Bowling Together

The closing decades of the twentieth century found Americans growing ever
less connected with one another and with collective life. We voted less, joined
less, gave less, trusted less, invested less time in public affairs, and engaged
less with our friends, our neighbors, and even our families. Our "we" steadily
shriveled.

The unspeakable tragedy of September 11 dramatically interrupted that
trend. Almost instantly, we rediscovered our friends, our neighbors, our public
institutions, and our shared fate. Nearly two years ago, I wrote in my book
Bowling Alone that restoring civic engagement in America "would be eased by a
palpable national crisis, like war or depression or natural disaster, but for
better and for worse, America at the dawn of the new century faces no such
galvanizing crisis."

Now we do.

But is September 11 a period that puts a full stop to one era and opens a new,
more community-minded chapter in our history? Or is it merely a comma, a brief
pause during which we looked up for a moment and then returned to our solitary
pursuits? In short, how thoroughly and how enduringly have American values and
civic habits been transformed by the terrorist attacks of last fall?

During the summer and fall of 2000, my colleagues and I conducted a nationwide
survey
of civic attitudes and behaviors, asking about everything from voting to
choral singing, newspaper readership to interracial marriage. Recently, we
returned to many of the same people and posed the same questions. Our survey
period extended from mid-October to mid-November 2001, encompassing the anthrax
crisis and the start of the Afghan war. Emerging from the immediate trauma of
unspeakable death and destruction, these 500 Americans were adjusting to a
changed world and a changed nation.

Though the immediate effect of the attacks was clearly devastating, most
Americans' personal lives returned to normal relatively quickly. For example,
despite anecdotal reports of increased religious observance in the immediate
aftermath of the tragedy, we found no evidence of any change in religiosity or in
reported church attendance. Our primary concern, however, was not with change in
the private lives of Americans but with the implications of the attacks and their
aftermath for American civic life. And in those domains, we found unmistakable
evidence of change.

The levels of political consciousness and engagement are
substantially higher than they were a year ago in the United States. In fact,
they are probably higher now than they have been in at least three decades. Trust
in government, trust in the police, and interest in politics are all up. Compared
with a year ago, Americans are somewhat more likely to have attended a political
meeting or to have worked on a community project. Conversely, we are less likely
to agree that "the people running my community do not really care what I think."
This is no doubt partly the result of a spurt of patriotism and "rally round the
flag" sentiment, but it also reflects a sharper appreciation of public
institutions' role in addressing not just terrorism but other urgent national
issues. The result? A dramatic and probably unprecedented burst of enthusiasm for
the federal government.

Using a standard question ("How much can you trust the government in
Washington to do what is right--all of the time, most of the time, some of the
time, or none of the time?"), we found that 51 percent of our respondents
expressed greater confidence in the federal government in 2001 than they had a
year earlier. No doubt the identity of the commander in chief has something to do
with the somewhat greater increase in confidence among Republicans, southerners,
and whites; even before September 11, the advent of a Republican administration
probably changed the partisan polarity of this question. Nevertheless, the
bipartisan, nationwide effect of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath is
clear.

Although we found most of the changes in civic attitudes to be relatively
uniform across ethnic groups, social classes, and regions, some registered more
sharply among younger Americans (those aged 35 and under) than among their
elders. Interest in public affairs, for example, grew by 27 percent among younger
people, as compared with 8 percent among older respondents. Trust in "the people
running your community" grew by 19 percent among younger people, as compared with
4 percent among older ones.

Nonetheless, Americans from all walks of life expressed greater interest in
public affairs than they had during the national political campaign of 2000. This
spike in political awareness has not, however, led most Americans to run out and
join community organizations or to show up for club meetings that they used to
shun. Generally speaking, attitudes (such as trust and concern) have shifted more
than behavior has. Will behavior follow attitudes? It's an important question.
And if the answer is no, then the blossom of civic-mindedness after September 11
may be short-lived.

Americans don't only trust political institutions more: We also
trust one another more, from neighbors and co-workers to shop clerks and perfect
strangers. More Americans now express confidence that people in their community
would cooperate, for example, with voluntary conservation measures in an energy
or water shortage. In fact, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, more Americans
reported having cooperated with their neighbors to resolve common problems. Fewer
of us feel completely isolated socially, in the sense of having no one to turn to
in a personal crisis. At the same time, we are now less likely to have friends
over to visit. Television viewing increased from about 2.9 hours to 3.4 hours a
day. In that sense, whether because of fear or because of the recession,
Americans are cocooning more now than a year ago.

We were especially surprised and pleased to find evidence of enhanced trust
across ethnic and other social divisions. Whites trust blacks more, Asians trust
Latinos more, and so on, than these very same people did a year ago. An identical
pattern appears in response to classic questions measuring social distance:
Americans in the fall of 2001 expressed greater open-mindedness toward
intermarriage across ethnic and racial lines, even within their own families,
than they did a year earlier.

To be sure, trust toward Arab Americans is now about 10 percent below the
level expressed toward other ethnic minorities. We had not had the foresight to
ask about trust in Arab Americans a year ago, so we cannot be certain that it has
declined, but it seems likely that it has. Similarly, we find that Americans are
somewhat more hostile to immigrant rights. Other surveys have shown that public
skepticism about immigration increased during 2001, but that trend may reflect the
recession as much as it does the terrorist attacks. Yet despite signs of public
support for antiterrorist law-enforcement techniques that may intrude on civil
liberties, our survey found that Americans are in some respects more tolerant of
cultural diversity now than they were a year ago. Opposition to the exclusion of
"unpopular" books from public libraries actually rose from 64 percent to 71
percent. In short--with the important but partial and delimited exception of
attitudes toward immigrants and Arab Americans--our results suggest that
Americans feel both more united and more comfortable with the nation's diversity.

We also found that Americans have become somewhat more generous, though the
changes in this domain are more limited than anecdotal reports have suggested.
More people in 2001 than in 2000 reported working on a community project or
donating money or blood. Occasional volunteering is up slightly, but regular
volunteering (at least twice a month) remains unchanged at one in every seven
Americans. Compared with figures from immediately after the tragedy, our data
suggest that much of the measurable increase in generosity spent itself within a
few weeks.

As 2001 ended, Americans were more united, readier for collective
sacrifice, and more attuned to public purpose than we have been for several
decades. Indeed, we have a more capacious sense of "we" than we have had in the
adult experience of most Americans now alive. The images of shared suffering that
followed the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington suggested a powerful
idea of cross-class, cross-ethnic solidarity. Americans also confronted a clear
foreign enemy, an experience that both drew us closer to one another and provided
an obvious rationale for public action.

In the aftermath of September's tragedy, a window of opportunity has opened
for a sort of civic renewal that occurs only once or twice a century. And yet,
though the crisis revealed and replenished the wells of solidarity in American
communities, those wells so far remain untapped. At least, this is what that gap
between attitudes and behavior suggests. Civic solidarity is what Albert
Hirschman called a "moral resource"--distinctive in that, unlike a material
resource, it increases with use and diminishes with disuse. Changes in attitude
alone, no matter how promising, do not constitute civic renewal.

Americans who came of age just before and during World War II were enduringly
molded by that crisis. All their lives, these Americans have voted more, joined
more, given more. But the so-called Greatest Generation forged not merely moods
and symbols, as important as those were; it also produced great national policies
and institutions (such as the GI Bill) and community-minded personal practices
(such as scrap drives and victory gardens). So far, however, America's new mood
has expressed itself largely through images--of the attacks themselves, for
instance, or the Ad Council's "I am an American" campaign, which powerfully
depicts our multicultural society--and gestures, such as the president's visit to
a mosque.

Images matter. What a powerful lesson in inclusive citizenship would have been
imparted had FDR visited a Shinto shrine in January 1942! But images alone do not
create turning points in a nation's history. That requires institutionalized
change. To help foster a new "greatest generation," the Bush administration
should endorse the bill offered by Senators John McCain and Evan Bayh to
quintuple funds for the AmeriCorps program of national youth service. And given
that young Americans are more open to political participation than they have been
in many years, educational and political leaders should seize this moment to
encourage youths' engagement in political and social movements. The grass-roots
movement to restore the Pledge of Allegiance in American classrooms advocates fine
symbolism; but the time is right to introduce a new, more activist civics
education in our schools as well.

Finally, activists should recognize that wartime mobilization can also spark
progress toward social justice and racial integration, much as the experiences of
World War II helped to generate the civil-rights movement of the 1950s. Americans
today, our surveys suggest, are more open than ever to the idea that people of
all backgrounds should be full members of our national community. Progressives
should work to translate that national mood into concrete policy initiatives that
bridge the ethnic and class cleavages in our increasingly multicultural society.

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