On July 24, the New York Times was granted a rare sit-down interview with President Obama. The interview was unremarkable, but that’s to be expected considering that the Times has been as sycophantic toward Obama as he has been contemptuous toward the press. The interview contained no inquiries on the IRS, Benghazi, or surveillance scandals and focused mostly on the White House’s embarrassingly inchoate economic agenda, leaving readers to squint between the lines to find something interesting or newsworthy. But there was one inadvertently revealing exchange:
Mr. Obama: I had a conversation a couple of weeks back with a guy named Robert Putnam, who I’ve known for a long time.
NYT: He was my professor actually at Harvard.
Mr. Obama: Right. I actually knew Bob when I was a state senator and he had put together this seminar to just talk about some of the themes that he had written about in “Bowling Alone,” the weakening of the community fabric and the impact it’s having on people.
The president goes on to note that the trends Putnam first observed in his seminal 1995 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” have only gotten worse, without any special insight as to why. Putnam argued then, and presented a great deal of data to back up his thesis, that there had been a major collapse in civic and social organizations in America between the 1960s and 1990s. Further, Putnam observed that Americans had become less likely to interact with those outside their narrow peer groups.
Expanding on that last point, Putnam made an important distinction about the different kinds of social capital that exist in America: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding capital comes from the association of people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds or among people who share similar interests. Bridging capital is produced when people of dissimilar backgrounds are brought together, and it was the depletion of bridging capital that Putnam was most concerned with. In a sprawling and diverse society such as America, the decline in bridging capital might lead to greater political and social tensions.
The Scrapbook doesn’t expect the president to be self-aware enough to realize that his own relentless big-government agenda might be crowding out civil society, to say nothing of the Obama administration’s overt attacks on important civic organizations such as churches. But ponder for a moment the recursive nature of this exchange—the president of the United States and a New York Times reporter sit down for a rare interview. It turns out they’re both Harvard grads who know Robert Putnam. And by invoking Putnam, they end up inadvertently confirming his thesis about the importance of bridging capital over bonding capital.
They understand their old professor in theory, but in practice they’re incapable of having an interesting discussion about the nation’s very pressing problems. That’s because they exemplify a surplus of bonding capital and a deficit of bridging capital. Both the White House and the New York Times newsroom are inhabited by Ivy League elites who think there’s no real debate to be had. Smart people with correct politics should be empowered to dictate what Americans do. And their faith in this liberal governance is so total, they’re ultimately uninterested in protecting a civic space where Americans can get together and solve their own problems.