Individualism and the Crisis of Civic Membership

by Robert Bellah, et al

The authors previously collaborated on Habits of the Heart. This article is excerpted from The Good Society, published this month by Knopf. Reprinted by permission.

This article appeared in The Christian Century March 20-27, l996, pp. 260-265. Copyrighted by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The authors revisit their best-selling Habits of the Heart and discover that in American society individualism has not diminished. Rather, under the influence of neo-capitalism, it has increased.

The consequences of radical individualism are more strikingly evident today than they were even a decade ago when Habits of the Heart was published. In Habits we spoke of commitment, of community and of citizenship as useful contrast terms to an alienating individualism. Properly understood, these terms are still valuable for our current understanding. But today we think the phrase "civic membership" brings out something not quite captured by these other terms. While we criticized distorted forms of individualism, we never sought to neglect the central significance of the individual person or failed to sympathize with the difficulties faced by the individual self in our society. "Civic membership" points to that critical intersection of personal identity with social identity. If we face a crisis of civic identity, it is not just a social crisis; it is a personal crisis as well.

One way of characterizing the crisis of civic membership is to speak of declining "social capital." Robert Putnam, who has brought the term to public attention, defines social capital as follows: "By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital -- tools and training that enhance individual productivity -- social capital refers to features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefits." There are a number of possible indices of social capital, but the two that Putnam has used most extensively are associational membership and public trust.

Putnam has chosen a stunning image as the title of a recent article: Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital (Journal of Democracy, January 1995). He reports that between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. This is not a trivial example: nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once in 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional election and roughly the same as claim to attend church regularly.

For Putnam, people bowling by themselves are a symbol of the decline of associational life, the vigor of which has been seen as the heart of our civic culture ever since Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in the 1830s.

In the 1970s dramatic declines began to hit the associations typically composed of women, such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. This has often been explained as the result of the massive entry of women into the work force. In the 1980S falling membership struck typically male associations, such as the Lions, Elks, Masons and Shriners, as well. Union membership has dropped by half since its peak in the middle 1950s. We all know of the continuing decline of the number of eligible voters who actually go to the polls, but Putnam reminds us that the number of Americans who answer yes when asked whether they have attended a public meeting on town or school affairs in the last year has fallen by more than a third since 1973.

Almost the only groups that are growing are support groups, such as 12-step groups. These groups make minimal demands on their members and are oriented primarily to the needs of individuals. Indeed, Robert Wuthnow has characterized them as involving individuals who "focus on themselves in the presence of others" -- what we might call being alone together. Putnam argues that paper membership groups, such as the American Association of Retired Persons, which has grown to gargantuan proportions, have little or no civic consequences because their members, although they may have common interests, have no meaningful interaction with one another.

Putnam also worries that the Internet, the electronic town meeting, and other much ballyhooed new technological devices are probably civically vacuous because they do not sustain civic engagement. Talk radio, for instance, mobilizes private opinion, not public opinion, and trades on anxiety, anger and distrust, all of which are deadly to civic culture. The one sphere that seems to be resisting the general trend is religion. Religious membership and church attendance have remained fairly constant after the decline from the religious boom of the 1950s, although membership in church-related groups has declined by about one-sixth since the 1960s.

Accompanying the decline of associational involvement is the decline of public trust. We are not surprised to hear that the proportion of Americans who reply that they trust the government in Washington only some of the time or almost never has risen steadily from 30 percent in 1966 to 75 percent in 1992. But are we prepared to hear that the proportion of Americans who say that most people can be trusted fell by more than a third between 1960, when 58 per-cent chose that alternative, and 1993, when only 37 percent did?

The argument for decline in social capital is not one that we made in Habits of the Heart. Habits was essentially a cultural analysis, more about language than about behavior. We worried that the language of individualism might undermine civic commitment, but we pointed to the historically high levels of associational membership in America and the relative strength of such memberships compared with other advanced industrial nations. Whether there has really been such a decline is still controversial, but we are inclined to believe that tendencies that were not entirely clear in the early 1980s when Habits was written are now discernible and disconcerting.

We believe that the culture and language of individualism influence these trends but that there are also structural reasons for them, many of which stem from changes in the global economy that have increased the disparity between the rich and poor and threatened the survival of the middle class. The decline in social capital is evident in different ways in different classes. For example, the decline in civic engagement in the overclass is indicated by their withdrawal into gated, guarded communities. It is also related to the constant movement of companies in the process of mergers and breakups. Rosabeth Kanter has recently suggested some of the consequences:

"For communities as well as employees this constant shuffling of company identities is confusing and its effects profound. Cities and towns rely on the private sector to augment public services and support community causes. There is a strong 'headquarters bias' in this giving: companies based in a city tend to do more for it, contributing $75,000 a year on average more to the local United Way than companies of similar size with headquarters elsewhere."

Kanter points out that the loss of a corporate headquarters in a middle-sized city can tear holes in the social fabric. Not only are thousands of jobs lost but so is the civic leadership of corporate executives. Local charities lose not only money but board members.

Corporate volatility can lead to a kind of placelessness at the top of the pyramid: "Cut loose from society the rich man can play his chosen role free of guilt and responsibility," observes Michael Lewis. "He becomes that great figure of American mythology -- the roaming frontiersman. hese days the man who has made a fortune is likely to spend more on his means of transportation than on his home: the private jet is the possession that most distinguishes him from the rest of us.... The old aristocratic conceit of place has given way to a glorious placelessness." The mansions of the old rich were certainly expressions of conspicuous consumption, but they also encouraged a sense of responsibility for the particular place (city, state, region) where they were located.

Moving to the opposite end of the income spectrum, Lee Rainwater, in his classic book What Money Buys, shows that poverty -- income insufficient to maintain an acceptable level of living -- operates to deprive the poor not only of material capital but of social capital as well. In traditional hierarchical societies low levels of material well-being can be associated with established statuses that confer the benefits of clientship. In our kind of society, with its fundamentally egalitarian ideology and its emphasis on individual self-reliance, status -- even personal identity -- is conferred primarily by one's relationship to the economy, by one's work and the income derived from one's work. Lacking a socially acceptable income, or any likelihood of attaining one, has long-term consequences for the kind of person one becomes and the kind of life one is likely to live. As Rainwater puts it:

"As people grow up and live their lives, they are engaged in a constant implicit assessment of their likely chances for having the access and resources necessary to maintain a sense of valid identity. People's anticipation of their future chances, particularly as children, adolescents, and younger adults, seems to affect quite markedly the way they relate to others and the way they make use of the resources available to them. When individuals make the assessment that their future possibilities for participating in validating activities are low and particularly when that estimate is constantly confirmed by others in their world (teachers, police, parents), then the process of searching for alternative validating potentials that result, in deviant behavior is set in motion. When people define their position in life as such that they have 'nothing to lose,' they are much less responsive to the efforts at social control exercised informally by those in their neighborhood and formally by official agencies of social regulation."

By reducing social capital, chronic poverty blocks economic and political participation, and consequently weakens the capacity to develop moral character and sustain a viable family life as well.

When we add to the consequences of poverty the consequences of residential segregation, the situation becomes devastating. We should remember that in spite of fair-housing laws residential segregation for black Americans has remained unchanged in our larger cities for the past three decades. What has changed is that the geographical areas with the highest poverty rates have lost retail trade outlets, government services, political influence and, worst of all, employment that provides anything like an adequate living. Those deprived of social capital have come to be confined to "reservations" that are effectively outside the environing society.

As for the anxious middle class, Herbert Gans in Middle American Individualism helps us understand what is happening to social capital in that group. Gans has criticized Habits of the Heart for being too censorious of middle American individualism. After all, says Gans, the residents of the lower-middle- and working-class suburbs who are more devoted to their family and friends than to civic life are only a generation or two away from the grinding poverty of manual labor among their immigrant ancestors or the backbreaking labor of peasant agriculture in the old country.

The social condition of those not-so-distant ancestors was one of vulnerable subordination, of being kicked around by people who told them what to do. Owning one's own home, taking one's vacations wherever one wants, being free to decide whom to see or what to buy once one has left the workplace, are all freedoms that are especially cherished by those whose ancestors never had them. The modest suburb is not the open frontier, but it is, under the circumstances, a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Among the many ironies in the life of at least a significant number of these middle Americans, however, is that labor union membership had much to do with their attaining a relative affluence and its attendant independence. Yet for many of them the labor union has become one more alien institution from which they would like to be free. Middle Americans are not only suspicious of government, according to Gans, they don't like organizations of any kind. Compared to the upper middle class, they are not joiners, belonging to only one or two associations at the most, the likeliest being a church. While continuing to identify strongly with the nation, they are increasingly suspicious of politics, which they find confusing and dismaying. Their political participation steadily declines.

As a consequence of tendencies that Gans is probably right in asking us to understand, middle Americans are today losing the social capital that allowed them to attain their valued independence in the first place. Above all, this is true of the decline of the labor movement. This decline is due to legislative changes in the past 20 years that have deprived unions of much of their power and influence, and congressional refusal since 1991 to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 an hour. But, as we see in France and other European countries, where loyalty to labor unions has survived, such attacks can be turned back. Where unions exist in America, union meetings attract 5 percent of the members at most. Lacking the social capital that union membership would provide, anxious-class Americans are vulnerable in new ways to the arbitrary domination they thought they had escaped. One may not even own one's home and one's recreational vehicle for long if one's job is downsized and the only alternative employment is at the minimum wage.

The decline of social capital in American has particularly distressing consequences if we consider what has happened to political participation. In Voice and Equality, Sydney Verba and his colleagues have given us a comprehensive review of political participation. Although the data concerning trends over time are not unambiguous, they do indicate certain tendencies. During the past 30 years the level of education in the American public has steadily risen, but the political participation that is usually associated with education has not.

Even more significant is the nature of the changes. Political party identification and membership have declined, while campaign contributions and writing to members of Congress have increased. Both of these growing kinds of activities normally take place in the privacy of one's home as one writes a check or a letter. Verba and his associates note that neither generates the personal satisfactions that more social forms of political participation do.

Further, making monetary contributions correlates highly with income and is the most unequal form of participation in our society. The increasing salience of monetary contributions as a form of political participation, as well as the general tendency for political participation to correlate with income, education and occupation, leads to the summary conclusion of the book:

"Meaningful democratic participation requires that the voices of citizens in politics be clear, loud and equal: clear so that public officials know what citizens want and need, loud so that officials have an incentive to pay attention to what they hear, and equal so that the democratic ideal of equal responsiveness to the preferences and interests of all is not violated. Our analysis of voluntary activity in American politics suggests that the public's voice is often loud, sometimes clear, but rarely equal."

Although unequal levels of education, occupation and income favor the originally advantaged in securing the resources for political participation, there is one significant exception. As Verba and his associates note:

"Only religious institutions provide a counterbalance to this cumulative resource process. They play an unusual role in the American participatory system by providing opportunities for the development of civic skills to those who would otherwise be resource-poor. It is commonplace to ascribe the special character of American politics to the weakness of unions and the absence of class-based political parties that can mobilize the disadvantaged -- in particular, the working class -- to political activity. Another way that American society is exceptional is in how often Americans go to church -- with the result that the mobilizing function often performed elsewhere by unions and labor or social democratic parties is more likely to be performed by religious institutions."

Although most Americans agree that things are seriously amiss in our society, that we are not, as the poll questions often put it, "headed in the right direction," they differ over why this is so and what should be done about it. We have sought answers by looking at the structural problems that we have described under the rubrics of the crisis in civic membership and the decline of social capital. What are some of the other explanations?

Perhaps the most widespread alternative explanation locates the sources of our problems in a crisis of the family. The cry that what our society most needs is "family values" is not one to be lightly dismissed. Almost all the tendencies that we have been describing threaten family life and are often experienced most acutely within the context of the family. Being unemployed and thus unable to get married or not having enough income to support an existing family due to downsizing or part-timing and the tensions caused by these conditions can certainly be understood as family crises. But why is the crisis expressed as a failure of family values?

It is unlikely that we will understand this phenomenon unless we take account once again of the culture of individualism. If we see unemployment or reduced income due to downsizing as purely individual problems rather than structural problems of the economy, then we will seek to understand what is wrong with the unemployed or underemployed individual. If we also discern that such individuals are prone to having children out of wedlock, frequently divorcing, or failing to make child-support payments, we may conclude that the cause is inadequate family values. In Habits of the Heart we strongly affirmed the value of the family and in both Habits and The Good Society we argued for renewed commitment to marriage and family responsibilities. But to imagine that problems arising from failures rooted in the structure of our economy and polity are due primarily to the failings of individuals with inadequate family values seems to us sadly mistaken. It not only increases the level of individual guilt feelings, it distracts attention from larger failures of collective responsibility.

There is a further consequence of the link between cultural individualism and the emphasis on family values. Families have traditionally been supported by the paid labor of men. Failure to support one's family may be taken as an indication of inadequate manhood. It is easy to draw the conclusion that if American men would only act like men, then family life would be improved and social problems solved. Some such way of thinking undoubtedly lies behind the movement known as Promise Keepers as well as the Million Man March of 1995. While we share many of the values of these movements, we are skeptical that increased male responsibility will prove to be an adequate solution to our deep structural economic and political problems or even do more than marginally diminish the severe strains on the American family. The notion that if men would only be men then all would be well in our society seems to us a sad cultural delusion.

Another common alternative explanation of our difficulties is to explain them as the failure of community. This is indeed the case, we believe, but only if our understanding of community is broad and deep enough. In many current usages of the term, however, community means face-to-face groups formed by the voluntary efforts of individuals. Here failure of community as the source of our problems can be interpreted to mean that if more people would only volunteer to help in soup kitchens or Habitat for Humanity or Meals on Wheels, then our social problems would be solved. Habits of the Heart strongly affirms face-to-face communities and the valuable contributions that voluntary groups can make to society. But we do not believe that the deep structural problems that we face as a society can be seriously alleviated by an increase in devotion to community in this narrow sense. We would agree that an increase in the voluntary commitments of individuals can over the long haul increase our social capital and thus add to the resources we can bring to bear on our problems. But to get at the roots of our problems these resources must be used to overcome institutional difficulties that cannot be directly addressed by voluntary action alone.

There is another problem with emphasizing a small-scale and voluntaristic understanding of community as the solution to our problems. Voluntary activity tends to correlate with income, education and occupation. "Joiners" are more apt to be found in the overclass than in the underclass or anxious middle class-with the significant exception of religious groups. This means that many voluntary activities are not so much designed to help the most deprived -- though we don't want to overlook those that are -- -as to serve the interests of the affluent. This is particularly true of political voluntarism.

Thus, dismantling structures of public provision for the most deprived in hopes that the voluntary sector can take over is mistaken in three important respects. The voluntary sector by no means has the resources to take up the slack, as churches, charities and foundations have been pointing out repeatedly in recent years. The second reason is that our more affluent citizens may feel that they have fulfilled their obligation to society by giving time and money to "make a difference" through voluntary activity without considering that they have hardly made a dent in the real problems faced by most Americans. The third reason is that the voluntary sector is disproportionately run by our better-off citizens, and a good many voluntary activities do more to protect the well-to-do than the needy.

There is another sense of community that also presents difficulties if we think the solution to our problems lies in reviving community, and that is the notion of community as neighborhood or locality. Habits of the Heart encourages strong neighborhoods and supports civic engagement in towns and cities. But residential segregation is a fact of life in contemporary America. Even leaving aside the hypersegregation of urban ghettos, segregation by class arising from differential housing costs is increasingly evident in suburban America. Thus it is quite possible that in "getting involved" with one's neighborhood or even with one's suburban town one will never meet someone of a different race or class. One will not be exposed to the reality of life of people in circumstances different from one's own.

The explanations of our social problems that stress the failure of family values or the failure of community have in common the notion that our problems are individual or are social in only a narrow sense (that is, involving family and local community), rather than economic, political and cultural. A related feature that these common explanations of our troubles share is hostility to the role of government or the state. If we can take care of ourselves with possibly a little help from our friends and family, who needs the state? Indeed, the state is often viewed as an interfering father who won't recognize that his children have grown up and don't need him any more. He can't help solve our problems because in large measure it is he who created them.

In contrast, the market, in this mind-set, seems benign, a neutral theater for competition in which achievement is rewarded and incompetence punished. There is some awareness that markets are not neutral, that there are people and organizations with enormous economic power capable of making decisions that adversely affect many citizens. From this point of view, big business joins big government as the source of problems rather than their solution. Yet more than in most comparable societies Americans are inclined to think that the market is fairer than the state.

The culture of individualism, then, has made no small contribution to the rise of the ideology we referred to in Habits as neocapitalism. There we drew a picture of the American political situation that has turned out not to be entirely adequate. We suggested that the impasse between welfare liberalism and its countermovement, neocapitalism, was coming to an end and two alternatives, the administered society and economic democracy, were looming on the scene. As it turned out, this incipient pair of alternatives did not materialize, or at least they are enduring a long wait. Instead, neocapitalism has grown ever stronger ideologically and politically. Criticism of "big government" and "tax-and-spend liberalism' has mounted even as particular constituencies, which in the aggregate include most citizens, favor those forms of public provision that benefit them in particular, while opposing benefits they do not receive.

We do not believe we were wrong ten years ago in seeing the severe strains that the neocapitalist formula was creating for the nation. Today those strains are more obvious than ever. But we clearly underestimated the ideological fervor that the neocapitalist position was able to tap. This is ironic, since so much of that fervor derives from the very thing we focused on in our book: individualism. The only thing that makes the neocapitalist vision viable is the degree to which it can be seen as an expression, even a moral expression, of our dominant ideological individualism, with its compulsive stress on independence, its contempt for weakness and its adulation of success.