- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003


By Theda Skocpol

University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95, 366 pages


Many years ago, I fell into the habit of joining imaginary organizations. From time to time, depending on the pomposity level of the cocktail party I was attending, I have been:

President, STABB, Society for the Total Annihilation of Beanie Babies.

Executive Director, AAAAPM, “QuadrupleA/PM,” the American Association for the Advancement of Applied PeripheroMetrics (Our motto: “If It’s Far Enough Out, We’ll Measure It”).

Senior Logothete, Anarchic Chaotic Licentious Utopians, (ACLU).

And most recently, Associate Visiting Carnivore, Protesters Enjoying Talking Angry (PETA).

But now comes a new endeavor. APPROACH. Articulate Perceptive Persons Resolutely Opposed to American Civic Hypochondria.

Thanks, Theda. I couldn’t have done it without you.

The Theda just acknowledged is the prolific and engaging Theda Skocpol, Harvard political scientist/sociologist and well-known commentator on American society, social policy, and all matters there unto pertaining. “Diminished Democracy” is not her best effort, if only because it started out in life as a University of Oklahoma lecture series, and lectures don’t always transition well into books. Still, there is absolutely nothing wrong with “Diminished Democracy.” It’s clear, straightforward, solid, logical.

The problem is the (expletive deleted) genre.

It all seems to have started 50 years ago, with David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd.” Ever since, academics, pundits, and politicians have bemoaned the increasing isolation of Americans from each other, especially their ever-diminishing propensity to join the “voluntary civic associations” which, according to Tocqueville — Would congress please pass a 10-year moratorium on quoting Tocqueville? — provide the essential foundation of American democracy.

By the 1980s, bewailing the isolation had become a veritable fixture of American intellectual life. “Habits of the Heart,” a multi-author sociological study that drew heavily on Tocqueville, provided the template. More recently, there’s been another template, Robert Putnam’s insanely over-statistical “Bowling Alone.”

Meanwhile, any number of studies purport to prove that, not only are Americans no longer a nation of joiners, but when they do join (which they do avidly), it’s the wrong kinds of groups — either self-interested, undemocratic advocacy organizations or trivial, self-obsessed “small groups” such as fundamentalist Bible study or ASAP, Adult Survivors of Adequate Parents, for people who can’t blame it all on Mom & Dad.

Could we please stop all the kvetching and just take a look at what is?

Ms. Skocpol doesn’t kvetch. At least, not much. And “Diminished Expectations” does indeed offer some worthwhile insights and prescriptions.

The writer starts with a bit of historical revisionism. Contrary to Tocquevillian myth, the American penchant for voluntary association was never exclusively, or even primarily, local. From the early national period on, most of the important local organizations were actually part of national and transnational federations: churches, lodges and fraternal organizations, unions, mutual-aid, charity, and reform groups. Many modeled themselves after the federal government; many arose and thrived in response to national crises, especially war; many even served as governmental adjuncts. Further, although these groups were officially nonpartisan and/or apolitical, they often took a lively interest in political affairs.

Then people stopped joining. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the size and power of these groups waned rapidly. To some extent, this may have been due to the fact that the Greatest Generation was “abnormally civically involved.” But many other factors were involved, most notably the tandem of an ever-expanding federal government and the rise of a professional managerial/expert class.

To simplify: Mass membership institutions became less effective at getting things done than professionally-run, government and foundation-funded, mass mediated, hyper-marketed advocacy and lobbying groups. Memberships were reduced to mailing lists, and to less than mailing lists. When anybody could set up claiming to “represent” some group or some cause or other, real human beings often became more of a hindrance than an asset.

Ms. Skocpol deplores this devolution, but also finds the standard communitarian and political reform responses lacking. Her solution is not to return to some mythical past that never existed — local, apolitical involvement — nor to erect ever greater barriers to citizen participation in politics, but to reinvigorate the past that did exist. Three proposals seem especially striking. First, “memberless” organizations should consider becoming federated membership organizations with local chapters. Second, barriers between political and apolitical activity need to be lowered, not raised. And third, we need, somehow, to generate sufficient leaders who want to generate sufficient followers.

An intriguing idea, but not immediately practicable. I suggest therefore that Ms. Skocpol join my new outfit, APPROACH, the American Public Project to Restore, Orchestrate, and Achieve Civic Harmony.

It’ll be a start.

Philip Gold is president of Aretea, a Seattle-based policy and cultural affairs center.

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