Join or Die Makes SXSW Premiere

Join or Die

Have you ever felt the pressure to join a social club? What is it about it that drives us all to do it? In a new documentary Join or Die, make its premiere at SXSW next month – we might just get some answers.

Join or Die is a film about why you should join a club — and why the fate of America may depend on it. In this feature documentary, follow the half-century story of America’s civic unraveling through the journey of legendary social scientist Robert Putnam, whose groundbreaking “Bowling Alone” research into America’s decades-long decline in community connections could hold the answers to our democracy’s present crisis. Flanked by influential fans and scholars — from Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to Eddie Glaude Jr., Raj Chetty, and Priya Parker — as well as inspiring groups building community in neighborhoods across the country, join Bob as he explores three urgent civic questions: What makes democracy work? Why is American democracy in crisis? And, most importantly…What can we do about it?

Directors’ Statement – Rebecca Davis and Pete Davis

Henry David Thoreau once said: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” It is important to tell stories about the various “branches of evil,” but occasionally, it is also useful to help orient the public to the roots of our various social problems. As the unraveling of our social fabric has accelerated in the COVID era, the public is searching for fundamental explanations of our civic decline: Why don’t our politics or government work? Why can’t we see eye-to-eye with our neighbors? What accounts for the gap between the empowered few and the disempowered many?

The answers to these questions are complex—and no single scholar can definitively answer any of them. But Harvard professor and Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam has, perhaps more than anyone else living today, made great strides at clarifying our understanding of the roots of our civic unraveling. Even better, he is a master at translating his trailblazing social science research into engaging stories. For decades, he has explained to rapt audiences around the country—from VFW halls to the Oval Office—his illuminating findings, but the entirety of his work has never been featured in a documentary film with the potential to reach a much wider audience.

With Join or Die, we aim to introduce Putnam’s research on the importance of community to democracy and the decline in American community engagement over the past decades to millions more Americans—and especially to young Americans who were not alive to experience Bowling Alone going viral decades ago.

To bring Putnam’s message up to date, we have paired his story with figures from various sectors—from politics and economics to public health and urban design—that have been influenced by his ideas. And to bring Putnam’s message down to earth, we have weaved throughout the film historic home videos and contemporary community profiles featuring the types of civic organizations that Putnam has found to be foundational to a healthy democracy. Together, we hope that they not only help promote the public understanding of an important field in social science—but that they also shed light on what Americans across the country can do with this newfound understanding.

With the death knell of our national unity tolling from every corner of our public life, we hope that revisiting Putnam’s groundbreaking civic findings—and spotlighting the creative local groups acting in the spirit of them—can serve to inspire viewers to do what needs to be done to save our democracy: Join up!


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