Robert Putnam ’63 on OWS, President Obama and the Class of 2012

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

At the end of last semester, Gazette editors Jon Emont ’12 and Hanna Kozlowska ’12 had a chance to sit down with Robert Putnam ’63, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which argued that Americans are becoming disconnected from their communities with dire implications for democracy. On the day after Obama’s State of the Union Address, we decided to publish Putnam’s interview, where he touches on many of the same themes that Obama did last night.

Why do you think OWS arose?

I mostly don’t understand why it’s happening. I don’t feel completely comfortable prognosticating what its future will be, because I don’t know why we got here.

It’s surprising, firstly, because most research in the past shows that in hard times, people tend to hunker down and become less active politically and especially to become more focused on protecting their family from these horrible economic hard times. Why is this moment different? I don’t know. Secondly, most of us believe, with lots of good evidence, that movements don’t last long if they are not organized.

Do you think OWS will have any longterm effect?

The one thing that OWS has done, which is pretty surprising, is change water cooler conversation. People are talking about inequality, and I don’t mean just people on the pick-up lines, but on board rooms etc, in a way that takes the issue more seriously.

Do you think there is a chance that Obama will campaign on a platform to reduce income inequality?

I happen to know Obama pretty well, personally. Inequality, and especially inequality of opportunity is on his personal agenda. I think he was as surprised as any one of us that the issue became politically visible and moreover, politically attractive. I think anybody who’s working with data, before OWS happened, would say, “Don’t talk about redistribution, because it is not popular.”

Do you fault Obama for little progress has been made in addressing inequality?

I think it’s nuts to blame him for having a conservative Congress.

He got elected, because most people thought he wasn’t partisan. And it turned out, those mediation skills got him elected, but in Washington he was in a knife-fight, and when you are in a knife fight, turning the other cheek is not the right strategy. But I have some sympathy for him, because after all, all his life people have been telling him, “Don’t be so understanding of other people, it won’t work.” But that’s what got him elected president. It would take a lot of convincing to say to someone: “This is what got you here, but you have to stop, you have to sharpen your knives.”

We’re graduating in the spring. We will be coming  out of a college that fosters a great sense of community, many of us will have a significant background in civic engagement. How can we invest our social capital and contribute to the changing civil society?

Your aspirations should be as modest or as bold as inventing Rotary, and I don’t mean inventing a club. I’m talking of thinking of a way to use Facebook or using technology in ways that can actually strengthen real people’s connections to one another and public life. I am a hundred percent sure that that is your historical challenge is to introduce ways to bring people together to solve problems.

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