Bowling Alone Author Inspires New Wave of Republican Populism

Robert Putnam's books offer a bipartisan way forward on the economic issues facing the country.
Photographer: Dimuthu Jayawickrama/iStock

One issue, or at least one book, is uniting Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University, is recasting Democratic criticism of income inequality into an idea that may be more meaningful to both political parties -- that all children should receive a fair start in life, and that many are not.

Putnam appears Tuesday with President Barack Obama at a poverty summit at Georgetown University in Washington. He has briefed Obama’s Cabinet, former Florida Governor Bush, former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Clinton’s policy staff on his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

The book offers Republicans a way to talk about the economic angst felt by working-class Americans, putting aside the income inequality argument widely considered a Democratic talking point.

The goal is to make America’s children “the most important issue in the presidential campaign,” Putnam said at a news conference Monday in Washington. “Many good-hearted people on the upside of the opportunity gap simply don’t understand, don’t know how bad things have become on the downside of the gap.”

Putnam, a professor of public policy, is also the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The book published in 2000 contends Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and democratic structures.

Class Segregation 

A bipartisan coalition organizing around the book began in New Hampshire and is spreading to other areas, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle. It is also unifying diverse religious groups including Catholics and evangelicals.

Our Kids, published in March, examines growing class segregation in the U.S., told through the stories of American children born into vastly different worlds of privilege or poverty. It frames the issue as one of equal opportunity, something on which many think the American Dream is based, versus unequal income, which turns off some voters.

Republican Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, suffered a backlash in the 2012 election after saying 47 percent of Americans view themselves as victims who are dependent on government assistance.

 Now, many Republicans are making a direct appeal to struggling working-class Americans. Even Senator Cruz of Texas spoke in January about the “top 1 percent” who are “getting fat and happy.”

 ‘Opportunity Gap’

Before Our Kids was published, Bush—who hasn’t formally declared his presidential candidacy—was among political figures who asked Putnam to brief him about it.

During a recent appearance before the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Bush highlighted, above other challenges, the educational “opportunity gap” as the major policy issue of our day.

Obama borrowed the book’s title for his remarks after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody set off riots in Baltimore, when he referred to the children of the city as “our kids.”

Last week, Ohio Governor John Kasich, another potential presidential candidate, attended a discussion about the book with New Hampshire voters in Nashua. He attended on the condition he would listen only and not bring an entourage, said Steve Duprey, a Concord, New Hampshire, businessman who is helping organize the discussion sessions.

People ‘Fascinated’

Much of the contact from Bush and others began as Putnam conducted his research before writing the book, said Lew Feldstein, who is organizing business and community leaders in New Hampshire. He is a longtime colleague  of Putnam who helped arrange seminars about Bowling Alone.

“There were indications back then that this was a groundswell beginning to develop,” said Feldstein, former president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. “People were calling Bob from both parties.”

Now, the question is which of the 2016 candidates will back up the new rhetoric with real policies, said Duprey, a Republican National Committee member working with Feldstein to organize the sessions.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination last week, is delivering an aggressive populist message. On his website today, he reprinted an op-ed he wrote for the Greenville paper in the key early primary state of South Carolina. The theme:  "Fight for families, not the elites."

Gabriel Salguero, president of National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said the concept of equal opportunities for children “helps people speak in a way that’s hopefully trans-partisan” and “creates space for healthy conversations.” His group is part of a religious coalition organizing behind the book.

Feldstein and Duprey have convened 200 community leaders and businesses in New Hampshire to highlight Putnam’s research. Duprey has sent copies of the book to all of the Republican presidential contenders.

Town-Hall Meetings

“Our goal is to bring a lot of people in New Hampshire up to speed so, when they meet candidates of any party, they stand up at town-hall meetings and ask: ‘Is there an opportunity gap, how do you define it and how do you close it?’” Duprey said.

American society splits along class lines, including residential, educational and marital, Putnam contends. He offers narratives of families including his childhood home of Port Clinton, Ohio, where child poverty increased from no greater than 15 percent in one of the city’s neighborhoods in 1990 to almost 45 percent in all but two neighborhoods.

"Putnam calls the city a "split-screen American nightmare" where "wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the high school lot next to decrepit junkers that homeless classmates drive away each night to live in." 

Test Scores

In New Hampshire, the percentage of children in single-parent homes with a high school education or less has risen from 30 percent in 1990 to almost 60 percent in 2010. Today, a child with low test scores born into a high-income family is more likely to graduate from college than a child with high test scores born into a low-income family.

“That’s exactly the opposite of how it should be,” Putnam said in an interview.

There are “deep parallels” between the U.S. now and during the so-called Gilded Age decades preceding the 1920s, says Putnam. He cited soaring income inequality and immigration, a sense that “we’ve lost our connection with others,” and the fact that there are many poor children.

“America has in the past faced problems just like this and solved them,” said Putnam, who called his book “heartbreaking” to research and write.

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