a surprise to me, and not pleasant. We should maybe tell your listeners the backstory. The backstory is, I had gotten into this because we had done a big national survey of places that had high social capital and had low social capital, had hight trust and so on, and low trust.

And what we'd found was that the places in America that were most trusting were also the places that were most homogenous, the ethnically homogenous. And so just descriptively, it looked like the more ethnically diverse a community or a neighborhood, the lower the social trust and lower social capital.

And so, that was the basic finding. And that basic finding, we came to understand it differently, but the basic finding, contrary to the claim of the right, was not withheld for political correctness. And the only reason I go to such great length is, the larger argument was this.

And the larger argument at the time that I ... All along, this was the larger argument, that in the short run, that A, diversity is great. It's really great. It has many advantages. Immigrant countries like ours or yours, most of our Nobel prize winners are immigrants, not native-born folks. Most of our leading artists are immigrants or children of immigrants, not native folks.

Diverse groups are more productive, not less productive. So it's clear there are big advantages. It's also clear from our work, I thought, and some other people's work, that in the short run, doing diversity is difficult. That is to say, it's not like a whole lot of people from all over the world and different religions, they all suddenly begin hugging each other. They don't.

In the short run, there's a collapse, a fallen social trust and social ... not only social trust, but social connectedness. As I said, summarizing those part of my findings, diversity brings out the turtle in all of us. All of us hunker down when we're in the presence of new diversity.

"But," I said ... So first point is diversity's good. I mean, diversity has big advantages. Second point, it's not easy in the short run. And the third point is, but you can do it in the long run. Successful immigrant societies have always learned how to manage diversity, not by becoming the same old monocolor places they once were, but rather by developing a new sense of "us," a more encompassing sense of "we."

So it's not that when Italian-Americans or Jewish-Americans or whatever came to America, they had to stop being Italian. We had used to get used to Italians being part of America, and so our cuisine is much better, and because of the arrival of the Jews, our humor is way better. Americans, historically, did not do good on humor, but we add all those Jewish humorists ... I'm not making this up, actually, we suddenly become ... Americans really dominate the world, at least in film humor.

Robert Putnam:

And that wasn't because the Jews had to stop being funny before they counted as real Americans. We added funniness to our repertoire of traits, or ... The examples here are so frequent and obvious that I always get a little frustrated that I have to explain to people, it's not that you get past the short run effects of diversity by having those people become like us. It's creating a new sense of "us" with them.

And so that argument has ... and that's what I said, and that's what I have stuck to all the time, throughout the controversy. There's been two kinds of controversies, one led by the left and one led by the right, actually.

The left doesn't like the middle point I made about, "doing diversity is difficult," because they want to say it's not difficult. And the right doesn't like the thing I said at the end, which is that you can work it out and you're better off afterwards.

So the right wing in American politics ... and I'm not just casting aspersions here. David Duke, the head of the Ku Klux Klan, had me on his webpage saying, "Harvard professor finally says diversity is bad," which is not what I said, but when I made clear that that is not what I said, then I became the target of all the right wingers.

And the whole case actually went to the Supreme Court, for goodness sakes, and I had to file a brief in the Supreme Court, personally. Bob Putnam filed a brief in the Supreme Court saying, "These right wingers who are trying to oppose immigration are knowingly misinterpreting me, because they're cherry picking out the one part of that argument they like, and denying the other part."

And that was the most disturbing criticism of me, because it had me in the wrong part of the universe, basically. There's been less criticism, but somewhat more criticism from some on the left who said that maybe I had misstated even the short run problems. Maybe I had somehow made up the short run problems, and that if you do the math right, it turns out that instantly, when strange people arrive next door, everybody goes over and hugs them and ...

And so, that line of argument would have been that I got wrong the middle of these two points. As it turns out now, there now have been more than 100 replications of that work all over the ... Well, there's been stuff done on this in Australia. There's been stuff done on it in Britain, in New Zealand. I mean, every place in the world, there's now been studies saying, "Is Putnam right or wrong?"

Andrew Leigh:

My own replication has indeed been replicated in Australia.

Robert Putnam:

And there's now ... It's great. This is the way science is supposed to work, exactly the way. I never, for a second, thought that the way science works is, "I discover the truth and everybody bows down." That's not how science works. Science works, I say what I think and then somebody else says, "Yeah, but you got this wrong."

And then other people say, "Yeah, but maybe you didn't get that wrong." And so now we're far enough along in this process, there's just about to be published a review of the 150 studies that have been done, which you can read it yourself. Other people will.

But as I read it and as they say it, "Putnam is basically right about, in the short run, diversity is bad." I don't like being criticized any more than anybody does. Maybe politicians like being criticized, but I doubt it. Certainly, our current president does not like being criticized, and I'm not quite in that league.

So I didn't like being criticized, but I didn't think any of it ... I thought it was unfair for people knowingly to distort my argument, which is what the right wing did. But the academic criticism, that goes with the turf.

Andrew Leigh:

So you then moved to another fascinating aspect of American life in your book with David Campbell, American Grace. It's a 700-page published in 2012, and reflects one of the things that strikes me as most interesting as an Australian coming here.

If you look at the end of World War II, a third of people in both our countries attended church on a weekly basis. Now it's down to only about one in eight Australians, but it's still only a little under a third here in the United States.

And as you point out, Americans surpass Iranians in their zeal for religious attendance. To what extent was your interest in the topic of religiosity and religious tolerance grounded in your fascinating religious story, your conversion from Methodism to Judaism, a path not many others travel?

Robert Putnam:

Right. Yeah. Well, I mean, as with all works, certainly with all of my works, there's a personal backstory and there's an academic backstory. The academic backstory, to begin there, is that as a rough rule of thumb, half of all social capital in America is religious.

Half of all volunteering is religious. Half of all philanthropy is religious. Half of all group memberships in America are religious, if you add up all the prayer groups and the church groups and so on, and you add up all the bowling leagues and the rotary clubs and the united ... I mean, all the other groups that Americans are forming. Those are the same height.

So I've always understood that religion was an important element in America's social capital national accounts, if I can put it that way. So I wanted to understand more about it. Moreover, it seemed like a case in which ... Maybe this would be sort of bad social capital. That is, it was connecting people, but it was all bonding, connecting with people like themselves, and it was not about bridging.

And therefore it, as some of the so-called "New Atheists" claimed, religion destroys everything. That's a common view. And I didn't think that was true, because I thought there were really good things that religion did, but I also think there were bad things, and I tried to understand, "What's the mix between the pro-social and the anti-social features of religion?"

And we had an opportunity to do quite unusually large and repeated national surveys, so we had some good evidence on both the ways in which religion was supportive, and the ways in which it was not. And America, in world terms, America's odd because we're very diverse religiously, and we take religion seriously, but we're surprisingly tolerant.

And usually, if you put together diversity and religiosity, you get intolerance. I mean, usually, you get Baghdad or Beirut or Belfast or Bombay or some awful civic fights over religion, and we have fights over religion, but they sort of don't get out of hand. That's the academic puzzle.

The personal thing was, because I'd been raised as an active ... I don't want to say "devout," but I was certainly an active Methodist and went off to college, and happened to encounter a really smart, wonderful co-ed, we called them in those days. We shared an interest in politics. We differed on policy because I was a Republican then and she was a Democrat, and we differed on religion.

And I quickly solved the first discontinuity because I had converted to being a Democrat, and wholeheartedly, enthusiastically. The Republican scales fell away from my eyes. But converting out of a faith that I basically had been practicing for all my life was not so simple, so we spent a lot of time going back and forth over that, and at the time, it was extremely counter-cultural.

Everybody on both sides said, "Bob and Rosemary, you're wonderful people but this is ... It just never works if you have interfaith marriages." And indeed, both her family and my family, they loved us and that's the saving grace here, but they were sure this was a life-altering mistake we were making.

55 years later, so far so good. We're doing fine. We've got two kids and seven grandchildren, and I converted to Judaism, and both of my kids, therefore, were raised as Jews. And both of them married non-Jews, but then one of their spouses, my daughter-in-law converted to Judaism 10 years later, and all my kids are being raised as ... They're all being Bar Mitzvahed.

So I say to Rosemary, she got ... In Judaism, there's a certain minimum number required to hold a religious service, called a minyan. You have to have 10 Jews for a minyan. From one person, mainly Rosemary, we have a minyan of our own that we've produced, so it's been great as a personal experience.

Andrew Leigh:

Mazel tov.

Robert Putnam:

But it also made me much more sensitive to what turned out to be important in the book, actually. That is, that these networks of interfaith connections, especially marriage but even just knowing somebody of a different faith, Americans do have lots of friends and increasingly, lots of relatives, who are in some other faith.

Robert Putnam:

We sometimes refer to Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan is ... She's a wonderful human being. Aunt Susan is for sure going to Heaven. If anyone's going to Heaven, if there is a Heaven, Aunt Susan is going to be there, because she's the person who always remembers birthdays and goes out of her way to take care of sick cats, and she's just a wonderful human being.

Unfortunately, Aunt Susan is of a different faith than me. And I know, if I'm a believer, she might be a nice person but she's not going to go to Heaven. But you can see lots of ordinary Americans, including my own aunts, and not just my own aunts but my own nephews and nieces, saying, "Well, you know, Aunt Susan, she's pretty nice and maybe she is going to go to Heaven, despite the fact that she worships at the wrong altar."

So that's what it felt like in personal life. And it turned out, once we did all the research, that's really true. That's the big story of that book is, it turns out that the secret of American success, the reason that we're able to tolerate such diversity is, we kind of get connected with people from other faiths in a way that doesn't happen in Northern Ireland. At least, it hasn't yet. Maybe it will.

That doesn't happen in the Middle East, and maybe it will, but it doesn't. And in America, those interpersonal ties across religious lines enable us, indeed in some sense, force us to be more tolerant. Does that make sense?

Andrew Leigh:

Absolutely. Your most recent book, 2015, is Our Kids, which is a book, as I take it, about inequality. But it's grounded in the story of the Lake Erie city of Port Clinton, where you grew up, and how it's changed over your lifetime. But it doesn't just talk about inequality through the lens of money.

It also talks about the challenge of parenting, and there's a part of it that I think makes me, as a progressive, feel quite uncomfortable. When you look at the parents of the poor children from your childhood who were profiled, eight out of eight of those parents are there as the children grew up.

Among the Millennial kids, it's something like two out of 12. Did that, delving into the impact of family structure on poverty, make you uncomfortable as you were writing the book?

Robert Putnam:

No. And actually, although if we'd been talking here at this place, at the Kennedy School when you were last here, I mean when you were here as a student, there would have been an ideological cast to the issue. Is the problem about poverty because of economic structure? Or is it a problem about family structure?

And that's been debated ideologically, and still is debated ideologically, publicly. But actually, among specialists now, there's very little disagreement on two points. One, that family does matter. And basically, the argument that progressives like you and me had 15, 20 years ago, that to talk about family was to enter the territory of the enemy, that is, to take onboard something, "family values," that only conservatives talked about.

That's not true now. And it's virtually not true of anybody on the left, much less on the right. Almost nobody would ... You look at the evidence, and it's just easier for two parents to raise a kid than for one parent to raise a kid. I don't care whether they're legally married or they're cohabiting or they're even ... I don't care whether they're different genders.

It's having two adults, two loving adults taking care of kids is just easier. And so, the problem is not to blame single moms. It seems like the next step is, "Okay, all these women are having kids without the benefit of marriage. It's their fault." That is wrong.

But that single ... that the collapse of the working class family, which is not unique to the United States, actually, is relevant to the growth of this class gap in America. I think that's no longer seriously debated by scholars. It's obviously still debated in the public arena. But among scholars of both the left and right, it's not.

And secondly, if you ask, "Well, where did that come from? Where did the breakup of the working class family come from?" Most people, not everybody, but most people would say, "Well, it's a bit of the economic change, the fact that the working class adults have taken it on the chin for the last 30 years."

I mean, and you know the data on this as well as I do. In the US, and actually in many other places, the working class has had a really awful 30 years in which they've not shared at all in the prosperity of the country, and that for sure is relevant to their ability to maintain stable family relations.

And then on the other hand, the other side of this argument, but it's a much more narrowly bounded argument, would say, "Yeah, but it's not just poverty, because we used to have poverty and not have this high rate of family-ness in the working class. We used to have stable but still poor working class families."

Robert Putnam:

And that leads to the thought that, "Well, maybe something else has happened too." For example, the level of poverty in the United States between 1932 and 1942 or '41, before the war, that is, during the Great Depression, enormous poverty, heavily concentrated on the working class.

And the rate of births out of wedlock did not change one whit, even though there had been a collapse of economics. And why was that? Because the birthrate went down too. Basically, working class people acted then, not that there wasn't poverty, but the sort of moral rule was, "No license, no kids."

And even though birth control was actually harder then, both births and weddings went down, and what that implies was, that was a period in which there was poverty, and it did have an affect on marriages, but it didn't follow through onto births, because people had a different moral set.

And so, I'm trying to explain why. I would say most, even most progressive scholars now would say, "Yes, the absence of two parents, that is, the collapse of the working class family, is part of the story. It does help explain why the opportunities open to working class kids now are way lower than the opportunities open to rich kids, but not because they chose the wrong parents, but because they're now stuck with a set of parents who are ..."

That is not right. I don't want to "stuck with," but their parents now are very less likely to be married, and therefore they're less likely to have two parents. And why are they less likely to have two parents? Partly for economic reasons and partly for cultural reasons.So I knew that that was basically true, and our evidence showed that that's true, and one of the things that's striking, actually, both the reaction to that book and to the big public debate about equality of opportunity in America is, along some dimensions of politics, there's basic factual disagreement. It's like the two sides are living in different worlds.

In this area, which is crucial. It's equality of opportunity, the core value of America, there actually isn't a ton of disagreement about the facts, namely the growing gap between rich kids and poor kids, or even the explanation for the facts. Among the specialists, there's not.

But the political elite, and here I would not be even-handed, the Republican elite, they know the facts and they've been ignoring the facts. And I know I'm accusing them of ... A year ago, I would not have said this. I have talked with Paul Ryan about this issue, and there's nothing that I've said that he says is wrong.

He just doesn't ... He even says, privately, "Yeah, we got to do something to help these kids. And of course, we've got to do something to help their parents economically." Privately, he'll say that. But his behavior has been completely inconsistent with that, and so now I've suddenly tip-toed into this mess of American politics now.

And I know I'm sounding like a rapid Democrat, but it's the same me all along. All along, I've been trying to be kind of a purple person. That is, see things from the right and from the left. We call it "red and blue" in this crazy backward notion, because "red" for us means "conservative." We know in the real world, "red" means "liberal," but ...

I've tried to be kind of purple, and most of these problems I think are purple problems. And I've spoken easily, my whole career, easily, to Democrat and Republican leaders, but now the Republican Party is just ... and we know the reason, the arrival of this bizarre person at the top of the Republican Party, has just gone off the deep end.

And all we can hope, and by "we," I mean Americans, I don't just mean Democrats, is that in the next election, people will recognize the era of their ways. I think this actually is happening. I know this is not a current events things, and so this may be played after the election of November 2018, and maybe I'll be shown to be a complete fool as a predictor, but I think it's likely, actually, that the American public is decent enough that a lot of people will say, "This is a hell of a way to run a country."

Not left or right, but just where truth doesn't matter. How could you run a country in which truth doesn't matter? So I admit this is now a little more based on faith in ordinary Americans than it is on facts. I think we'll come out okay, but I sure wish we hadn't had this detour.

Andrew Leigh:

So I want to draw the conversation to a close, just with a couple of observations, one on the cycle of your career. There's this notion of creatives, that they come in two types: those who are grounded in a single big idea, who bloom in their early 20s, and those who draw their work from the world, who tend to bloom late.

And so in novels, you think of Joyce as an early bloomer, Dickens as a character-driven late bloomer. Picasso is driven by single ideas, blooming early, Matisse coming later. Your best-cited work, Bowling Alone, is published when you're 59, and indeed, your productivity, if anything, seems to be increasing. What does it mean to be a late bloomer, in terms of how you see yourself and see your career?

Robert Putnam:

Yeah. That's a good question, actually. Surprisingly, maybe, I haven't asked myself that question exactly. Because from inside, of course, it seems that you're the same you, turning out books and people either like them or they don't like them.

So from inside, you want to say, "Well, it depends upon the fit between the ideas that I've had and what the demand out there in the world was for those ideas." And there's no doubt that Bowling Alone and social capital became really popular, because it happened to be appearing at the time of the so-called "third way," the incipient communitarianism of Bill Clinton, and then later, Barrack Obama and Tony Blair.

And so, the ideas were in the air, and I just happened to be the guy who was articulating these ideas. If I'd articulated the same ideas two decades earlier, it would have been in the teeth of Reaganism, and that would not have flown. And if I'd waited another 20 years, not that I was trying to wait, but if I had, the world would have moved on. So it seems, from inside out, as though I'm just inside there, chugging out ideas, and sometimes they have resonance with the world.

But it also seems for inside, I can see a lot of ways in which my work was building on itself, and there's not a core concept. Or if there is, it's social capital. That appears much later in the story, as you correctly say. I'm in my 50s before I even heard of that idea, and I didn't come up with it myself. I just used it. Popularized it, maybe.

But it is true that, throughout my career, I've been very interested in community. My very first article, published in my first semester as a graduate student, and written in my first semester as a graduate student, is still ... So that's now more than 50 years old, is still one of the most-cited of my pieces, and it's called, "Political attitudes in the local community," because at some deeper level, I was driven by worrying about community.

I mean, this is psychobabble, I suppose, but at some deeper level, I think a lot of my career was driven by growing up in a place that had ... Objectively, we know this now, had very high social capital. I happened to be growing up in a period and a place, no thanks to me, which there was an extremely high level of trust and reciprocity and connecting and so on, the '50s in middle America.

And therefore, I noticed when that reality of community began to weaken. And now, much of my career has been trying to say to other folks, "Look, look." And it seems to take the form of a kind of nostalgia for a world that we could never recreate.

And what I've been trying to say louder and louder is, "No, no. It's true that it was like that then, and it's true that we've been on this downer, but it doesn't have to be, and we could turn it around, actually, and here are some ideas."

I'm now writing a last book which tries to put all of these works in larger historical perspective, and talk about the relative emphasis on "we," which was high then, and the relative emphasis on "I," which was low then and is high now.

And the book is going to argue ... I'm not going to summarize this new book yet for you now, because I've not yet finished it, but the basic idea is, for the first in the 20th century, we were moving from an "I" society to a "we" society.

Things were getting better, and then I show up, accidentally, and I somehow trigger a reversal of this. And for the last 50 years, we've been moving more and more from a "we" society to an "I" society. Now, I'm not trying to say that all good is "we." There are bad things about "we." There's conformity and conformism, and maybe the tyranny of the majority and all that.

So it's not like "we good, I bad." But for sure, we've gone too far toward "I," and so a lot of my recent work, a lot of my work over my whole career is basically saying, "Look. This 'I' kick we're on is actually not good for us. It's bad for our health. I'll show you the evidence. It's bad for our kids. It's bad for equality. It's just really, really bad."

"And therefore," I say, "let's look at the time, which was 100 years ago, the Gilded Age, which was very much like this age. And we can see now, historically, that that was a turning point." I don't mean that in the progressive era, everything became perfect. It didn't.

But we've been on an "I" kick for a long time, and we turned a corner and then, the next 60 years, we spent going in a "we" direction. And all I'm trying to say is, "Let's look back and see, what did they do so that the future is not ..." I don't want to go back to the '50s, but I don't want to be stuck in our current decade, which is awful.

Andrew Leigh:

Couple of rapid fire final questions. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

Robert Putnam:

I think this is going to sound like a preacher's thing. I look back at my teenage self ... Maybe all teenagers are like this. I thought, basically, I was in charge of my life. I was doing everything. I was working hard to get good grades and to play on the football team and all these things.

And now, in retrospect, I can see, what self-delusions. I was entirely being helped along and pushed along and influenced along by these social influences, and I didn't even realize it. And I don't know that I would have behaved any differently, but I would have been a lot more thankful than I was at the time.

Andrew Leigh:

When are you most happy?

Robert Putnam:

Yeah. Well, that's a little unfair. It's because I've got a terrific family, actually. Really terrific. I mean, I married my college sweetheart and we're still loving each other more than ... I know this sounds like suddenly, this is a sob story, that people turn on the wrong dial and they ended up in the middle of some soap opera or something.

But we had a really, really, really good life in all ways. We've been successful professionally. Both of us have been successful professionally. We both actually are more in love now than we were then, 50 years ago. We've got great kids who are doing wonderful things, and actually are even more successful. We've been pretty successful. They're even more successful.

And our grandchildren, don't get me started. And so, we don't have a picture here. We've got a picture someplace of Rosemary and me and our seven grandchildren sitting in the English countryside, Devonshire, celebrating our 50th anniversary, and we look like lords of the manor. I mean, we look like ... and I look at that picture and I think, "Talk about happiness. That's bliss."

Andrew Leigh:

What's the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

Robert Putnam:

Well, I try to get a little out of myself, because I think my natural state is being slightly depressed and disappointed in what I've achieved. I've had serious episodes of depression in my life, actually. And so, Rosemary's important in that context, because when I'm feeling down, she kind of picks me up, and when I'm feeling up, she reminds me to call my mother or my grandchildren.

And that's really what I need. That keeps me healthy. And then, I don't jog as much you do or as I did when I was your age, but I still work out. I pump iron a couple of times a week, and so I'm really lucky. Look, a lot of this is genes and so on.

I don't want to make it sound like humans are just chips floating on the ocean, brought hither and yon by their social and physical environment, but the older you get, the more you realize, "Gosh, I am so damn lucky." I ended up in this really nice state, and I didn't do anything right. I just was lucky.

Andrew Leigh:

The time at your writing cabin in Frost Pond, it sounds like it's pretty important for your mental wellbeing too.

Robert Putnam:

Yeah, it is. And it's funny. Of course, I get teased by my family endlessly. I somehow got in the habit of writing ... I can't write here in the Kennedy School because there's just too many things happening all the time, so when I really want to write, I go up to this cabin in the woods.

Actually, it's not just a cabin. It's a nice house in the woods on a pond with the mountains in the background. And I write about how important connection with other people is. I've written about the same sentence for 25 years, really important to connect with other people. But in doing that, I go to where I cannot see another ... There's not another human being within a mile of me, except Rosemary if she's there.

Andrew Leigh:

Your own Henry David Thoreau space.

Robert Putnam:

Yeah, and I can see ... Who are my friends when I'm up there? Well, it's the bear and the moose and the deer and the raccoons and the porcupines and the ... Yeah. Go figure.

Andrew Leigh:

And finally, Bob, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

Robert Putnam:

Honestly, I think my wife. You know Rosemary, although you don't know her very well. And we're different people, quite different people. She's a doer, so all those things that I preach about doing, she actually does. She volunteers in six different organizations, and worries about kids, and she worries about our own grandchildren.

She's almost always doing what I preach we should all be doing, but actually I don't do. And yeah, and she has on our wall in the kitchen up in Frost Pond, in New Hampshire, there's a saying, "When you're 100 years gone, no one is going to care what you wrote or how much money your bank account was. They're going to care whether you did things for kids."

I'm sorry. It's really emotional for me, because that's true. That's absolutely, morally, rock true. I'm lucky to have been around her.

Andrew Leigh:

That's a beautiful way to close. Robert Putnam, social capitalist extraordinaire. Thanks for taking the chance to speak on The Good Life Podcast today.

Robert Putnam:

Thanks, Andrew.


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.