The Public Interest

Individualism: new and old

Adam Wolfson

Winter 1997

IN the beginning it was something only academics talked and wrote about, though it was something most everyone was aware of. I am referring to the disappearance of community or civil society in contemporary American life. If one were to mark when the academic debate literally went “prime time,” 1995 would be close. It was around then that an article, published in an obscure scholarly journal, on the declining rates of civic activity among Americans, made the evening network news. The author of the article, Robert D. Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, purported to show that America is no longer a nation of joiners; in his words, Americans are “bowling alone,” not in bowling leagues. Some might respond so what or good riddance. But not Putnam and other social scientists who argue that such informal organizations promote civic trust, cooperation, and dialogue, without which democratic institutions become brittle.

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