Democracy Forum screens documentary and hosts author of Bowling Alone

Author and professor Dr. Robert Putnam visited campus for a discussion with Professor David Campbell following a showing of the film “Join or Die.” The event occurred in Mendoza’s Jordan Auditorium on February 21. The event was presented as a part of the Notre Dame Forum, which focuses on “The Future of Democracy” this academic year. 

Putnam, formerly a professor of public policy at Harvard, received the National Humanities Medal in 2013 for his contribution to studying community, citizenship, and institutions. He is one of the most prominent political scientists in recent decades and the author of 15 books, including the bestseller Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, published in 2000.

“Bowling Alone” provided the foundation for a 2023 film by sibling director and producer duo, Rebecca and Pete Davis, titled “Join or Die.” The film—only available through private screenings—emphasized the importance of civic associations, clubs, and local connection. It begins with the proclamation: “This is a film about why you should join a club.” By incorporating social science data and interviews of Americans engaged in community building, the film presents the importance of social capital and why declining social participation raises concerns. It also draws upon Putnam’s 2020 book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, which concludes with an optimistic attitude towards civic engagement and democracy’s future. 

University President John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. established the Notre Dame Forum, now in its 18th year, in 2005 in order to orient Notre Dame programming towards a specific “issue of importance to the university, the nation, and the larger world.” This year, it focuses on the state of American and global democracy. 

The film screening and conversation was also cosponsored by the Department of Political Science, the Notre Dame Democracy Initiative, and the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy. Father Robert Dowd, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s President-elect, said in his introductory remarks before the screening, “Our belief is that it is possible to enhance, improve, and refine American democracy and democracy more globally.”

Following the screening, political science Professor Jaimie Bleck moderated a brief question and answer with Putnam and Professor David Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy and director of the university’s Democracy Initiative. Attendees asked Putnam and Campbell about their perspectives towards liberalism and technology, as well as their hopes for the future. Putnam closed his remarks with an exhortation: “Things are not determined by history. We have agency … It’s your choice if we attain a better society or not,” concluding, “This country, and indeed, this world, needs a moral reawakening.”

Although not a Catholic, Putnam praised the unique moral position the Church occupies in public life as well as the influence of Pope Francis during the interactive portion of the event: “I think Pope Francis is the most important figure in the world right now … because he speaks with a moral voice, unequaled, about our obligations to one another … upstream of it all is morality.” 

When contacted for comment on the event, as well as its connection to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, Campbell said, “One thing that sets Notre Dame apart from many other institutions of higher education is the ‘moral vocabulary’ that one finds on campus which, I would hope, resonates with students of all faith backgrounds.”

Campbell went on to emphasize that the film “demonstrates that while it is important to understand what makes democracy work, it is just as—perhaps even more—important to engage in efforts to make democracy better. The film highlights a number of groups around the country that are doing the sort of grassroots social-capital-building that will benefit their communities, and thus all of us.”

Molly Foote, a sophomore studying marketing, told the Rover, “The film emphasized that we are not on this journey of life alone … it is essential that the next generation actively participates in local organizations in order to save our democracy.” 

In addition to chronicling Americans’ declining participation in social clubs, “Join or Die” also explores decreasing religious affiliation. Regarding the religious element of social capital, Nathan Lavery, an exchange student from the United Kingdom studying political science, said, “No doubt the issues of isolation and polarization have largely been caused by the decline of religion in society,” and yet “the film gave me real hope for the future—I feel that I can be a part of the change necessary to our society.” Students seemed to respond positively to the film, with some waiting over an hour following the event for the opportunity to meet Putnam.

Catalina Scheider Galiñanes is a junior from the Washington, D.C. area majoring in economics and political science with a minor in constitutional studies. She is available to discuss liberalism, Virginia elections, and country music at

Photo Credit: The Irish Rover

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