Policy Today magazine cover
August 9, 2006

Americans' ability to come together is part of the country's democratic bedrock. But are we trading our bonds of association for "checkbook advocacy groups" and civic disconnection?

Americans have always been excellent congregators. From the Revolutionary War to the Million Man March, our essential ability to unite has maintained our democratic tradition and shaped our national character, even as the contours of our associations change and develop. Our "clubs" have traditionally included churches, professional associations, trade unions, employers and local community groups, but advanced technology has made virtually any type of association not only possible, but easy and relatively cheap.

America's first sociologist, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote: "In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America. There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society." The group serves as a conduit of organized social power. Groups and associations focus individual action toward productive ends.

So, are Americans really better at linking up with one another than citizens from other countries? It would be difficult to say that they are, but it takes very little effort to see that pluralism—the notion that the state is less an association of individuals than an association of co-equal and cooperating groups—is one of the core principles embedded in the constitutional structure. In many ways, Americans behave according to these constitutional parameters.

Democracy assumes the existence of a multitude of different groups and interest groups. Madison criticized the destabilizing effect of competing factions, but their existence also added a means of social control to the national government's carefully circumscribed political authority. In a state in which authority was widely diffused and which relied heavily on the voluntary cooperation of its members to maintain order, these factions and associations served many important functions of social control and social action. Indeed, the republic's political mechanisms are specifically designed to balance internal conflict between competing factions, not necessarily to harmonize them.

The decline of American pluralism?

While celebrating the American ability to form associations, de Tocqueville famously decried individualism as catastrophic for the democratic process. Some experts now think that Americans have lost this associational ability, and that they are becoming increasingly isolated and lonely, all of which could be disastrous for their civic engagement.

And even for those who think America's penchant for forming associations continues unabated, there's another issue: the intent and purpose of the organizations that now occupy the national stage. Political action committees, 527 organizations, and single issue advocacy groups targeting the political and electoral processes themselves have replaced the give and take of open-minded discussion. It should come as little or no surprise, then, that the intense polarization in our legislative bodies simply mirrors the shrill discourse that increasingly characterizes American society at large.

How do we measure civic engagement?

One answer comes from Robert Putnam, whose 1995 Journal of Democracy essay, "Bowling Alone," initiated a lively debate fueled by his book of the same title, published five years later. Putnam's central thesis is that a decline in American civic engagement could be measured by both the decline in voting and the decline in associational membership. According to Putnam, "Membership records of such diverse organizations as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labor unions, and even bowling leagues show that participation in many conventional voluntary associations has declined by roughly 25% to 50% over the last two to three decades." He connected membership in these organizations with other types political engagement, stating "Surveys show sharp declines in many measures of collective political participation, including attending a rally or speech (off 36% between 1973 and 1993), attending a meeting on town or school affairs (off 39%), or working for a political party (off 56%)."

Michael Schudson, a Professor of Communication at UC San Diego who has written widely in response to Putnam's ideas, states Putnam's point simply: "In the latter years, there were just as many people who had bowled as in the earlier period, but fewer of them bowled in leagues. In truth, they weren't bowling alone; they were bowling with friends but the notion was that we've lost that Tocquevillian interest or capacity to bond with others."

Certainly a startling piece of analysis, but is it true? Many analysts think so. In fact, Putnam's article resonated not only with sociologists and political scientists, but it also scored him a readership far outside of academia, even getting him invited to Camp David to advise President Clinton on American civic engagement. Only one serious article that disputed Putnam's numbers emerged. Written by Nick Lemann and titled "Kicking in Groups," it contradicted Putnam by focusing on nontraditional associations and other kinds of community involvement, such as youth soccer leagues, which have witnessed dramatic increases in participation. Lemann also argued that community engagement could be demonstrated in the increased number of restaurants, and the number of small businesses which has more than doubled since 1970. The trouble with the last two examples given by Lemann, however, is that the growth of fast food restaurants has driven both increases, and one could hardly argue that fast food restaurants increase civic engagement.

William Galston, a political theorist who was the Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy under President Clinton, agrees. "There has been a decline in various kinds of associational activity," he says. "This is something that is empirically demonstrable." When pressed for examples of this decline, Galston sites Putnam's book and gives some examples of his own: "The most obvious example is voting, but there are a number of non-voting forms of political engagement which were a lot more robust 30 or 40 years ago, very simple things like putting up yard signs, going to political meetings and rallies, talking with other people about your political ideas and candidate preferences, etc."

There are some organizations that have risen to take the place of traditional associations, but Putnam argued that these did not contradict his thesis. In contrast to the associations he mentioned (the Elks Club, Rotary, League of Women Voters, and VFW), Putnam argued there were also "mailing list" organizations, among the ranks of which he included AARP and the Sierra Club. These organizations he argued were "highly significant in political (and commercial) terms," but they were "not really a counterexample to the supposed decline in social connectedness, since these are not really associations in which members meet one another." In short, these organizations did not increase social connectedness, what Putnam called "social capital."

Galston characterizes the relationship one has with an organization such as the Sierra Club or AARP in similar terms. "You might have an email relationship with a national office from time-to-time," he says, "but it's usually one way." He contrasts this to "the heyday of the voluntary association," where "the dominant organizations had local groups and people actually met face-to-face."

Many theorists have been quick to criticize these "checkbook organizations," where, according to Michael Schudson, "What you do to be a member is write a check and get a newsletter." Schudson reiterates Galston's point, pointing out that "These organizations may have their value, but they are essentially run by elites headquartered in Washington. They're not genuinely democratic and participatory in the way that the VFW or the American Legion or others, including PTAs, had been."

Okay. Maybe direct associational membership has declined and "checkbook organizations" now abound, but what does this mean for the individual voter? Some theorists, including Putnam and Galston, connect these trends to deeper sociological trends. In a report published in June, it emerged that the number of people with whom Americans feel able to discuss important things has dropped by one-third, down from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 people in 2004. Putnam's book predicted this kind of isolation, and he was mentioned widely in relation to the study.

Fundamentally, many sociologists and political theorists believe that this all spells trouble for political discourse in America. "At the associational level," Galston believes, "a number of social processes have pushed us in the direction of greater individualism, even solitude, even loneliness. We have more people living alone than ever before, for instance." If these theorists are right, our political discussion may be further skewed by interest groups and become even more fractious and polarized. Such an outcome may have been exactly what de Tocqueville feared, prompting him to remark, "The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money."

About Erik D. Aker

Erik D. Aker is a professor of humanities and freelance journalist from San Diego, California.