Sociologist Theda Skocpol worries that the demise of the Odd Fellows and the rise of advocacy groups leave citizens with nothing to do

Though the title was created for sardonic effect by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, whose use of it always drips with sarcasm, here’s one small reason Harvard might well be considered the World’s Greatest University: In almost any grave scholarly dispute, disputants on both (or all) sides can be found right there on the Cambridge campus. Indeed, in a particularly Harvard touch, the battling gurus are likely to have mini-institutions–Centers or Institutes–erected around them like castles, giving their intellectual jousting the look of fiefdoms at war, even if the battles are unusually polite.

Theda Skocpol

So it is with the subject of civic engagement. Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame (see “Picking Up the Spare,” CW, Summer 2000), holds forth at the Kennedy School of Government, which also houses his Saguaro Seminar, an initiative that brings in community builders from around the country to seek cures for civic malaise. But across Harvard Yard there is Theda Skocpol, who teaches in the sociology and government departments, where she is director of the Center for American Political Studies. In her spare time, she also leads the Harvard Civic Engagement Project, a research team that, like Putnam and his acolytes, sifts through the fossil record of civic activity–but reads it quite differently.

While not exactly the anti-Putnam, Skocpol (pronounced SCOTCH-pole) does think her cross-campus colleague is barking up the wrong tree. Putnam sees personal connectedness as the essence of what he calls “social capital”–and therefore sees falling voting rates, dwindling supplies of Boy Scout troop leaders, and decreasing frequency of family dinners as equivalent indicators of civic decline. But Skocpol zeroes in on large, nationwide, voluntary membership organizations that, historically (and, pointedly, less so today), connected individuals not only to each other, especially across class lines, but also to people across the country–and to the issues of the day. Not to do so, she claims, is to misunderstand the lessons of America’s civic past.

“American civic voluntarism was never predominantly local and never flourished apart from national government and politics,” writes Skocpol in her new book, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. To her, what needs to be explained, and counteracted, is not the behavior of individuals–who seem, in Putnam’s terms, to have withdrawn from civic life–but the organizations that have changed the nature of civic activity in ways that leave little role for the rank-and-file member. “The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s…inadvertently helped to trigger a reorganization of national civic life, in which professionally managed associations and institutions proliferated while cross-class membership associations lost ground. In our time, civically engaged Americans are organizing more but joining less.”

She also sees the focus on individuals as pointing in the wrong direction for political reform. “A number of current good-government reforms would limit the ability of unions and popular groups to raise issues during elections; and some may greatly weaken political party efforts to mobilize new voters,” Skocpol writes, finding the roots of such proposals in the anti-political-machine reformism of the Progressives and the Mugwumps–promoters of political independence over partisan loyalty–at the beginning of the last century. “The United States has now had more than a century of experience with what I will call ‘neo-Mugwump’ reforms, which promise to revitalize democracy by elevating the thinking individual over all kinds of group mobilization–and the results are not happy.”

To learn more about how democracy has diminished in American life, and how it can be expanded, I paid a visit to Theda Skocpol at William James Hall. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CommonWealth: In the introduction to Diminished Democracy, you put the other analysts of civic life basically into two camps: the worriers, those who see civic life in a state of decline over the recent decades, and the optimists, those who think that things are getting better and better, that America is becoming more democratic, more open, and more participatory for a broader slice of people. Which camp do you put yourself in?

“Advocacy groups. . . offer few channels of participation to ordinary people.”

Skocpol: Well, I’m a worried optimist, I think. I see a little bit [of merit] on both sides. The optimists make the case that American civic life and democracy have become much more inclusive and pluralistic. Women have a stronger role, as have people of color, [and] a broader range of issues come up than used to come up–new conceptions of the public interest, like environmentalism. I think they’re right about that. The worriers say, yes, but there’s been a decline of all kinds of local social connections, especially face-to-face participation. It’s not so much that I think either side in this debate is entirely wrong as I think together they’re missing some parts of the big picture. The worriers, for example, don’t notice that through much of American history there was a lot of local face-to-face participation, but it was connected to something bigger. It was connected to a chance to participate in state and regional and national affairs, and build connections across local communities. And I worry about [the worriers’] prescription. If we just concentrate on reinventing local face-to-face ties, we’re going to miss out on some of those links across communities, and between the local and the national, that are very important–especially in an era when more and more Americans are living in class-segregated or racially segregated communities. As for the optimists, I think they’re right as far as they go, but they don’t notice that a lot of the new forms of participation have turned into professionally managed advocacy groups that offer few channels of participation to ordinary people.

CommonWealth: Let’s start with the worriers–Robert Putnam and the communitarians of the various political stripes, mostly of the center and on the political right. Their worry is that social capital has been lost because of the decline in interpersonal ties that come out of participation in local activities. Therefore they’ve prescribed, as an antidote to civic decline, the project of building community from the ground up, beginning at the local level. What’s wrong with that diagnosis of the problem, and what’s wrong with their prescription?

Skocpol: Well, I think a lot of times people don’t want to participate locally if they don’t think their efforts are connected to something that has some clout. A lot of the problems that we face in this society–for example, health care for everyone and access to good jobs for everyone, which Americans list as their greatest concerns, when you ask them–can’t be just dealt with at the local level. It’s also the case that the communitarians often focus on purely social interactions, more picnics or local bowling leagues. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, I don’t think we can take it for granted that if people socialize more, then that’s somehow going to transform our politics.

CommonWealth: Your book focuses on the rise and decline of national membership associations, generally those that have state or local affiliates, and that, because of their broad membership, fostered fellowship between people of different classes and different backgrounds. Tell me about some of them, the Odd Fellows and the Masons, and what their significance was for the building of social capital–right up to the mid-20th century, really.

Skocpol: My fellow researchers and I were really surprised, when we set out to identify all of the large, voluntary membership associations in American history, to find out that many of the 58 groups that eventually recruited 1 percent–or more, up to 10 percent–of the US adult population as members, many of them were formed in the pre-Civil War era or right after the Civil War, so they got a very early start. In many cases, especially those that grew up after the Civil War, they flourished through much of the 20th century, until the 1960s or a little after. These included fraternal groups, the Odd Fellows being a good example, which brought together men for rituals and mutual aid in local communities, and also allowed people to travel to different communities and connect up with fellow Odd Fellows wherever they went. The three little loops you see on many buildings in Massachusetts are the symbol of the Odd Fellows. They built halls in the center of many towns that other groups could use. Many women’s associations [sprang up, such as] the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which grew to fight against alcohol and for family values in the 19th century. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which got involved in a lot of the public policy issues of the early 20th century, along with the PTA, which started out as the National Congress of Mothers–those are examples. The Grange, which built halls in many rural communities, allowed farm families, including men and women together, to participate in community activities and then lobby state legislatures for farm programs and for public education. They were leaders in public education. I would also point to the great veterans’ associations, including the American Legion, which is one of the most interesting because it championed the cause of the GI Bill of 1944, one of the most generous and important social programs in all of American history.

CommonWealth: I guess we still see some evidence of these groups today. I just recently heard of the mayor of Chicopee singing the praises of his local Moose lodge, which came up with $3,000 that was needed to bail a school program out of some sort of crisis.

Skocpol: Yes, the Moose are still around, the Elks; we still see some Eagles, and of course the veterans’ associations. Their memberships are often aging, though, because younger people haven’t been joining the same way they used to.

CommonWealth: I guess, then, we hear about Grange halls when we get to the Iowa caucuses, but that’s about it.

Skocpol: In Maine, where I spend my summers, I’m actually a member of the Grange. It’s reinvented itself as a kind of community and environmental organization in parts of Maine, so it is recruiting some younger people again.

The newer national groups appeal mostly to “people who can write checks.”

CommonWealth: Is that right? Now you say that, at some point after the mid-20th century, organized civic life underwent a transformation of sorts. It was in that era you call the long 1960s, roughly from 1955 to 1975. Basically, the loosely structured social movements, beginning with the civil rights movement, pushed the established state federations off the national stage and gave rise to a new breed of civic organization. These were advocacy groups of various sorts, which eventually came to be managed by full-time professionals and funded by foundations rather than principally through dues-paying members. Even those with large memberships, such as AARP, had little role for member participation, other than making donations.

Skocpol: Yes, just send us a check.

CommonWealth: Some people have called them AstroTurf organizations, as opposed to grass-roots. What makes these groups different from the old federations as vehicles for civic engagement?

Skocpol: Well, of course, the old federations that I’ve talked about in complimentary terms, so far–because they tied together people across localities, as well as within local communities, and they built bridges across classes, because they usually recruited people from different occupational backgrounds–those groups had some flaws from our perspective today. They were usually racially exclusive. The white groups excluded blacks and all the blacks formed their own associations–very vital fraternal groups, for example, and religious groups–but they were racially separate. Men and women, also–usually, not always–met in separate voluntary associations in the old days. So, as you can imagine, when the ’60s came along–the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement–that [exclusivity] discredited many of these old voluntary federations in the eyes, especially, of younger people, who had new ideals. At the same time, we got new technologies. We got the ability to use computers for mailing lists, [a way] to ask people to join without personally contacting them. We got television as an informal form of communication that new associations could use to recruit followers. And the federal government in Washington became much more active in a whole variety of areas–civil rights legislation but also the new environmentalism and other new forms of social and economic regulation. All of those things placed a premium on forming an association that could claim to speak for large numbers of people but mainly be run out of an office in Washington, DC, or New York City. Some of those technological changes made it possible to organize a citizens group, for example, or a rights group, without forming chapters in every community across the land, and without asking people to join and contact their neighbors to join and pay dues, especially since foundations were often willing to give grants to set up these offices.

So we got a lot of professionally run associations, some of them with no members at all, others with members recruited through the mail [who] mainly provide checks. Sometimes they’re given a premium of some kind, like a T-shirt or a mug, but what people mainly get from these new advocacy groups is the sense that the group is doing an efficient job and a hard-fought job of representing its values in national politics. Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Many of us are members of one or more of these groups. They indeed do a pretty good job of lobbying Congress, contacting the media, and keeping on top of what’s going on in environmental legislation or, if you’re on the right, fighting for tax cuts. But what’s missing is that they don’t have any interaction with the members, and they don’t foster interaction among all of us in the process of building the association.

CommonWealth: That interaction, compared with the old federations, seems to be highly stratified, as well. These are very self-selecting kinds of groups, with members who are very similar in background and viewpoint, as opposed to the fraternal orders, and even older cause-related groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was perhaps the original single-issue organization but still had this broad social appeal in attracting members.

Skocpol: It turns out the WCTU took up a lot of issues along the way. The old associations usually combined having fun with doing some kind of community activity and maybe some politics occasionally. They didn’t just specialize in one or another of these things. That’s what made it possible for them to appeal to people from a wide variety of social backgrounds. In the late 19th century and the early to mid-20th century, it wasn’t really possible to form a very large association only consisting of upper-middle-class people. One of the things that’s happened since the ’60s and ’70s in the United States is that we’ve generated a huge upper middle class of highly educated people. In Massachusetts, we have more highly educated people than in any other state. Of course, that’s a very good thing. There’s been an opening up of opportunity for higher education. Maybe a quarter of the population is [college] educated, and a higher proportion in some states. Enough people so that you can actually create a national association mainly based on checks and on virtual participation–reading a newsletter–among those highly educated, upper-middle-class people. It turns out that many of the mailing list organizations, though you might think they could reach out to a broader range of people than some of the old groups did, actually are most attractive to highly educated and relatively well-to-do people–people who can write checks and people who are well educated enough, are discerning enough about politics, that they can understand what the advocacy group is doing in Washington. These groups are more specialized, so you have to really care about a political cause before you’d want to join. The downside is, these organizations turn out to be surprisingly stratified…. These groups are not including the average middle-class people and the blue-collar people who were often members, along with the more privileged, of the traditional associations. I don’t think anybody intended that, but it’s happened, and we need to be concerned about it.

CommonWealth: I find it interesting that your objection to President Bush’s faith-based initiative did not come from the typical grounds expressed by liberals–that religion is going to infiltrate government-funded programs and be proselytizing–but because of your fear of what it would do to the organized religions, that it will undermine one of the last remaining realms of civil society that still relies on voluntary, dues-paying membership and promotes fellowship among a broad local public.

Skocpol: I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do share some of the concerns about too much infiltration of religion into social policy. But I don’t think that’s the main thing that Americans in general should be worried about [concerning] the faith-based programs. I think we could have another round of unintended consequences. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, when we started asking state and local nonprofit agencies to be partners in the administration of secular social programs–it turns out that that was one of the forces that promoted the professionalization of many of our voluntary groups. In many local communities, we mean by voluntary groups a nonprofit social service agency, rather than an actual membership group, where people elect officers and come together to do joint activities. Churches are the one remaining area of civic life in America where people pay dues; they pay tithes or other contributions to their synagogues, churches, or mosques. Churches are, if not in every individual faith congregation, then at least across congregations, surprisingly class equal. Both privileged and less-privileged people participate actively –and less-privileged people participate very actively in churches. What will happen if we start asking ministers, priests, and moms to run social service agencies on the side? They’ll start writing applications to apply for grants. They’ll hire people to administer the programs. They’ll become less oriented to their flocks and more oriented toward doing what we really ought to have civil servants doing on behalf of all of us. So, I think the two critiques go hand in hand. But many conservatives agree with the critique, the worry, that I have articulated.

CommonWealth: Let’s get around to your prescription for what you think has gone wrong in our civic life, in particular the concern that our civic life has become overly professionalized and elitist in modern times. What you hope to see is the development of new models of association building, ones that combine the professional advocacy that has developed in the modern era with participatory membership that crosses social strata and also that achieves a sufficient scale and impact that it can be involved in issues that make a difference to people and not simply local socializing. Now, you’ve got some examples in your book of what you think point in that direction, but I have to say I’m not sure they give us much grounds for optimism, at least here in Massachusetts. The most convincing case that you make, to me, is that of Christian conservatism. In the Christian Coalition, you have that mix of a cohesive and cross-class membership base in fundamentalist congregations, put together with highly professional political techniques and mechanics on the national level.

Skocpol: The state level, too.

CommonWealth: That’s true, in many states. But in Massachusetts, there is not much of a base for that, either on the religious side or, even more so, on the political side. There is, however, a presence of the other church-based organizing model that you point to, in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and its related groups in Worcester, Lawrence, and Brockton. As much as I admire them and their work, though, I’m not sure they quite have achieved that ideal of a cross-class, urban/suburban mix that you ascribe to them. Also, I just wonder, with the decline in churchgoing rates–apart from the growth of fundamentalist Christianity elsewhere in the country but not here –whether religion can be counted on, in these parts anyway, to provide such links across social groups that can be brought into other forms of civic activity.

Skocpol: We aren’t going to go backward to the old, cross-class federations that have dwindled, and I agree with you that building off religious congregations…is not going to work everywhere or for everyone. But I would point to a couple of other realms where I think a certain amount of reinventing civic America, as I put it in Diminished Democracy, is going on. In the new labor movement, since the middle of the 1990s, the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney has made an effort to organize new workers but also to form stronger links between unions and other groups in the community, and between work life and family life for workers. And, of course, the labor movement is very active in state and national politics. So, we’re seeing some efforts at reinvention there. Some parts of the environmental movement I would also point to, and those are relevant to Massachusetts. For example, the Sierra Club has really made an effort to nurture and sustain its participatory chapters, at the same time that it’s a big presence in national lobbying and state lobbying. They’re constantly trying to figure out ways to get people involved in chapters or in volunteering activities. I think we might be able to learn some things from their ideas and experiences. We might have some possibility of creating new family movements out of places where families come together around children’s activities and for the care of children. Parents could come together for those things but also begin to address the needs of families in communities, state, and national politics. I could imagine the possibilities for creating those kinds of movements; it hasn’t happened yet.

CommonWealth: I think the environmental movement example is one of the most interesting ones. You suggest that within certain organizations, like the Sierra Club, you get these attempts to build local chapters, and to keep members engaged, and to reach out more. But there’s also the idea that within the environmental movement more broadly, there is a mix of recreational activity–some of that fun that groups like the WCTU might have incorporated into their organizational life–and not just the grim work of promoting your issue. I find that intriguing, the idea that it may not all be within a single organization that you get this kind of amalgam of activities, but bringing people together around some things that are fun can also be the basis for nurturing a common concern and connecting, however loosely, with nationally based, cause-related professional organizations. Very interesting.

Skocpol: If we think about it that way, there are even broader examples. The AARP [formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, but now going by the acronym alone], doesn’t have chapters–it’s trying to build some now, but it doesn’t have very many, compared to the 33 million or so members it has–but old people do come together in senior centers and social centers. If we think about old people, and all of the things they’re doing, they may well be socializing as well as following politics and participating in politics…. I don’t know that we’re likely to go back to the old multipurpose organizations. Organizations now are much more specialized. But one of the things we’d better learn from the past is that we need to make politics and civic life fun. Because if it’s just serious, it’s only going to attract those college-educated political junkies, and it’s not going to be much fun for them either.

CommonWealth: They might prefer to write a check, at that point.

Skocpol: And we could stand to have the Democratic Party be a little bit more fun, too. That’s the way it used to be.

CommonWealth: One of my favorite parts of Diminished Democracy is when you argue against much of what passes these days for political reform. In everything from campaign finance to media exposés, the goal of political reform seems to be getting “special interests” out of politics–an impulse you trace back to the Mugwumps, circa 1900. I must say, I’ve never heard anyone called a neo-Mugwump before, but that’s a neologism I very well might adopt.

Skocpol: My friends at Common Cause are not going to be happy with that.

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CommonWealth: You argue instead that what we really need is a lot more organized interests that channel ordinary people into the political arena. In fact, rather than trying to enact further limits on special-interest electioneering, on attempts by organized and monied forces to exert influence, you think we might well be better off tearing down the restrictions we have in place now.

Skocpol: We should be doing what we can to encourage broad movements and organizations that actually involve people in leadership positions, in meetings, in interactions between leaders and members–that have members, for that matter. We should be thinking of the goal of political reform as getting people into community life and politics, rather than getting money out. Now, there is too much money in politics, there is no question, but we’re not going to get the money all out. But if we got the people back in, that would put money more in its place…. We should think about political reforms, or new social norms, or tax policies, that will give a break to groups that actively involve people. If that advantages the Christian Right along with labor unions, that doesn’t bother me. I mean, much of our politics today consists of the Christian Right trying to pass laws to get labor unions out of politics, and the labor unions trying to pass laws to get the Christian Right out of politics. What would we be left with if they were both gone? We would be left with basically a politics that consists of a lot of professionals arguing with one another on television, calling us up to take polls at dinner time, and competing to win 51 percent of a dwindling voting base. I think we need to keep our eye on where the real problem is, and I don’t think it’s just money. It’s getting the people back in. That’s the real problem.