The Future of US Civil Society: Civic Engagement after September 11

Harvard International Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Future of US Civil Society: Civic Engagement after September 11


ROBERT PUTNAM is Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. His works include Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) and Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993).

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Do you believe that the 2004 US presidential election held special significance for US civil society?

Long-run trends in the vitality of US civil society do not follow the rhythm of elections. They are driven by deeper historical and technological trends. But there were several things about 2004 that were relevant to those of us studying and trying to change civil society.

Two things were notable about 2004. First, it was the first national election after 9/11. That probably did have an effect on the level of turnout in the election. Of course, no one is quite sure why we suddenly had this big increase in turnout. It could have been just the war in Iraq, but my best guess is that 9/11 had the effect of making people realize the importance of connections to one another and to society.

That was true for younger people, for people who were in their most impressionable adolescent years at the time of 9/11. For people of my generation, 9/11 did have a short-run effect on people's sense of community. For most adults that effect vanished pretty quickly, but for people who were caught at a particularly impressionable time, 9/11 did have a more enduring effect. In some ways its effect on this generation was like that of the election of 1960 on people my age. This showed up in a higher than usual turnout and a higher than usual interest in public affairs and in survey data. College students are more interested in politics and public affairs than their counterparts 8 to 14 years ago were.

The second connection between the 2004 election and civil society is that the election reminded everybody of the power of social connections, face-to-face connections, in getting people to be involved in politics. Before the election, we were aware of the way in which the combination of the Internet and small groups worked. Vermont Governor Howard Dean's campaign was a real innovation.

Dean himself turned out to be a flawed candidate and a flawed leader, but organizationally his campaign innovated to create networks that were not just electronic but also face-to-face. People would get together to drive long distances across North Dakota or across New Hampshire to connect with other people and do things. What we became more aware of after the election was that there was another kind of face-to-face network that was even more effective: the face-to-face networks built into large, evangelical mega-churches. That is a different and, in some respects, a much more powerful network.

Megachurches propagate powerful genuine human connections. We have been studying a church in Orange County, California, called Saddleback, a church of 30,000 members. It has grown very rapidly, but the core of the church is not the thousands and thousands of people who show up Sunday morning for services. There are thousands of small groups of 6 to 10 people. There are the Mountain Bikers for God, the Volleyball Players for God, the Geeks for God, the small group for survivors of breast cancer, and the small group for people who have family members in prison. Group members spend two hours a week with each other. If one member gets sick, somebody else in the group will bring her chicken soup. If someone loses his job, someone else in the group will tide him over. When come November somebody says, "By the way, don't forget to vote, Jack," it is not political--it is a close friend reminding you to vote. The megachurch is an extremely effective structure, and it captures the importance of civil society for politics.

There is absolutely nothing on the Democratic or liberal side of the continuum that is comparable to those sorts of organizations. …

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