For example, as Robert Putnam writes in his 2000 book “Bowling Alone”: “On average, across all fraternal organizations, membership rates began to plateau around 1957, peaked in the early 1960s, and began the period of sustained decline by 1969.” Another example: Three Kiwanis chapters are based in Clark County, according to the international’s website; they have a combined 45 members.
Of course, back in the day, when America purportedly was great, belonging to a service organization meant you were a male — and almost certainly white. And while clubs are less exclusionary these days, their legacy reflects America’s complicated social history. But that is a column for another time.
For now, the focus is on a decline that has been exacerbated by generational differences and the digital age — an age in which carrying a computer in our pockets connects us to the world but somehow leaves us more isolated. The dichotomy is profound; so is the impact.
Because the decline of social organizations is not so much the disease but a symptom of modern America, and it infects our politics and our basic interactions.
Consider Putnam’s book, which is built around the premise that people still go bowling, but relatively few of them join leagues these days. With Americans increasingly unlikely to venture beyond their inner circle for social connections, it is a trend that extends well beyond bowling.
“The broader social significance,” Putnam writes, “lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.”
Whether through churches or fraternal organizations or even labor unions, it seems that not all that long ago, Americans were more engaged with their neighbors. And it seems that such engagement led to a little more understanding and compassion and common ground.
As John M. Hinck of the University of San Diego noted in 2018, fraternal organizations once were “considered the schools of democracy and cornerstones for advancing society.” These days we take our democracy lessons from whatever lunacy we find on the internet, content to live in silos that reinforce our beliefs rather than challenge them.
In terms of human relations, it is the equivalent of the demise of the corner grocery store, which has been replaced by mega-shopping centers owned by mega-corporations. There are benefits, but they come at a cost of distance and impersonal relationships.
Of course, there are complex and varied reasons for all of this. We’ll leave it to the sociologists to figure it out.
But the demise of Portland’s oldest Kiwanis chapter got me thinking about a truism that should be obvious to all: A fractured society is destined to crumble.