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This election isn't about right vs. left. It's about "we" vs. "I."

A discussion with the author of Bowling Alone.

President Obama Awards 2012 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medals
Political scientist Robert Putnam accepts a National Humanities Medal from President Obama, in 2012.
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

In a recent interview on Vox, Ezra Klein asked Hillary Clinton to name three books everyone should read that have influenced how she thinks about policy. She mentioned Christopher Lasch’s work, without naming a title (his best known book is probably The Culture of Narcissism), and Habits of the Heart, a collection of sociological pieces on the nature of American community written by a team led by Robert Bellah. But her fullest comments were reserved for the most recent book by Harvard government professor Robert Putnam:

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Bob Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids. I think there’s a really great story that he tells about going back to the town he grew up in outside of Cleveland, where kids of all different backgrounds, economic family standing, and they’re all together and everyone was in it together. And there was so little distinction, and there was so much economic integration in that small town. Now he goes back to it, and it’s so divided. It’s divided on income; it’s divided on race; it’s just a very different environment. And winners and losers are preordained at a very early age. So I think that’s a book that people should read right now.

Putnam, past president of the American Political Science Association, is best known as the author of Bowling Alone, which explored the decline in "social capital" in the United States: the shift from communal engagement to more solitary activity. (Disclosure: I helped conduct research for that book many years ago, and I consider Putnam a mentor and friend.) He has advised presidents in both political parties about what might be done to strengthen social ties in America.

After I heard the interview, I emailed Putnam to congratulate him for the name check, and to continue a conversation we had started last year when Our Kids first appeared.

The book begins with a poignant account of Putnam’s boyhood home of Port Clinton, in Ottawa County, Ohio, just east of Toledo. The social and economic challenges in this former manufacturing stronghold reflect some of the deepest problems facing America today. Not coincidentally, Ottawa is a battleground county within a battleground state that may determine the 2016 election.

Our Kids then provides a statistical dive into the hugely different opportunities available today — both nationwide and in Port Clinton — to middle-class and affluent children and to kids whose families occupy roughly the bottom third of the income distribution.

Putnam is alarmed about the decline of social ties over the decades, and equally alarmed about the corrosive impact of inequality on the life chances of millions of children across America. Yet he combines that alarm with a Progressive Era optimism that Americans can be mobilized to address these inequalities through both moral appeal and appeal to our enlightened self-interest.

Putnam and I caught up recently to discuss how Secretary Clinton’s interview captured her liberal-communitarian worldview. After our conversation, Clinton has made "stronger together" a central slogan of her campaign, a deliberate contrast to Donald’s Trump’s rhetoric pitting different American subgroups against one another, and a stark challenge to Trump’s claim that he "alone" can fix our problems. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Harold Pollack: When you and I corresponded about Hillary Clinton’s praise for your book, you mentioned that Clinton is a "liberal communitarian." First of all, what do you mean by that, and how do you think that would actually matter in terms of what she might do as president?

Robert Putnam: It's easier to answer the first of those questions than the second. I basically agree with the way that E.J. Dionne divided up the political world in his book of a few years ago, Our Divided Political Heart. He said that over the course of American history, American political debate has moved back and forth along two, not one, big dimensions. There is a left-right dimension, which is basically a dimension of how much you care about equality. It's about class differences and so on. Then there's another that he says is basically orthogonal to that, which is the dimension between individualism and communitarianism.

Those two dimensions create a two-by-two table, if you're simplistic about it. That is, you can be a conservative and an individualist. In our current political discussion, that refers to libertarians, basically. They're generally conservative. They're not all that concerned about equality, but they are certainly hostile to any collective action, especially any collective action by the state.

Then there is another kind of conservatism that is actually much more communitarian. In contemporary jargon, those are people you might call compassionate conservatives. It has historically meant a certain kind of noblesse oblige Tory-ness. In the Bush family, there are a number of representatives of this kind of outlook, people who are conservative but believe that we're all in this together.

HP: Sticking to the liberal column, there's the communitarian box and the more individualistic box. Can you unpack a bit the tension between those two groups?

RP: I want to be careful, because these liberal individualists are many of my best friends. They're inclined to emphasize individual rights — what Michael Sandel calls the "unencumbered self," the individual without context.

Communitarian liberals are more inclined to be conscious of social ties, and so are more likely to think about social-network-based solutions: still wanting equality and therefore being liberal in that sense, but being more attentive to social networks. I'm usually described by other people as a liberal or left-wing communitarian.

HP: Are you comfortable with that description?

RP: Yeah. You've got to be careful when you accept labels, because they don't necessarily mean the same thing to everybody else. Yes, if you interpret liberal communitarian or left-wing communitarian in the sense that I just described, I think Hillary Clinton is, too.

I think, actually, it's not an accident that the other people whose books she mentioned are all also from that same quadrant, [although] I'm not sure that they would like to be put there. I don't mean she was trying to convey a message. I think it's really true that that's her intellectual matrix.

The travails of Port Clinton, Ohio

HP: Your book starts with an account of Port Clinton, Ohio. The trajectories of places like Port Clinton seem to be a fundamental backdrop of the 2016 election. You note the economic decline of this solid working-class community.

We can deconstruct the book in lots of ways, but the basic idea is that this area of Port Clinton was a successful working-class place that once nurtured you and that now seems to have both decayed and to have fallen prey to profound inequality. One can easily imagine a Sanders or a Trump speech entirely based on Port Clinton. I don't know if you read it the same way.

RP: Yeah, I do. I think [Sanders and Trump] are both very, very different people with very different politics, but both are popular in Port Clinton today.

A lot of my own political outlook and social outlook comes from the fact that I grew up in that other Port Clinton, which was high in social capital and also high in class equality, though as I emphasize in Our Kids, there was also race and gender inequality in Port Clinton in those years. That sort of egalitarian, communitarian ethos feels correct to me and also normal to me. If I were writing a critical intellectual biography of this guy, Putnam, I would theorize that a lot of what he writes about is a somewhat idealized version of his hometown.

I do think there is a direct connection between this year's election and this communitarian versus individualistic dimension — what we might term the "we/I" distinction. By many measures, I think the 1950s and 1960s were a high point in we-ness in America. I think now, after 60 years of moving in an "I" direction, we're now at a level of I-ness that is probably more extreme than any period in our history.

Donald Trump is the apotheosis of I-ness. It's kind of like I-ness taken to the most ridiculous extreme. It's all about him personally. I don't want to say that Hillary Clinton is devoid of self-interest. Of course not. But I do think her outlook, her philosophic outlook, is very much a "we" outlook. I think this year's election will be more defined by the "I/we" or individualistic-communitarian dimension than it will be by the left-right dimension, honestly.

[In fact,] if you flatten this year's campaign into a single left-right dimension, there are issues in which Trump looks like he's to Clinton’s left.

HP: Trade, for example?

RP: That would be one, but not only that. If you flattened politics to a single left-right dimension, that's one reason he sits uncomfortably with many members of the Republican Party. If instead you see their differences through the lens of "I/we," I think they are poles apart.

Port Clinton: a bellwether city where Trump has significant support

HP: If I can get back to Port Clinton, Ohio may be the most critical state for Donald Trump. You can imagine the voters of Port Clinton will pick the next president of the United States.

RP: Port Clinton is the county seat of Ottawa County, and Ottawa County is the bellwether county in the bellwether state of the United States. Historically, that's true.

HP: Are you hearing anything on the campaign trail that suggests anyone across the political spectrum is really offering public policies that might help the people in places like Port Clinton, who are suffering in the way you laid out in your book? Are you hearing things that are making you optimistic, that, hey, there's some things we might do for these places?

RP: Yeah, I think that, actually, there are a lot of things we could do. … I don't think this is a question of policy wonkery. It’s not that we don't know what to do to help poor kids. We know a lot of things would work — and many of them happen to be in the 2016 Democratic platform. A lot of things have been shown to work. I think the problem is fundamentally political.

I could go through some of the policies that I think are honestly no-brainers, but the question is the politics of this. We've become so polarized politically that as a reformist trying to change America, I've moved my attention to the state and local level, because I think we're a little less frozen in our political corners at the local level than we are at the national level.

I've said before, I think the problem of poor kids is a political problem, meaning there are some things that I think people on the left, like me, think would be really good to do, like raising the minimum wage or making early childhood education universal. Not just pre-K, but I mean going back really early. [Or] like helping restructure the economy in ways that would provide the working class with a decent chance going forward.

In some of those areas, I'm enough of an expert to say exactly how to do it. Some, like the economic side, I'm not able to say exactly what could be done.

I do think that, for example, Port Clinton was badly hurt by trade. No doubt about it. Many of the dads of my classmates had well-paying UAW jobs in local factories in Port Clinton, and there are no UAW workers in factories in Port Clinton anymore.

There are things that we can do to help people like that today, [including] substantially upgraded assistance to workers who were displaced by trade. That, I think, is more or less the evolving consensus in the Democratic Party, and I share those views.

Plus, you have to know there's a good chance that Donald Trump will win Port Clinton. He's doing very well in many of the struggling white counties in Ohio.

HP: How many of his supporters around Port Clinton are actually going to vote?

RP: That's the right question. I don't know the answer to that. Probably many won’t, but that doesn't make me happy.

The top one-third of earners no longer interact with the bottom third

HP: Do you think that liberal cosmopolitans like myself need to find a different way to relate to people like those you spoke with for your book — to reach out in a different way to them?

RP: The answer is yes. I think the category of people that you're calling liberal cosmopolitans, really the upper and upper middle class of America, are increasingly disconnected from working-class America. I mean that in a very specific sense. Our residences are increasingly segregated by class. Our schools are increasingly segregated by class. Our extended families are increasingly separated by class.

Therefore, where two generations ago it would be not at all uncommon for people from opposite sides of the tracks to be on the same bowling team, it's now extremely rare. Not just because bowling teams are rare, but it's extremely rare because of big structural change — economic and other changes that have moved us toward two separate places.

I draw hope from earlier periods of American history when we have solved problems like this. The most important example that I use is the transition from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era.

I think it's not at all an accident that one of the first things that began to shift America from the Gilded Age toward the Progressive Era is the publication of How the Other Half Lives, which was simply a verbal and photojournalistic description of life on the Lower East Side of New York, meant to be read by affluent folks in the Silk Stocking districts of the Upper East Side of New York.

Basically, Jacob Riis, the author of that book, along with a talented and aggressive young politician who read it — namely Teddy Roosevelt — did actually trigger change in American politics.

I do not mean for a second that Our Kids will have anything like the same historic effect that How the Other Half Lives demonstrably had, but that's the genre in which I wrote it. I wrote it because I thought that people like me — unless you're a specialist in working on the subject of working-class Americans — are much more ignorant of the actual worsening conditions of life lower in the hierarchy than we were, or people like us were, 30 or 40 years ago.

HP: Obviously, the rising income and wealth share of the super wealthy is very important, but I wonder if the focus on the top 1 percent allows many of us in the top 20 percent to avoid confronting the fact that we are living different lives than those available to the bottom 80 percent.

RP: That's exactly, Harold, why the argument in Our Kids is framed not as Bill Gates's kids versus some homeless kids. That's why virtually all of the graphs and charts in that book, and virtually all of the analysis in that book, is phrased in terms of comparing in round numbers the upper third of American society — those who have a college degree — and the lower third, those Americans who didn't get past high school.

Of course the income distribution is important. I'm not for a second saying it's not important. The focus purely on what's changed recently with respect to the distribution of income encourages this focus because recently the big change has been this pulling away of the upper one-tenth of 1 percent from everybody else.

That has somewhat distracted us, and maybe even allowed us to escape worrying about what I think is the more deeper change, that pulling apart physically and psychologically and sociologically and politically, the upper third and the lower third.

HP: Two things really concern me when I consider whether we will engage in these problems. You note one in your book: the scary feedback loop between the fraying of the country and unequal political participation. One of the big differences between the upper third and the lower third is the upper third votes. What can we do to equalize the playing field when it comes to just the basics of political participation?

RP: The easy answer, of course, is to halt and reverse the voting obstruction policies, [including voter ID laws]. There's been a wide discussion about how to increase voting turnout by institutional changes.

Actually, I think much more important is social organizing, political organizing. If you look back at the earlier period of the Progressive Era, which is where I draw most of my inspiration, it was not just that some sympathetic voters on the Upper East Side of New York began to worry about folks on the Lower East Side. There was a lot of organizing going on, to pull isolated individuals, who were down at the bottom, together into a stronger coalition. That's true especially in terms of unions, but also in terms of political organizing in that period

Sometimes people [believe] that I ignore the importance of political organizing, especially political organizing of the have-nots themselves. That's not at all my view. Let me cite one of my first encounters with Hillary Clinton, actually. In January 1995, I was invited with some other people to Camp David to talk with the president about what was going to be the State of the Union message that year.

I — as I have done perhaps too often — began talking about the Progressive Era and the inspirations it holds for our times. Hillary Clinton, at that point, who was in the room, interrupted me and said, "Yes, Bob, I agree with that, but let's go back. Let's imagine that Bill is one of the Progressive Era presidents trying to make things happen: to have a Federal Reserve system, to have a federal income tax, to have child labor laws, or to have various kinds of social insurance programs. Those were the kinds of things that were needed then, were done then. And they were led by Progressive Era presidents, but they could also call upon the unions and have the unions, as a base, strengthen their hand."

Clinton said: "Now, if Bill calls up the same allies today, this won't happen." Not because he's moderate or conservative, but because many of these allies no longer exist. All of those working-class and progressive organizations don't exist now or are much weaker now than they were then.

The point she was making is absolutely right. It wasn't just top-down, "bridging" social capital that was important in that earlier period. It was also bottom-up, "bonding" social capital, coming out of the working class.

Remember, what was the subject of her thesis at Wellesley? It was Alinsky. I don't mean to make her sound like a student radical. She certainly isn't that now, if she ever was. But it's true that being aware of the importance of synergy between top down and bottom up is not just some tactic that some political consultant told her about. I think she really does, in a deep sense, understand that.

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

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