The Narrowing of Civic Life: Professionally Run and Donor-Funded Organizations Are Trampling America's Real Grass Roots. What's the Upshot? Our Democracy Suffers and Elites Dominate

Article excerpt

COMING TOGETHER IN TRADE UNIONS AND FARMers' associations, fraternal chapters and veterans' organizations, women's groups and public-reform crusades, Americans more than a century ago created a raucous democracy in which citizens from all walks of life could be leaders and help to shape community life and public agendas. But U.S. civic life has changed fundamentally in recent decades. Popular membership groups have faded while professionally managed groups have proliferated. Ordinary citizens today have fewer opportunities for active civic participation, and big-money donors have gained new sway. Not coincidentally, public agendas are skewed toward issues and values that matter most to the highly educated and the wealthy.

To understand the changes wrought by this sweeping civic reorganization, it is useful to consider the significant role these membership groups played in American life dating back at least a century. From the 1800s through the mid-1900s, countless churches and voluntary groups of all sizes needed volunteer leaders. Indeed, the country's largest nation-spanning voluntary federations could have as many as 15,000 to 17,000 local chapters, each of which might need at least a dozen officers and committee leaders each year. Looking at the nation's 20 largest voluntary federations alone in 1955, my colleagues and I estimate that some 3 percent to 5 percent of the adult population was serving in leadership roles--and that additional recruits would be needed each year.

Voluntary federations taught people how to run meetings, handle money, keep records, and participate in group discussions. Often, they exposed members to the inner workings of representative democracy--from parliamentary procedures and elections to legislative, judicial, and executive functions. And, importantly, these traditional voluntary associations reinforced ideals of good citizenship. They stressed that members in good standing should understand and obey laws, volunteer for military service, engage in public discussions--and, above all, vote. Political scientists Alan Gerber and Don Green show that people are more likely to turn out to vote in response to face-to-face appeals, and America's traditional popular associations routinely provided such appeals.

This exposure to democracy in action wasn't reserved for the elite alone. Many such organizations mixed social classes. There were plenty of opportunities for men and women from blue-collar and lower-level white-collar occupations to participate. And within the world of volunteerism, upward mobility was possible, as local activists got on leadership ladders toward responsibilities at district, state, and national levels.

Like citizens of other advanced industrial democracies, Americans joined occupationally based groups. But they were more likely to belong to what I call fellowship associations--with members from various occupations who saw themselves as joined together in shared moral undertakings. Rooted in dense networks of state and local chapters that gave them a presence in communities across the nation, major fraternal groups, religious groups, civic associations, and organizations of military veterans predominated.

All sorts of large membership associations were involved in public affairs. This is obvious for what's now the AFL-CIO and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Beyond these, to give just a few examples, the PTA and the General Federation of Women's Clubs were active in a variety of legislative campaigns having to do with educational and family issues. The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars sought benefits for veterans and their families. And the Fraternal Order of Eagles championed Social Security and other federal social programs.

BY THE 1960S, THESE OLD-LINE MEMBERSHIP ORGANizations began to decline, to be replaced by professionally managed advocacy groups and institutions. These new groups arose partly in response to a newly activist national government. …