When Alexis de Tocqueville made his storied visit to America in the 1830s, he observed with admiration the abundance of civic associations, which he believed contributed to the vibrancy of American democracy. In 1995, political scientist Robert Putnam pointed to Tocqueville in “Bowling Alone,” his account of the decline of community life in America. Putnam sounded the alarm about a drop in membership in civic associations—everything from the bowling leagues that gave the essay its title, to parent associations and the Lions Club—which in turn led to growing disengagement from politics and public life. Putnam’s work heightened concern about America’s declining “social capital”—the connections that bind a society together through communal activities—and inspired much hand-wringing about the further damage the Internet and other technologies might bring.
Social capital is typically taken to be a good thing. But even Putnam, in the book-length version of his essay, noted that social capital can have its dark side: To the extent that groups encourage their members to focus their energies inward (as is the case with some religious, ethnic, or political groups where membership excludes those without particular beliefs or connections), they can breed intolerance and suspicion of outsiders. Putnam largely dismisses such concerns, but a fascinating study of civic associations during the Weimar Republic, by economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth and political scientist Shanker Satyanath, demonstrates the terrifying power of social capital gone awry. The researchers document that membership in the Nazi Party spread most rapidly in areas of Germany where civic associations were strongest, indicating that the social capital played a hand in building the most destructive political movement in modern history.
The term social capital is generally used to describe the trust and cooperation in a community that is the result of formal social institutions—associations, clubs, and the like—as well as personal networks and relationships. On some level, economists think of it as another source of productivity in an economy, just like tractors or new technologies (physical capital) or a better-skilled workforce (human capital). Trust makes it easier to do business on a handshake (or indeed to do business at all). A trustworthy labor force will work diligently without supervisors peering over their shoulders or burdensome regulations, and a trustworthy boss will return the favor, ensuring employees are paid on time and in full, and generally treated fairly.
The same civic associations that build trust, cooperation, and community also serve as ready networks for the spread of new movements and ideas. It is in this sense that Voigtländer and his colleagues argue (following an idea put forth by Barnard political scientist Sheri Berman) that the richness of interwar Germany’s social capital was critical to the success of Hitler’s National Socialist party. They quote one member’s recollection of his conversion to Nazism to highlight the role of social networks in making party dogma palatable to a wide audience. The young recruit describes how he “became acquainted with a colleague of my own age with whom I had frequent conversations … whom I esteemed very highly. When I found out that he was one of the local leaders of the National Socialist party, my opinion of it as a group of criminals changed completely.”
If the prevalence of civic associations is a measure of societal well-being, the Weimar Republic was in excellent health as Hitler began his march to power in the 1920s. Many of these organizations were built on an already rich history of associations from the 19th century, and while a few of these were explicitly nationalistic and even anti-Semitic in nature, the vast majority of membership groups were comprised of those united by rabbit breeding, stamp collecting, singing, gymnastics, and other decidedly apolitical interests.
To examine whether associations might have served as recruitment grounds for the Nazis, the researchers examined the relationship between the density of civic associations in a little more than a hundred German towns and cities and the growth in National Socialist Party membership during 1925–1933. Municipalities with dense networks of animal breeders, choir singers, and yes, bowling leagues saw Nazi membership increase as much as two-thirds faster than those where such groups were less plentiful. The authors allow that some other factor might have been driving the proliferation of both clubs and the National Socialist Party. Economic distress, for example, might have created a sympathetic audience for the Nazis’ message, and also given citizens little to do with their time other than watch birds and sing in choirs. However, they find similar patterns even when looking at gymnastics and singing clubs that were formed in the 19th century. This indicates that a community’s historical predisposition to organize in associations, rather than some other concurrent change, was likely the cause of the rapid Nazi Party growth in such places.
In this instance, social capital allowed the ambassadors of Nazi ideology to spread their message throughout a community via a dense network of associations. The authors argue that this rapid infiltration was facilitated by the preponderance of clubs that welcomed all-comers: Choral groups, for example, took in anyone with a decent singing voice and professed love of music. This plausibly allowed National Socialist leaders to insert themselves into communities where no prior connections existed.
This is a downside of social capital Putnam fails to show much concern for. To the extent that he worried about the dangerous potential of social capital, he was more concerned with the effects of social ties built through membership in organizations that encourage bonding within an exclusive circle, while at the same time fostering a sense of mistrust of outsiders. A country with too many of these groups can end up with a fragmented set of mini-societies with strong internal connections, and breed suspicion and antipathy between groups. (Such in-group thinking has been blamed for, among other things, the ethnic tension and conflict in modern India.)
This kind of suspicion of outsiders is unlikely to afflict bird-watching clubs or choral societies, but it very plausibly describes the organizations built on political or religious beliefs that have growing prominence in American society. This American Life devoted an entire episode last fall to this troubling trend, documenting friendships that disintegrated over different political views and profiling “closet” Democrats and Republicans who feared the social and economic backlash that would ensue if their political beliefs were brought into the open.
Thus, it isn’t just the level of engagement in civic life that matters: We need also consider the type of social capital our society is creating and how it’s being deployed. Germany’s social capital might have been mobilized to improve the world; Hitler instead exploited it to his own insidious ends. It is also crucial to think about whether, in Putnam’s words, social capital will serve as a “bridge” to bring those with disparate beliefs together—think of the Democrat and Republican who meet in the comfortable environment of a PTA meeting—or whether it will serve to “bond” its participants, by strengthening existing ties, encouraging those with similar beliefs to grow closer still.
We’ve only just begun to examine the effects that social networks like Facebook will have on the nature of American social capital. Most studies thus far have found that computers have had a neutral effect on our willingness to be active in community groups. But the Internet has undeniably opened up more opportunities to connect with others with similar worldviews, to find a vastly larger network of like-minded stamp collectors or model car enthusiasts. So the Web is good at helping us forge and strengthen these bonds built upon mutual interests but—if you believe the conventional wisdom—few of us log on to the Internet to seek bridges to those with differing points of view. If that’s true, the Web might contribute to the greater polarization and distrust that’s come to characterize our political discourse, where Republicans and Democrats alike stick with their own groups’ Twitter feeds and online discussions, wary of the intentions and motivations of the other side.
You’d never want to live in a society where social capital—and the trust and cooperation it embodies—was completely absent. Nor would most of us prefer an America made up of mutually suspicious factions. The new study’s main message is something more subtle—social capital is neither inherently bad nor good—it’s simply an effective means of coordinating and mobilizing a community. The discourse on social capital in America shouldn’t just be about how to replenish it but also how to ensure that it’s put to good use.