Democracy in America:
Tocqueville's Democracy in America remains a touchstone for discussion of our national character and destiny, in classrooms and lecture halls, to be sure, but also in the speeches of political candiates and the musings of editorial writers. Much of the recent flurry of popular interest in Tocqueville can probably be traced to the work of one man, Robert D. Putnam. In Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993) Putnam traced what he saw as the very different political fates of northern and southern Italy to the two regions' very different attitudes toward civic community. In the north, a civic tradition of cooperation and public responsibility emerged in the late middle ages that persists still, in patterns of associationalism, mutual trust and cooperation. In the south, however, patterns of radical individual autonomy, mistrust, and lack of cooperation emerged and persist with equal force.
Civic Traditions created a good deal of academic interest because it was based on more than twenty years of observation and analysis. It caught the public's imagination because Putnam focused on one aspect of Tocqueville's analysis -- that associationalism is one of the necessary conditions for a modern democracy -- that seemed to confirm what many felt but lacked the terms to express. With the publication of Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, (1995) Putnam found a set of American examples that gave his larger argument local and recognizable form -- the bowling league, the Parent Teachers' Association, the suburban street with its rows of isolated houses each illuminated by the light of a T.V. set.
We reprint here both Putam's essay and some of the more thoughtful responses it has generated.