Democracy Takes Practice

This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily on April 24, 2019.

It’s clear that one problem with our country is a declining amount of social capital. Americans don’t belong to as many clubs or civic organizations as they used to and are increasingly spending time staring at their smartphones rather than talking with other people. They get most of their information from news feeds that reinforce their views and then feel they have to vent their opinions by screaming (or worse) at people they don’t know.

Yoni Applebaum, the Atlantic’s politics editor, does a good job in this piece in explaining the problem of declining social capital. But he comes up with a solution that is, in my view, extremely wrongheaded.

As Applebaum notes, in the nineteenth century Americans belonged to lots of clubs, many of which had complicated structures that required a thorough knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order. In 1888, the British statesman Lord James Bryce remarked that “associations are created, extended, and worked in the United States more quickly than any other country.” University of Georgia president Walter B. Hill wrote in 1892 that he had studied a small town and “found that every man, woman, and child (above ten years of age) in the place held an office—with the exception of a few scores of flabby, jellyfish characters.” America, Hill declared, was “a nation of presidents.”

Applebaum’s point is that someone who presides over a club or a lodge has excellent training to run for public office.

But clubs declined in the 20th century for several reasons. One, as University of Alabama historian David T. Beito noted in From Mutual Aid To The Welfare State(1992), was that fraternal orders had many of their functions superseded by the post-1933 welfare state. When the 20th century began people joined fraternal orders not just for fellowship, but also for such benefits as help with funeral expenses and discounts on visits to doctors.

When the state began to provide these benefits, membership in clubs declined. Beito shows that African-American lodges in particular declined as the welfare state advanced.

A second reason for the decline in clubs, as Applebaum shows, comes from the work of Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol. Skocpol notes that many large organizations decided to transform themselves from organizations that did things to ones that collect checks. Seventy-five years ago people joined the Sierra Club or the National Audubon Society to hike in the woods or to look at birds. Now these groups simply collect dues.

An example Applebaum provides is the AARP, most of whose members join to get discounts on hotels or medicines and not to participate in local chapters. In fact, I had no idea that the AARP had chapters until I read Applebaum’s piece.

Applebaum notes that in April 2016 the Atlantic conducted a poll with the firm PRRI that said that, among Republican voters surveyed who said they belonged to no clubs or associations, Donald Trump was favored by 52 percent, compared to 29 percent supporting Sen. Ted Cruz and 27 percent favoring Gov. John Kasich.

I suspect these percentages are reasonably close to those of other polls at the time and, as a result, this poll doesn’t tell us anything about the decline of voluntary associations.

How are we going to get more Americans out of the house and into a club? Applebaum’s answer is…more student government.

“Young Americans of all backgrounds deserve the chance to write charters, elect officers, and work through the messy and frustrating process of self-governance,” Applebaum writes.

It’s probably true that the nerds who enjoy fighting over student government budgets have an excellent future in politics. But most of the time student government doesn’t matter. It doesn’t persuade principals or vice-principals to change their minds. Moreover, the most clubbable high school students these days are the ones burnishing their resumes for college admissions officers, and these students want to join a maximum number of clubs that take a minimum amount of time.

It would be better if there was a way to make sure that local governments heard citizens’ views and that people knew that politicians could change their minds based on the opinions of the people.

I was reminded of a symposium the Bradley Center held in 2012 about the scandals in Bell, California, a small town whose leaders managed to award themselves a massive amount of money. In 2010 the Los Angeles Times exposed the scheme, and by 2014, seven members of the Bell city government went to prison, most for one year, but the two ringleaders received 12-year sentences.

Rick Cohen summarized the Bradley panel in a piece for Nonprofit Quarterly. He quoted Pete Peterson, of Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute, as noting that the traditional format of city council meetings was where bored politicians listened to people with issues vent for three minutes. That format, Peterson said, was “flypaper for whack jobs” that accomplished very little.

Cohen also noted the comments of another panelist, Chris Gates, of the group Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, as noting that there is “a severe lack of places where people can feel like they’ve been heard.”

Gates raises an excellent point. How do we come up with ways short of voting where politicians can work with constituents to solve community problems?

Until we answer this question, democracy will continue to decline and social capital will be depleted, no matter how busy high school student governments happen to be.

Martin Morse Wooster†

Wooster was a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor…
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