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  1. Long reads
15 November 2004

Will the secular left continue bowling alone?

By William Davies

In the days following the defeat of Boston’s native son John Kerry, the city’s newspapers echoed some of the questions raised in the months following 9/11: Why do they hate us? How did religious zeal come to overpower political reason?

Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor who wrote Bowling Alone and was recently described in the NS as one of the most important intellectual influences on Tony Blair, is the man most likely to have the answers. “Liberals,” he says, “have allowed conservatives to dominate religious political expression over the past 30 years, but this was not true historically.” At his Harvard office, he rattles off the progressive movements that depended on religious organisation: slave emancipation, reform of child labour laws, civil rights. “I think one of the problems liberals currently face,” Putnam says, “is that they have allowed themselves to become alienated from that strand in American history.” The next wave of liberalism, he thinks, will have to come at least partly from progressive Christian movements if it is to speak to Americans who live closer to the Mississippi River than to the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards.

The rise in voter turnout was expected to benefit Kerry. But Putnam says: “The election was a contest between the ability of evangelical Christians to mobilise their supporters at grass-roots level, and what you might call the ‘old left’ – the unions and Democratic Party. And the evangelical right won.” Putnam is the man more responsible than anybody else for the idea of “social capital”, a shorthand term for participation in politics and community and social life. Such participation, according to Bowling Alone, is associated with higher levels of health and happiness and lower levels of crime. These findings – Putnam is a very evidence-based man who, when he says half, truly means 50 per cent – have recently impressed policy-makers in London more than those in Washington, DC.

But, and here’s the rub for the Democrats, he says “voluntary activity, philanthropy, membership of organisations – half of these activities occur in a religious context”. And that “is something that Europeans often fail to understand”.

So can new Labour do better than the Democrats? “New Labour,” says Putnam, “has adopted a very attractive basis for government, which is to be bold in trying policy experiments and then equally rigorous in evaluating those experiments.” He compares new Labour to a venture capitalist who is prepared for several projects to fail in order to identify the one that succeeds. “I admire a government that takes that stance. Labour has been quite sensitive to the role that social capital plays in many practical areas of life. Britain has a strong tradition of community engagement, but it has slackened . . . and the Blair government has sought to tackle that.”

But there is a problem. What Putnam and his Whitehall followers see as a stock of “social capital” is often deeply felt religious, ideological or emotional commitment. On the policy-maker’s spreadsheet, joining a church isn’t much different from joining a football supporters’ club or even the Socialist Workers Party. Doesn’t this undermine the very idea of political engagement?

“I don’t think that it is an absence of ideology that turns people off politics,” Putnam says. “I think one of the reasons people don’t trust government is that it often is inefficient – it often doesn’t do the little things correctly.”

He agrees that growing inequality and cultural diversity require “a broader vision of where we are historically, and where we are heading”. Yet this is surely where the policy analyst steps aside and makes way for the religious or moral leader. The liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even when it does not itself believe in such things. A John Prescott or a John Edwards (Kerry’s prospective vice-president) who seems more authentic than his metropolitan running mate may offer a cosmetic solution. But, in Putnam’s view, liberalism must now demonstrate genuine engagement with the moral impulses of those it wishes to represent.

William Davies is a senior fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research

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