- Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life
In Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, Theda Skocpol makes her most comprehensive contribution to current debates about civic engagement in the US. Her accessible analysis treats all of the significant issues raised in these debates, especially whether civic engagement has recently declined among Americans; if so, why; and, if so again, with what consequences for democratic governance. She argues most importantly that the nature of American civic life has changed dramatically since the 1960s as federated membership organizations have given way to professionally managed advocacy groups and non-profits more interested in recruiting donors than members. [End Page 1170] The change has, according to Skocpol, diminished democracy most obviously by restricting public power more than ever to a professional/business elite and producing policies that increasingly favor the privileged.
Skocpol's conclusions rest on a history of American voluntary organizations rather than on the more recent survey data favored by many other participants in the conversation about civic life. This strategy permits her to see not only whether the number of meetings among Americans has declined recently but also how associational forms have changed. Her history shows that between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth, federated membership organizations dominated civic life in the US. These organizations included fraternal societies like the Masons, religious organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and veterans' groups like the American Legion as well as labor organizations, business groups, and the PTA.
These associations greased the wheels of democratic governance in many ways. First, they convened members from a wide range of occupations, providing a site for cross-class acquaintance and exchange. This was particularly true of the fraternal societies and veterans groups. Second, the structure and practices of these groups mimicked that of government in the US: local groups elected their leaders (and lots of them) for short terms; those groups sent delegates to regional or state associations; and the intermediate groups elected delegates to a national body. These organizations thus trained members in democratic practices that ranged from expressing and mediating conflicting opinions through conducting elections to serving in office. Moreover, almost all of these groups at some point aimed explicitly to affect public policy, and, being general interest groups that provided regular opportunities for members to convene, they opened spaces where ordinary people might actually define issues of shared concern or articulate positions on such issues and then have channels through which to introduce them to wider publics, ultimately influencing general public opinion and policy. Through these federated, membership organizations, ordinary people exercised public power.
Since the 1960s, however, these kinds of groups have declined, and they have been replaced especially by non-profits and advocacy groups. The newer groups are not run democratically; they often have no members. They are operated by paid staffs of professionals. Issues are identified and decisions made by these experts, who then solicit donations to support their lobbying efforts or delivery of services. Ordinary citizens might well pay dues or fill out surveys for these organizations, but they do not join together to formulate issues or hammer out policy positions themselves. Democracy has understandably weakened with the diminution of federated groups that provided practice in democratic skills; opportunities for cross-class discussion; and connections through which ordinary people might influence public opinion and policy.
According to Skocpol, many trends have converged to produce this change. Social movements of the 1960s participated by producing new organizations that focused on lobbying and service provision. These groups displaced older kinds of civic organization in part because of changing opportunities for influencing policy: proliferating administrative agencies, congressional committees, and kinds of court cases provided new points of influence that did not require mobilizing mass memberships. New career paths played a role as well. Since WW II, the [End Page 1171] professional elite ballooned from 1to 12stratum, now including women who once led federated organizations, allied increasingly with business groups rather than with a receding clerical...