The Disengaged

Paul Starr

The American Prospect, Fall 1994, No. 19, 7-8.

David Hackett Fischer's new book, Paul Revere's Ride, is a cautionary tale for Democrats who expect their heroes to produce results overnight. The story of Paul Revere has come down to us as a tale of individual daring. In our national memory, he rides through the night single-handedly spreading the alarm about the redcoats to individual farmhouses. But, as Fischer shows, Revere was part of an extensive network. He was a member of five political organizations in Boston (only Joseph Warren belonged to as many), and he had served as a rider and emissary before. As we might say today, he was an organizer and a networker; he knew, quite literally, which doors to knock on. On the night of April 18, 1775, Revere and many fellow riders did not simply alert individuals; they "awakened the institutions of New England." Fischer explains:

The same was true, Fischer argues, of the fighting the next day. We imagine individual farmers firing their muskets at disciplined British Regulars--individuals versus the group--failing to realize that the minutemen fought controlled engagements as members of groups that had built up trust working together for political ends. "Here again," Fischer writes, "America remembers the individual and forgets the common effort."

Today, most of the institutions that have historically formed the basis of common effort--political clubs, community organizations, unions, and other civic associations--are in disrepair. We never had much of a tradition of honoring the patient work of political and civic organization. Now the very idea of affiliation in clubs and unions has become unattractive and unfashionable to a middle class that celebrates independence. But without groups built on mutual trust, people can have little sense of their own political efficacy. One of the most troubling developments of our time is not simply the declining confidence in politics. It is the growing attitude that politics is something "other"--an imposition, a parasitic growth. But if people do not regard the nation's civic and political life as their own, democracy becomes little more than the rules of a political game. Which is, of course, how many Americans have come to think of it.

To be sure, we have many national political, civic, and interest group organizations that claim millions of people as members. Their members, however, are generally only donors to direct-mail campaigns who have no active role in the organization and, perhaps more important, do not know each other. The organizations may speak on behalf of the public, or at least part of it, but at the ground level they are not built on a foundation of mutual trust among people who have learned how to work together.

Few Americans now invest much of their identity, much less time and commitment, in the civic sphere. "Public servants"--the term itself has come to connote ridicule--are presumed incompetent until proven otherwise. But who else among us has time for the community? In the past, much of the voluntary work of the civic sphere was performed by women without paying jobs and by men whose wives took full responsibility for the home. Both now come home from work--indeed, from a longer work week on average, as Juliet Schorr points out in her book The Overworked American--facing what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls "the second shift," the work and responsibilities of family life. They can barely find time to buy groceries, cook dinner, and catch up with their children's day at school. How can also they find time for a third shift--the evening meeting of the school board, the political club, the neighborhood association?

There are, to be sure, new and emerging forms of political communication and civic involvement. The Internet's far-flung discussion groups have created new connections and communities. One of the novel efforts to rebuild civic involvement today goes by the name of "civic networking" and involves the creation of local electronic networks linking citizens to each other and to public and voluntary organizations. Unlike direct mail, the new technology does permit real participation. Pending telecommunications legislation in Congress includes provisions that could help foster the revival of the civic sphere on the new information superhighway.

These are promising alternatives that deserve support, but it is hard to believe the new forms of electronic association will be an adequate substitute for the old-fashioned, face-to-face affiliations built on friendship, loyalty, and trust. For a century, middle-class progressives have regarded many of the organizations based on local or ethnic affinities with great skepticism, suspecting corruption, parochialism, and partisanship (as if they were all equally bad). But these organizations have given many people real access to the political system and provided accountability for political leaders. Without them, politics turns into another marketplace, dominated by candidate-entrepreneurs who prove most adept at assembling the resources, especially money and media advice, to wage campaigns that require no roots in the organized life of their constituents.

The attenuation of the civic sphere has been a continuing theme in these pages.* In different ways, several of the articles in this issue are about the same problems. As both Joshua Gamson and Jonathan Cohn argue, the shift toward tabloid TV news coverage succeeds where people do not identify their interests with the larger community or care enough to demand information about it. And, as Michael Schudson shows, our privatized and individualized conception of citizenship imposes burdens on voters they cannot possibly bear. Low and declining voter turnout stems not so much from failing individual motivations as from the frayed web of political affiliation. Voting, in fact, makes no rational sense as an individual act; any given individual's chance of influencing the outcome of an election is vanishingly small. People are more likely to participate as voters the more they think of themselves as members of extended groups and parties with common interests.

One of the great imperatives today is to rebuild the civic and political institutions that help sustain that sense of membership and engagement. Americans of a new generation must recreate the practice of democracy in a way that fits the new shape of our lives and our society. There is no simple recipe, but we must work at it as if our country depended on it. It does.

* See, especially, Richard M. Valelly, "Vanishing Voters," No. 1, Spring 1990; Karen Paget, "Citizen Organizing: Many Movements, No Majority," No. 2, Summer 1990; John B. Judis, "The Pressure Elite: Inside the Narrow World of Advocacy Group Politics," No. 9, Spring 1992; and Robert D. Putnam, "The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life," No. 13, Spring 1993.