Diversity and Democracy


Daniel Henninger of the WSJ recently wrote about Robert Putnam in an op-ed called “The Death of Diversity”. Robert Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone which traced dropping levels of social interaction and democratic/community participation, for instance, the demise of bowling league in towns, to the increase in personal TV sets. He theorized that people plugged into their TVs would interact less with others, leading to a decrease in “social capital”.


In his latest published work, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century — The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize.” Scandinavian Political Studies 30 (2), June 2007, Professor Putnam reports the findings of his latest study that says increasing levels of ethnic diversity in communities have, conversely, negative effects on levels of social interaction, and ultimately democratic participation. The results, surprising to many, were that diversity has negative effects on participation, running counter to decades of American “melting pot” mythology and conventional wisdom. When I grew up in school, we were ingrained with ideas that America’s great diversity was a source of strength, but the empirical data in the work suggests otherwise. He writes, “Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.” The lecture can also be viewed here.


This study is being used by anti-illegal immigrants in this country already, and although Henninger in his piece seems ambiguous about this point, he does say that the “diversity ideologues” deserve whatever they get. I assume he is embittered about affirmative action. How this has anything to do with a program that is supposed to ensure ethnicities educational and professional opportunities normally denied them is unclear, and it’s only at the very end of his piece does Henninger make clear his criticism. He writes: “My own model for the way forward in a 21st century American society of unavoidable ethnic multitudes is an old one, a phrase found nowhere in the Putnam study or any commentary on it: the middle class. Its assimilating virtues may be boring, but it works, if you work at getting into it.”


Of course, without access to the same educational and professional opportunities afforded those already lucky members of this middle-class, or the upper-class, how can one enter through the pearly gates? Does government have a legitimate role to play then? He argues for assimilation, but is this possible with the complete absence of government? Without it, the entrenched elites would simply move to ensure their domination of society, and the classes would continue to self-replicate with very little if any upward mobility.


One of the greatest victories of the civil rights movement, affirmative action, has been a great success, and has resulted in a large middle class by affording educational and professional opportunities not available to blacks of two generations ago. It is unclear what Henninger means by “assimilate”. The word is vague, but if Henninger wants more minorities to join the middle class and be “assimilated” then they must be given equal opportunity.


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