Voices and Echoes in the Public
The Development of the Public Interest Sector
Students of history forecast a surge of activism in the 1990s. They believe there are thirty-year cycles in American history for such surges—the '30s, the '60s, and now the '90s. There does seem to be a backlog of mounting social problems inviting attention beyond the routine and redundant. And the younger generations are becoming more civic-minded after a decade of self-centered grasps for gold. Perhaps more significant is the diversification of citizen strategies and the maturation of their efforts.
When consumer activist and public interest entrepreneur Ralph Nader first arrived on the Washington political scene more than three decades ago, his vision of public interest activism was distinctly social in nature. 1 He believed that people mattered and that their collective political activism could change public policy outcomes. Public interest activism meant social networking and “taking it to the streets,” literally. Today, public interest activism, while still incorporating citizen activism to some extent, often takes the form of individual citizens, solicited by high-technology mass recruitment efforts, writing membership checks once a year to their favorite cause groups in return for monthly newsletters or magazines. 2
While citizen activists once may have taken to the streets to demonstrate their critical mass of support for or opposition to government policies, today this same generation, politically socialized in the 1960s, is able to pay an organization or organizations to protest or get arrested for them. 3 The success of Greenpeace, a multimillion dollar international environmental organization, serves as the best example of this phenomenon in the 1990s. Many baby boomers, now approaching fifty, have neither the time