A very nicely written book that raises several speculations. The author points out that in the 19th century, many of the local groups that people joined were chapters of national or transnational organisations. This was part of their attractiveness. Joining a local group gave comradely ties with others across the nation, that you had never met, and probably would never meet. How peculiar was this to the US, as compared with the European countries from which many of these people recently left? Is there any way to quantify this? A little unfair to ask, perhaps, because of the sheer amount of research needed to flesh it out. But the above questions arise naturally out of the research summarised in the book.
Historians have asked if the US was qualitatively different from other countries. ("Vineyard of liberty" etc.) The issues raised by the book give us another way to address the question. Perhaps Americans were more inclined to join such nation spanning groups because as an immigrant, footloose people, if they did not have centuries of binding to the same soil and neighbours, they wanted some other and multiple means of belonging? Was the striking success of the groups in some part due to such inchoate urgings?
Another way to test would be to look into the history of similar groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Skocpol also points out that from the 1960s onwards, the membership of such groups in the US fell significantly. She advanced several reasons. But there is one possible reason for some of the decline that she did not mention. From the mid 1950s, TV became pervasive. Remember that joining a volunteer group is done in your recreational time. TV is a notorious competitor for that time, due to its convenience and cheapness. Plus, and more specifically, if one of your reasons (possibly unconscious) for joining a national group is to be part of a larger world, then TV assuages that to some extent. Granted, some of this may be illusory, but so what?
on June 13, 2003
Many years ago, I fell into the habit of joining imaginary organizations. From time to time, depending on the pomposity level of the cocktail party I was attending, I have been:
President, STABB, Society for the Total Annihilation of Beanie Babies.
Executive Director, AAAAPM, "QuadrupleA/PM," the American Association for the Advancement of Applied PeripheroMetrics (Our motto: "If It's Far Enough Out, We'll Measure It").
Senior Logothete, Anarchic Chaotic Licentious Utopians, (ACLU).
And most recently, Associate Visiting Carnivore, Protesters Enjoying Talking Angry (PETA).
But now comes a new endeavor. APPROACH. Articulate Perceptive Persons Resolutely Opposed to American Civic Hypochondria.
Thanks, Theda. I couldn't have done it without you.
The Theda just acknowledged is the prolific and engaging Theda Skocpol, Harvard political scientist/sociologist and well-known commentator on American society, social policy, and all matters there unto pertaining. "Diminished Democracy" is not her best effort, if only because it started out in life as a University of Oklahoma lecture series, and lectures don't always transition well into books. Still, there is absolutely nothing wrong with "Diminished Democracy." It's clear, straightforward, solid, logical.
The problem is the (expletive deleted) genre.
It all seems to have started 50 years ago, with David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd." Ever since, academics, pundits, and politicians have bemoaned the increasing isolation of Americans from each other, especially their ever-diminishing propensity to join the "voluntary civic associations" which, according to Tocqueville - Would congress please pass a 10-year moratorium on quoting Tocqueville? - provide the essential foundation of American democracy.
By the 1980s, bewailing the isolation had become a veritable fixture of American intellectual life. "Habits of the Heart," a multi-author sociological study that drew heavily on Tocqueville, provided the template. More recently, there's been another template, Robert Putnam's insanely over-statistical "Bowling Alone."
Meanwhile, any number of studies purport to prove that, not only are Americans no longer a nation of joiners, but when they do join (which they do avidly), it's the wrong kinds of groups - either self-interested, undemocratic advocacy organizations or trivial, self-obsessed "small groups" such as fundamentalist Bible study or ASAP, Adult Survivors of Adequate Parents, for people who can't blame it all on Mom & Dad.
Could we please stop all the kvetching and just take a look at what is?
Ms. Skocpol doesn't kvetch. At least, not much. And "Diminished Expectations" does indeed offer some worthwhile insights and prescriptions.
The writer starts with a bit of historical revisionism. Contrary to Tocquevillian myth, the American penchant for voluntary association was never exclusively, or even primarily, local. From the early national period on, most of the important local organizations were actually part of national and transnational federations: churches, lodges and fraternal organizations, unions, mutual-aid, charity, and reform groups. Many modeled themselves after the federal government; many arose and thrived in response to national crises, especially war; many even served as governmental adjuncts. Further, although these groups were officially nonpartisan and/or apolitical, they often took a lively interest in political affairs.
Then people stopped joining. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the size and power of these groups waned rapidly. To some extent, this may have been due to the fact that the Greatest Generation was "abnormally civically involved." But many other factors were involved, most notably the tandem of an ever-expanding federal government and the rise of a professional managerial/expert class.
To simplify: Mass membership institutions became less effective at getting things done than professionally-run, government and foundation-funded, mass mediated, hyper-marketed advocacy and lobbying groups. Memberships were reduced to mailing lists, and to less than mailing lists. When anybody could set up claiming to "represent" some group or some cause or other, real human beings often became more of a hindrance than an asset.
Ms. Skocpol deplores this devolution, but also finds the standard communitarian and political reform responses lacking. Her solution is not to return to some mythical past that never existed - local, apolitical involvement - nor to erect ever greater barriers to citizen participation in politics, but to reinvigorate the past that did exist. Three proposals seem especially striking. First, "memberless" organizations should consider becoming federated membership organizations with local chapters. Second, barriers between political and apolitical activity need to be lowered, not raised. And third, we need, somehow, to generate sufficient leaders who want to generate sufficient followers.
An intriguing idea, but not immediately practicable. I suggest therefore that Ms. Skocpol join my new outfit, APPROACH, the American Public Project to Restore, Orchestrate, and Achieve Civic Harmony.
It'll be a start.
on July 23, 2012
The presentation of the data in the first 200 or so pages was excellent. In the author does a good job showing what the USA has lost in jettisoning its classic membership based civic associations.
But the author refuses to consider or is unaware of some causes, effects and solutions to the problem that do not fit in with faculty lounge political chic. For instance, she never considers the possibility that civil rights laws have made our country into a "nation of enemies" to quote Phillip K. Howard. Surely, the government granting citizens the opportunity to sue one another for slights to ethnic pride or whatever had SOMETHING to do with the civic disintegration she describes. Immigration is another issue that might also have something to do with the diminishment of democracy that she decries. Not even touched. That despite social science evidence from Robert Putnam on how diversity diminishes social capital. Many of the old line civic institutions such as the Knights of Pythias or Columbus, etc. were male only. The author makes little no mention of how feminism helped to destroy these institutions. Men have a need to associate with one another in the absence of women. Why is it that the author does nothing to refute my sneaking suspicion that feminists dedicated themselves to suing or otherwise threatening these "bastions of male privilege" if they didn't admit women on the same basis, thereby depriving them of some of their point?
Also not touched is the elite obsession with "multiculturalism". If those in the cultural high ground encourage citizens to divide themselves up into squabbling ethnic, racial and sexual minorities, of COURSE there will be civic disintegration. This omission is blaring. But, I would guess only a professor could miss it.
Her analysis of public sector unions is utterly laughable. She considers them an important civic institutions that build social cohesiveness, etc. A few years after she has written this, these very same public sector unions are bankrupting towns, municipalities, states, etc. I cannot imagine that this is as great a benefit as Theda had imagined they would be.
Not only does the government get off easy in Theda's analysis, but government is an important provider of social capital. If, a benevolent and protective government provides all that Theda thinks it should, what need is there for the Benevolent and Protective order of Elks? That the government might have made the old style civic institutions surplus to requirements is, (obviously, as it's not a faculty lounge issue) not even considered.
I admire the author's collecting of the facts, but the author's mind is so addled by political correctness that her analysis is, in a word, stupid.