It came in a flash. And it came in a church.
Bob Putnam, a political scientist studying the Italian government’s experiment in regional decentralization of power, was gathering data to study which administrative divisions thrived, and why. In essence, he sought to find what makes democracy work. Amassing data on regional government efficacy, wealth, and a host of other variables, he found some intriguing correlations. Wealth generally correlated to efficacy, for instance, but it was far from a perfect positive relationship. Again and again, he fell short of coming to a satisfying answer to his dilemma.
Taking a break from his research, he headed to the hills. Visiting a quaint church in the Italian countryside with Rosemary, his wife, Putnam was struck by the beauty of the choir -- made up not of professional musicians, but volunteer denizens. As technicolor light shone through rustic stained glass windows and onto the floor, he had an epiphany: civic and social associations, like communal church choirs, were the missing piece to his puzzle. Pouring over his research, his prophetic vision was fulfilled. Synthesizing several data sets to measure social capital -- a term denoting the thickness of relationships between people, and the mutual trust and social resources generated from these relationships -- Putnam found that it was most closely correlated to administrative efficacy than any other variable he’d studied.
Putnam’s findings further substantiated Alexis de Tocqueville’s examination of the role of voluntary associations in democratic society.
Recently, I attended a screening of Join or Die, a documentary inspired by Putnam and his life’s work. The film documents his life, alongside the social-intellectual movement which has accompanied his study of associational life. Over the last several decades, political leaders, community organizers, and everyday people have taken an interest in his intellectual contributions.
Although it’s apparently a celebration, the film contains a subtle, and possibly unconscious, critique of the social capital movement up to this point. The people in charge are not only no longer ignoring this issue -- they seem passionate about fixing it. Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg sat down for interviews. Putnam’s ideas were amplified by Bill Clinton during his time in office, and he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by Barack Obama. President Biden’s Surgeon General has launched a nationwide initiative to confront social atomization, and was also featured in the film.
Yet, despite all this attention, nothing’s changed. In fact, the problem has gotten much worse. Where have we gone wrong?
As Putnam documented, trust is not simply a vertical phenomenon. Knowing your neighbors, accomplishing shared tasks with your fellow citizens, and trusting those within your community translated to trust in larger institutions. Democracy only works when it’s grounded in fulfilling communities.
Progressive communitarians intuit this. They see that man cannot live on bread alone; that democracy and freedom require the leaven of community.
Where they run awry is their obsession with turning to the state for solutions. Modeling their reforms after the Progressive Era, they seek to expand civil society alongside the expansion of government. Putnam frequently argues for further taxpayer investments in community, healthcare, and other social goods, among other policy fixes. While his locus still ostensibly remains local, his solutions are characteristically national, and focus on what government can do for us, rather than on what people and communities can do for themselves.
Conservatives, on the other hand, ought to be highly attentive to the potentially antagonistic relationship between the state and civil society. Utah Senator Mike Lee, the only major conservative leader featured in the film besides economist Glenn Loury, rightly said that state action can often displace the functions of civil society institutions, empowering the state and hyperindividualism at the expense of voluntary associations. Regrettably, conservatives present these arguments almost entirely in negative terms. “Get out of the way,” they say, “and let people do their thing.”
The issue is that people are no longer “doing their thing.”
As Yuval Levin wrote in 2021, we suffer from “a disordered passivity—a failure to launch, which leaves too many Americans on the sidelines of life, unwilling or unable to jump in.” Evidence for this thesis abounds. American birth rates continue to tumble, millions of able-bodied men simply refuse to enter the workforce, fewer teenagers are getting drivers licenses, and marriage is becoming rarer and rarer.
Church services without crying children, sterile neighborhood streets with fewer block parties, and local dive bars that can’t sell enough beers to keep their doors open are reasons to mourn, not to rejoice. Far from the raucous ‘60s or the roaring ‘20s, we are sleepwalking through the 21st century.
During the post-screening question and answer session, Putnam was asked if he was optimistic about the future. He responded first by bringing up a distinction between optimism and hope that his friend, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, had made. “Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better,” he said. Optimism is passive. Hope, on the other hand, is active. It’s more than a disposition. It inspires agency, and potentially courage.
During the process of interviewing the “social capitalists” who were ultimately featured in the documentary, one of the film’s co-directors said that these people were not uniformly extroverted or even talented leaders. Depressives and introverts made up much of their ranks. Rather, they all shared one characteristic: courage. They maintained a common hope that their efforts would not be in vain, that solutions begin not in the process of policymaking, but in the organic, embodied process of building community from the ground-up. They hoped against hope, choosing to buck our broader societal trend towards passivity and inaction.
The film’s first example of such an organic community organization is Odd Fellows’ Waxahachie Lodge #80. The Odd Fellows are a fraternal organization founded in 1816 dedicated to “visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” Similar to the FreeMasons, Elks, Shriners, and other fraternal societies, Odd Fellows lodges resemble what we often think of when we imagine traditional American civil society.
Join or Die documents the leaders and members of Lodge #80 -- men of all ages -- who come together not only for a sense of fraternity but to do things together: to host charity drives, bingo nights, community events, and more. Far from an anachronism, the Lodge plays a powerful role in their city’s communal life.
Not all members of the lodge are “natural joiners” by any means. Some concede that they felt a hole in their lives, and that they wanted to be a part of something larger than themselves. Others sought meaning and purpose where they had none. Others yet had the courage to channel their longing for companionship away from the false warmth of alcoholism and addiction, towards something more fulfilling. Chalked full of passionate joiners and dispassionate loners, the Odd Fellows of Lodge #80 share the courage to come together and do things together -- an act, however simple, that is in fact an act of rebellion against a lethargic culture.
But the film’s examples of new civil society institutions venture far beyond Waxahachie, Texas. Join or Die highlights a group of black cyclists in Atlanta that bring people together to forge new friendships and promote the city’s cultural heritage. The film also followed an Episcopolian priest whose church has grown over time through the incorporation of manual agricultural labor into her rural ministry, uniting people from disparate backgrounds and of all ages around prayer and work -- ora et labora.
The film purposefully -- and rightly -- illustrates the sheer multiplicity and variety that American civil society is full of, and capable of, in the 21st century.
A restored social fabric will not precisely resemble the civil society of the 1950s, nor of any other era. It will have its own peculiarities, and its own virtues and vices. It will be, unlike most everything nowadays, a source of genuine dynamism and social renewal, giving room for people to organize and interact spontaneously and creatively. In an era of overbearing bureaucratic management, these new spaces will prove to be a breeding ground both for more fulfilled human lives, and a more dynamic society.
So where do we begin? Our renaissance will begin with people in small towns and big cities across this great country stepping up to solve problems at the local level, building and participating in community institutions and traditions, and often simply bringing people together to have a good time -- at potlucks, movie nights, house parties, and even pickleball courts. Each and every one of these tiny victories are constructive acts of rebellion against a culture of passivity and unfulfillment.
The journey ahead is grand, but it will begin like all odysseys: with a few small steps.
Joe Pitts is a young professional currently working in the public policy space in Washington, D.C. He is a recent graduate of Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, and a native Arizonan.