For years, academics have tried to understand how America turned from a nation of joiners, doers, and citizens into a nation of passive contributors whose interaction with public affairs is largely limited to responding to direct mail and cheering (or howling) at cable-TV programs. And Robert Putnam’s influential 2000 book Bowling Alone has largely framed this debate. Arguing that we have become a nation of isolated individuals who have lost the personal interaction and social cooperation that builds the trust that ultimately creates community, Putnam called for a kind of civic renaissance–one launched from the individual level, one citizen-volunteer at a time. Putnam’s ideas were extraordinarily influential, uniting social critics on both the left and right, from William Galston and Michael Sandel to William Schambra and George F. Will.
But Theda Skocpol, Putnam’s Harvard colleague, rejects this approach. In Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, Skocpol persuasively argues that a vibrant democratic system requires institutions, leadership, networks, and national organization. In contrast to Putnam’s model–which hinges on the claim that individual trust and interaction built from the bottom up uniquely generates the social capital that builds community–Skocpol emphasizes the importance of mass-membership groups that were built from the top down in a highly organized, complex federal network with national headquarters, regional offices, state units and then, finally, local lodges or clubs. They were consciously and carefully constructed by extraordinarily dedicated and creative national-policy entrepreneurs who created pathways to national power and influence for themselves and their members. These were what turned a nation of joiners into a nation of active and powerful citizens–and they didn’t sprout organically from close friendships forged over a bowling ball or a bake-sale brownie.
It turns out all those silly-sounding civic associations–ranging from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Eastern Star to the Knights of Pythias and the Loyal Order of Moose–were critical. They served as training grounds for political participation and political activism; provided sources of political support; and helped build bridges across America’s class barriers, enabling the nation to develop and maintain a relatively egalitarian political ethos even in the midst of the creation of great wealth and power. Many of us, of course, have some dim memories of a grandfather with some sort of garish uniform stashed in an attic, or gilt-edged certificates hanging on grandma’s wall. We’ve all seen the faded signs announcing these organizations at the town line of small cities across America, and who can forget that, on “The Honeymooners,” Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were loyal members of the International Order of Friendly Raccoons–Bensonhurst Chapter–led by the much-envied Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler? But these organizations weren’t just an excuse to wear silly hats and drink beer in someone’s basement. Not only did they forge links across America’s class divide, but also during and after the First and Second World Wars these and other organizations like them pushed government to develop social-welfare programs and institutions and to provide social services, becoming key advocates for social insurance and health care. Skocpol notes, for example, that the Fraternal Order of Eagles led campaigns for old-age pensions in dozens of states in the 1920s. The Grange organized social events, but also played a critical role in generating political pressure for state and federal aid to farmers. And veterans’ organizations–including the Grand Army of the Republic, the American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars–waged successful campaigns for pensions and educational assistance.
Perhaps even more important, these organizations actively practiced what we now barely preach, nurturing America’s commitment to citizenship, political participation, public service and cross-class cooperation–objectives that seem to have lost salience in an era of luxury skyboxes, gated communities, and an all-volunteer army with nary an Ivy-League graduate among its ranks. These groups, Skocpol writes, “constituted mobility ladders” for many Americans, and even though they were often led by members of the social elite, those leaders realized their positions of power required them to earn and maintain the respect and support of a host of members not normally among their social set: When President Warren G. Harding, for example, joined the Loyal Order of the Moose during his years in the White House, Skocpol notes that he was inducted into the organization by his chauffeur. The Moose Lodge certainly didn’t make Harding a liberal Democrat–but it did make him take seriously the interests (and the power) of his own chauffeur and others like him.
So why are so many of these organizations no more than dusty memories or funny skits on black-and-white sitcoms? Here, Skocpol surprises. Given the role these organizations played in the growth of the American welfare state, one might expect conservatives to have played some role in their demise. But it turns out that liberals themselves were the catalysts for the transformation from membership to management in American civic life. Funded by deep-pocketed philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation, liberals began to shift their attention away from national membership organizations and toward professionally managed advocacy groups and public-interest litigators in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And though these groups enjoyed great success, particularly in the arena of civil rights for African Americans and women, it was not without significant costs. One consequence was that though liberals may have invented this new approach to public policy, it was the conservatives who ended up perfecting it, responding to the liberal successes by pouring huge sums of money into their own think tanks, litigation teams, and lobbyists, “setting out in a highly self-conscious way to shape public opinion and counter the influence of liberal grant givers.”
But there’s hope. Skocpol argues that political elites will eventually return to organization-building and cross-class, mass-membership groups when they realize that there is a limit to the power and influence that can be gained by D.C.-based, professionally managed advocacy groups. And if they need an extra incentive, Skocpol notes that the Christian right, frustrated by the plateau of its own power in the 1980s, has already rediscovered the power of building a large, federated organization devoted to political mobilization and the training of future leaders in every state in the Union, under the auspices of the Christian Coalition.
It’s not clear, though, whether liberals will take the bait. It takes real fire in the belly to abandon Georgetown and the Kennedy Center to stay in a Motel 6, eat at Luby’s Cafeteria, and survive on USA Today. And even if you have that drive, there’s no guarantee that your efforts will create a civically engaged, cross-class coalition that supports your cause and your point of view. Though many of the organizations Skocpol discusses were advocates for progressive social reforms in their day, when we think of the VFW or the American Legion, not to mention the Elks or the Moose Lodge, we’re thinking classic, establishment, and GOP. Skocpol envisions modern organization-entrepreneurs building entirely new and different organizations, but nevertheless, it’s one thing to assemble an army and quite another to lead it where you want it to go.
As long as professionally managed advocacy groups and public-interest litigation firms believe they can at least prevent further erosion in their policies and their political power, one can certainly understand why they might be reluctant to take great risks, even if there is the potential for great reward. This defensive strategy might help to explain why Democratic senators and their web of professional advocates have been willing to hand virtually unfettered control over the war powers to the executive branch, and yet discover their institutional and partisan backbone when it comes to blocking the appointment of activist-conservative nominees to the federal courts. Liberals, it seems, have come to rely almost exclusively on the judges as an ever-grayer last line of defense against the forces of darkness. This suggests that the appeal of more power and greater gains may not be enough to shift many of these groups away from professional advocacy and back to civic engagement.
But when a new generation of policy entrepreneurs is ready to take to the hustings, Skocpol’s book should serve as a lively guide. Among other changes, Skocpol would have us roll back what she calls the “neo-Mugwump reforms” that keep trying (and failing) to keep money out of politics, but succeed instead in building walls between broad-based, cross-class civic organizations and political activity. These reforms–ranging from the Progressive movement’s attack on party machines in the early 1900s to modern tax rules designed to keep civic organizations from participating in partisan activity, right through to the McCain-Feingold reforms currently awaiting their fate at the hands of the courts–have done little to revitalize American politics, and have done much to spur the growth of professionally managed advocacy groups while undercutting what few incentives there are to encourage “popular political mobilization.” Skocpol would instead urge legislators to facilitate political participation and encourage cross-class organizations to engage directly in politics–making politics a joy and not a dirty little secret. Isn’t it possible that she will be unleashing a monster? That these groups will ultimately undermine her own political preferences? Here Skocpol refreshingly echoes James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who ultimately placed great confidence in their understanding of human nature in general and the American character in particular: If Americans cross class lines, work together for common objectives and make politics a part of the everyday pursuit of happiness, Skocpol seems convinced that they will do what, to her mind, is the right thing.
But what would it take to trigger this change? Though she doesn’t dwell on this, it will probably take some sort of judicial crisis–the explicit toppling of key pillars in the liberal pantheon concerning privacy, due process, or equal protection–before liberal advocacy groups may be willing to take a chance and follow Skocpol’s advice. In the meantime, Diminished Democracy should be required reading for everyone on Donald Rumsfeld’s nation-building team at the Pentagon. A few more Grand High Exalted Mystic Rulers and a few less exiled lawyers and lobbyists might be just what are needed–in the United States as well as in Iraq.
Gordon Silverstein is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and is finishing a new book titled How Law Kills Politics
(W.W. Norton & Co.).