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‘Join or Die’: New film says strengthening democracy requires strengthening communities

An animated scene from the film "Join or Die."
Provided by Rebecca Davis
An animated scene from the film "Join or Die."

There’s a lot of distress about the future of American democracy in these divided times. But the antidote to distrust in our institutions, in isolation from our neighbors, may be closer than many of us realize – as close as the nearest bowling alley, community center or church.

A new film makes the case that the future of America may depend on active participation in the community.

“Join or Die” offers good natured encouragement, grounded in some rather serious sociological theory. Rebecca Davis and Pete Davis co-directed the film. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Provided by Rebecca Davis

Texas Standard: Some of our listeners may recognize the parameters of this argument right away as a somewhat familiar critique. That was first an academic article back in the mid-90s, and then it went on to be a rather popular book right around 2000 or so called “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam. Could you say more about the premise of the book that’s at the heart of this film? Pete, you were saying you actually took a class with Robert Putnam?

Pete Davis: Yeah, I took a class with Robert Putnam. And in the spirit of his whole message of community, he had it in his house to try to get us all to be closer together so it wouldn’t be in, like, a sterile classroom.

So just a nutshell, what is it that Putnam is arguing with this book?

Pete Davis: Two big arguments. One is that community is fundamental to democracy. The building block of a healthy democracy is not what’s happening in Washington. It’s what’s happening in ordinary neighborhoods – neighbors getting together and participation. And number two, that in the last 50 years, community has been in decline. We have about half as much of what he calls “social capital” as we did back in mid-century – people joining clubs, people joining unions, people joining bowling leagues, people joining congregations. And that infrastructure is very important. And if it’s in decline and we don’t turn it around, we’re going to be in trouble.

I think anyone listening to us would recognize how this would resonate in modern times. And yet we’re talking about a thesis that was first written in 1995. And I think largely, Putnam had his eyes on how television and other distractions were sort of taking us away from a sense of community. You’re nodding your head quite a bit here, Rebecca. Is that about right?

Rebecca Davis: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that was one reason, when Pete and I came together to work on this film, we felt like we wanted to bring it back into the conversation. It was around 2018 at that point. “Bowling Alone” had been out for about 18 years and Facebook was not even kind of on the scene at that moment. And these kinds of questions about what was going on with our community were just increasingly in the conversation. And we said, “hey, I think it’s about time for this book that was really prescient and kind of early on these concerns about community, you how to revisit them.”

Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone."
Provided by Rebecca Davis
Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone."

We’ve got social media. Why join a bowling league to get social?

Pete Davis: Well, here’s the thing. There’s some parts of community that social media can give you. It can give you information. It can give you entertainment. But are the people that you’re following on Twitter, are they going to bring you soup when you’re sick? Are they going to be people who you have a transformative experience where you actually learn about someone who is different than you? Are they going to be people that are going to come together with you to solve local problems and fight city hall? If you need to fight city hall, or fix up the park, there are things that only real world community can do.

We’re not Luddites. Online community, and we spotlight this in the film, can translate into real world community. It can be the first door to it, but if it just stays there, we’re going to be missing out on a lot.

I think that one of the critiques that Putnam faced when this book first came out was the bowling leagues, the fraternal organizations, churches are very much certainly a part of American society in the 50s – the “Leave It to Beaver” era. And I think some people would say, “really, aren’t we kind of past that?” What would what would you say to that?

Rebecca Davis: Well, Putnam is really good at saying, “my message of ‘Bowling Alone’ is not that we should go back to the ’50s. What we need to do is we need to take that communal spirit that we had in the ’50s and we need to reinvent it for the soil of today in informal ways.” We’re just into different stuff now. And in really serious ways. There are a lot of problems with the communities in the ’50s that we’ve been addressing over the last few decades, and we need to incorporate those new justice movements into the new communities of the day.

And that’s why in the film we don’t spotlight – though we love them – Kiwanis Club and Rotary Club and American Legion. We spotlight a Black bike collective in Atlanta. We spotlight a bowling alley where everyone’s drinking and partying. We spotlight a gig worker alliance in Chicago, where a bunch of Lyft drivers are all coming together to fight for their rights. Those are things you wouldn’t have seen in the ’50s, but they still have that communal spirit that Putnam’s talking about.

What’s interesting, though, is that some of these places where people do tend to congregate, especially in rural parts – I’m thinking of rural parts of Texas – one of the clubs that makes an appearance is the Oddfellows group in Waxahachie, Texas. Is that right?

Rebecca Davis: Yeah. And I do want to point out, I don’t think this necessarily means too, that we have to scrap the clubs that have been around for a hundred years, but for clubs that have been declining in membership, it’s a time to take a hard look at maybe what those clubs are going to be doing to bring in younger people so that they are staying relevant and are going to have another 100 years. And we were lucky enough to find a Waxahachie lodge that was doing just that – that had older longtime members, but was also appealing to a younger generation.

The Odd Fellows lodge of Waxahachie, Texas, was one of the groups featured in the film.
Provided by Rebecca Davis
The Odd Fellows lodge of Waxahachie, Texas, was one of the groups featured in the film.

I think that there’s a sense out there that we are being divided into tribes by sort of the ambient noise that’s all around us. And that would obviously include not just mainstream news, but social media as well. If we do reengage, can we get past that damage that’s already been done? I mean, I still find that we’re sort of being segregated by the labels that we’ve already started to attach to each other.

Rebecca Davis: Absolutely. I think the news can give us a perspective that is pushing us to see the world in terms of red and blue in America. And I think our hope with this film and what we learned from Robert Putnam’s work is he’s asking us to put on another pair of glasses that sees the world through a communal lens and asks us to interrogate – is there strong community here, or is there weaker community? And what can we do to be strengthening it? And that’s a really important lens for, I think, moving forward.

Pete Davis: You know, like when you have a fight among old friends or in a family, sometimes the best way to get over that fight is to not talk about the issue that you’re fighting about. So often when we’re trying to heal the red-blue divide in America, we either say, “stop believing what you believe.” No one wants to stop believing what they believe. Or we say, “come together.” And let’s have these conversations about how we disagree, which never works because it makes the disagreements salient. What Putnam shows, and what we try to show in this film is sometimes the best way is maybe stop talking about this for a while. Let’s go bowling. And we all agree on flowers and we can go be in the garden club.

Isn’t he saying that the real salience is our shared humanity?

Pete Davis: That is what you discover when you interact with real people in the real world, doing real things on the local level. We’re going to remain divided forever if the only thing is going to be what opinions do you have about what’s happening on screens halfway around the world or halfway across the country. But the way that we actually come together is by saying, “Hey, how can we fix this problem in our town? Let’s go actually meet the people that are most affected by it. Let’s go actually meet each other as neighbors and try to work on this together.”

And those things happen when you have dinner parties. Those things happen when you’re in the congregation together. Those things happen when you’re bowling together. And if those things go away, all we have is fighting over what’s on the screens.

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