In his 1996 essay, “Individualism and the Crisis of Civic Membership,” Robert Bellah points to two disconcerting statistics to illustrate what he argues is a crisis of civic membership in the United States. The first is that between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in the nation increased by ten percent, while the number of bowling leagues decreased by forty. We could, as Bellah says, dismiss this statistic as trivial or even irrelevant to an understanding of civic membership in the nation. However, in 1993, eighty-million people went bowling, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional election. And it is political engagement that most alarms Bellah. Like his bowlers, he points out that during the eighties and early nineties, political party identification and membership declined, while campaign contributions and letter writing to Congress increased. These numbers, then, beg the question of why people participate only as individuals. Bellah makes it a political-economic matter, but that’s not what I want to focus on in this reflection. Instead, I want to linger on these images of the bowler and campaign contributor he offers.
There is something strangely alluring about a bowling alley packed full of solitary bowlers; each there for the same end, yet the only shared aspect of this experience is their communal individualism. And what of the campaign contributors who are willing to write a check for change but not cast a vote or join a political party? What strikes me here is the disconnect between the desire to participate and the reluctance to make this participation a communal experience. Aren’t competition and democracy both reliant on individuals working together for the good of the whole? Yet, both have survived as people continue to find ways to stay isolated in their participation.
So, how can this disconnect be reconciled? The desire to be a part of the process is evident. But how can community be strengthened, not ignored with this desire? I think this is where reflective dialogue comes into play. It is through a shared dialogue, as guided by an imaginative object, that we can relate our own experiences to a larger community. It is by taking a step back and asking broader questions that we see how our individual beliefs, actions, and desires are part of a larger space beyond what we see every day. And if we question why we bowl, maybe one day we’ll get around to joining that league.