On Sept. 29 Harry S. Truman will return to the US Capitol nearly a century after he first entered Congress, as his long-delayed statue will be installed in Statuary Hall. It is timely to reflect on another less visible memorial to him. Though President Truman preferred poker himself, the White House bowling alley is not only named for him but was constructed in his honor by his fellow Missourians. During his administration, he encouraged White House staff, Secret Service agents, switchboard operators, and groundskeepers, among others, to play. If those walls could talk …
That White House bowling alley turns out to be a potent symbol of what’s wrong with American politics today, especially the titanic struggle between Republicans and Democrats, because sadly, the lanes have been under renovation for years and are seldom used nowadays.
Bowling has proved a surprisingly powerful metaphor for American connectedness. Not long after Truman’s departure from the White House, Americans began “bowling alone.” That is, by scores of measures — from bowling to marriage and from trust in our neighbors to the very pronouns we prefer (“I” instead of “we”) — American unity has slowly slumped for nearly half a century.
Steadily, this growing division has become more aggravated and more worrisome, and Americans are, in fact, worried. In a recent FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, political polarization and extremism ranked third on a list of 20 issues facing the country.
One cause of our political splintering is the decline, over the same period, of social capital. Social capital is community — those connections that bind us to the people around us. High social capital predicts strong communities, faster economic growth, lower crime, better government, better schools, longer lives, and fewer COVID deaths.
Social capital is best understood as an umbrella term incorporating several types of connections. Bonding social capital links you to people similar to you — “birds of a feather flock together.” More crucial and more difficult to build is bridging social capital — the connections you have with people who differ from you in significant ways. It was bridging social capital in particular that took a hit during the pandemic, when we couldn’t be together in the face-to-face ways that encourage unlikely alliances and nuanced conversations. A paucity of bridging social capital exacerbates our bitter political divides, most of which — like the gap between rich and poor, our increasingly tribal political identities, and divisions on issues like abortion and gender policy, taxation and spending, and financial regulation — were present well before the pandemic.
The Truman Foundation, founded in 1975 as a living memorial to Truman, is a model for building bridging social capital. An independent agency within the White House complex, the Foundation annually provides funding for graduate studies to approximately 60 American college juniors who are dedicated to a life of public service. That dedication to service may be the sole quality these talented students, drawn from every state and territory and from across the political spectrum, fully agree on. They join a diverse and mutually supportive community of colleagues intended to endure across the course of their lives and careers.
Many a leader in public service got their start via the Truman Foundation — from Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch to Fair Fight founder Stacey Abrams, US ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, leaders of storied military units, as well as exemplary civil servants whose names few know.
For nearly a half-century, the Truman Foundation has encouraged patriotic service, healthy disagreement, and constructive engagement. What if every American felt empowered to reevaluate shared values and take up the fight for change that our new Gilded Age demands? What if we began to take action at the local level on issues where there is broad grass-roots support for reasonable reforms — national service programs, child care and early childhood education, campaign finance reform, background checks for gun purchases, qualified immigration reform (especially regarding Dreamers), and electoral reform?
We face a bewildering array of challenges that will demand a fantastic amount of human ingenuity to overcome; no single leader nor single-minded focus on a single facet of our interlinked crises will do. However, one need not do so alone. In fact, no one person, party, policy, or platform can.
What America needs now is everyday citizens reaching out to one another in good faith, regardless of their differences. Find the person at the local school board meeting whose views are polar opposite to your own and take them out for a coffee. If your elected representative does not share your views, visit their office and ask questions to better understand their perspective. If your own family has diverse political views, talk about them civilly during the next group activity — bowling, perhaps.
Robert D. Putnam is a professor of public policy at Harvard University and the author of 15 books, including “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” and “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” Terry Babcock-Lumish is executive secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.