Bowling Alone in Georgia

By Jennifer Hickey, Postdoctoral Fellow, Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative, Emory University School of Law

Image via Pixabay by Skitterphoto

Strikes and gutters; ups and downs. Twenty-five years ago, Robert Putnam published his influential essay, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.  The essay highlighted a generational decline in civic engagement, evidenced by decreased participation in bowling leagues despite increased interest in bowling. At the heart of Putnam’s work was the larger question of the proper role of civil society in a democracy. Conservatives have long invoked romantic Tocqueville-inspired notions of civil society as an alternative to government. What happens if, instead of banding together to solve our nation’s problems, the people decide to go bowling alone?

And now, bowling once again takes center stage in the ultimate “battle” of civil society versus government. Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp recently became the first in the United States to take significant measures to “reopen the economy” in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, despite indications that relaxing social distancing measures so soon will surely result in more deaths. Kemp announced that businesses previously considered “non-essential,” including bowling alleys, could reopen with “appropriate” safety measures. The very idea of bowling as essential was deemed laughable and has been the target of nationwide parody.

The impact of the governor’s dangerous abdication of responsibility, however, is far from funny. Business owners who justifiably feel unsafe re-opening are being pressured by landlords and creditors. Employees face the potential loss of unemployment benefits should they “choose” to stay home out of fear of catching the virus. Our administration has consistently framed this pandemic as “market versus lives,” a balancing act between “getting Americans back to work” and taking the necessary precautions to avoid deaths. This problematic framing implies that the market is the only way to ensure that Americans are able to make ends meet and ignores the possibility of a greater social safety net; never mind the disturbing attempts to normalize dying from a terrible illness as a laudable sacrifice of one’s life for the economy. And now many Georgians will consider it their social responsibility to frequent their favorite businesses to keep employees from starving. Forcing us to choose who gets to live and die under the rule of the “free market” is the ultimate manifestation of a neoliberal government leaving us to fend for ourselves under the guise of individual freedom and choice.

Thus, once again, bowling becomes an important indicator of our notions of social responsibility. On the surface, it is one of the least social endeavors one can now undertake. Whether bowling alone or in a league, the individual choice to go bowling is seemingly in direct opposition to the collective good. The small boost in civic-mindedness that might result from an engaging discussion about the pandemic over a pitcher of beer is hardly worth the lives of bowling alley employees. On the other hand, there are some who undoubtedly feel they must go bowling in order to ensure that these employees can put food on the table. What may look to be a selfish individual “choice” on the surface may actually be civil society “stepping up” in an attempt to make the best of the role neoliberalism has foisted upon them.

The unfortunate result of this “stepping up” of civil society, however, is the continued normalization of minimal government interference. True, all levels of government have been criticized for their inadequate responses to this horrific public health crisis. But alongside these critiques, we see tales of “ordinary heroes” organizing food drives and fundraisers and sewing masks. Citizens banding together out of necessity when government fails should not be taken as proof of romantic Tocquevillian notions of civil society as the appropriate alternative to responsive governance. In contrast, we should view state responsibility through the lens of Professor Martha Albertson Fineman’s vulnerability theory, which imagines a state that is responsive to the universal vulnerability of its citizens and seeks to provide the resources needed to achieve resilience. Such a state would not abandon its citizens to the whims of the economy, profoundly neglecting even the most basic human needs.

Twenty-five years ago, Putnam associated bowling alone with decreased civic engagement and increased distrust in government. Today, bowling in the midst of a pandemic is a natural consequence of a state that is unresponsive to its citizens’ needs. Whether we bowl in celebration of individual choice and responsibility or out of a sense of social obligation, without the support of our government, we are truly bowling alone.

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