Bowling Alone

STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
Bowling Alone: How Washington Has Helped Destroy American Civil Society and Family Life
By Sam Jacobs - August 26, 2019

Church attendance in the United States is at an all-time low, according to a Gallup poll released in April 2019. This decline has not been a steady one. Indeed, over the last 20 years, church attendance has fallen by 20 percent. This might not sound like cause for concern off the bat. And if you’re not a person of faith, you might rightly wonder why you would care about such a thing.

Church attendance is simply a measure of something deeper: social cohesion. It’s worth noting that the religions with the highest rate of attendance according to Pew Forum have almost notoriously high levels of social cohesion: Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Protestants, Mormons and historically black churches top the list.

There’s also the question of religious donations. Religious giving has declined by 50 percent since 1990, according to a 2016 article in the New York Times. This means people who previously used religious services to make ends meet now either have to go without or receive funding from the government. This, in turn, strengthens the central power of the state.

It is our position that civil society – those elements of society which exist independently of big government and big business – are essential to a functioning and free society. What’s more, these institutions are in rapid decline in the United States, and have been for over 50 years.

Such a breakdown is a prelude to tyranny, and has been facilitated in part (either wittingly or unwittingly) by government policies favoring deindustrialization, financialization and centralization of the economy as well as the welfare state. The historical roots of this breakdown are explored below, along with what concerned citizens can do to mitigate its impact on their loved ones.

What Is Bowling Alone?

The urtext of this topic is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by political scientist Robert D. Putnam. He uses the decline in league bowling as a sort of shorthand for the overall decline in American participation in social life.

The local bowling alley was known as the blue-collar country club, and it was the invention of the automatic pinsetter that changed the game, making it faster and more accessible. The first million-dollar endorsement sports deal was Don Carter receiving a million dollars to bowl with an Ebonite signature ball designed for him in 1964.

Business was driven by league play. People would sign up to join a league, which had them in for 30 weeks of once-weekly play. In the course of doing this, they would rub elbows with teammates, opponents and whoever happened to be hanging out in the bowling alley at the time. Between 1940 and 1958, the United States Bowling Congress’ membership exploded from 700,000 to 2.3 million. The Women’s International Bowling Congress’membership climbed from 82,000 to 866,000, with the American Junior Bowling Congress ballooning from 8,000 to 175,000. In their heyday, bowling leagues brought in a whopping 70 percent of all bowling alley income. Now they bring in a paltry 40 percent.

Again, the point here is not that there is something magical about bowling, which acts as a social glue in the United States. Rather, it is that the existence of bowling alleys as a third place in American life was the symptom of a vibrant and healthy civil society, not its cause. People preferred to socialize with others in a place outside of home or work. Putnam is quick to point out that the number of people who bowl in the United States has actually increased since the golden age of bowling – the problem is that they’re all doing it alone.

The decline in bowling league membership parallels the decline of memberships in a number of other civic organizations including the Knights of ColumbusB’Nai Brithlabor unionsthe Boy Scoutsthe Red Crossthe Lionsthe Elksthe Kiwanisthe Freemasonsparent-teacher organizationsthe League of Women Voters and the Junior Chamber of Commerce to name only a few examples other than bowling leagues and churches.

What this means is that there are significantly fewer connections between people and fewer civic-minded discussions going on now than there were in the past. It also means the loss of identity tied to something other than work and consumer goods (see the explosion of adults spending their money on Star Wars or Harry Potter knick-knacks).

Putnam lays the blame at the foot of technology. Television, and to a much greater extent, the Internet, individualized how people spend their spare time. Still, there is a solid case to be made that the decline of civil society and the resulting loss of social capital is not simply the result of new technologies. It is equally the result of government policies which, through design or through negligence, further erode civil society.

The Destruction of the Rust Belt

Bowling Alone: How Washington Has Helped Destroy American Civil Society and Family LifeIt is difficult to talk about the decline of civil society and social capital in the United States without looking at the destruction of the Rust Belt. The decline of the population in Rust Belt industrial cities over the last 50 years is worth a cursory glance before delving further into this topic:

  • In 1940, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh were all among the 10 most populated cities in the United States.
  • By 1980, Cleveland and Pittsburgh had dropped off.
  • While Detroit hung around in the top 10 until the 2010 census, it was also the first city to have its population drop below one million.

Cities outside of the top 10 in 1940 paint an even starker picture:

  • Between 1960 and 2010, Buffalo lost over half of its population, plummeting from 532,000 (20) to 261,000 (71).
  • Cincinnati was hit about this hard during the same time period, with its population dropping from 502,000 (21) to 296,000 (63).
  • Gary, Indiana is perhaps the most extreme case of Rust Belt depopulation. It lost over half its population between 1960 and 2010, going from 178,000 (70) to 80,000 (unranked).

Most of these massive depopulations are tied closely to deindustrialization and the financialization of the economy. While other factors cannot be ignored, such as central air conditioning, which makes living in cities like Phoenix (439,000 in 1960 and the 29th largest city to 1.4 million and the 6th largest by 2010) much more palatable, a conscious set of policies contributed to the destruction of America’s manufacturing base.

If one sees the United States as nothing more than a group of consumers, there’s nothing to fret about here. If, however, one sees the United States as a nation with a value beyond its simple GDP, the replacement of civil society with the marketplace is a disastrous scenario.

Continue reading Bowling Alone: How Washington Has Helped Destroy American Civil Society and Family Life at Ammo.com.

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