Friday, September 21, 2007

Civically Disengaged

As a kid, I remember seeing Fred and Barney go to their fraternal lodge meetings on the Flintstones. Our community was filled with a broad variety of groups that cheerfully did volunteer work: the local Civic League, Kiwanis, Elks, Jaycees, Shriners, Lions, Rotary and a host of others. There was a smattering of home-grown volunteer groups as well. Many of these clubs/organizations were exclusively for males or for females.

Many of the volunteer organizations that were around when I was a kid are still around today. But almost all of them have seen declining membership as well as significant aging of remaining members. It’s not just fraternal organizations that have seen declining membership; it cuts across all kinds of organizations, including bowling leagues, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and labor unions.

This phenomenon is not new. American demographer Dan Frost reported at length on this issue in 1996. Frost cites Robert Putnam (who recently made the news with his study that shows the serious impacts of diversity on society — see here) as saying that the loss of vitality of these civic organizations constitutes a serious loss of “social capital.”

Putnam notes that those born prior to 1945 were substantially more civic minded than those born after that time. He cites a general trend toward disengagement.

Why has this happened? Part of it has to do with the mass movement of women into the workforce. Americans have become uncomfortable with single-sex organizations. Although women still do most of the work at home, men have accepted many more domestic duties than their fathers did. Thus, they have less free time to devote to pursuits outside of the home and family.

The whole of our society has become less formal as people have sought out more flexibility. People are less comfortable with conformity. People of the boomer generation and younger aren’t into special handshakes, funny hats, and mandatory meetings.

Another factor is mobility. People are far more mobile than ever before. It takes time to sink roots in any new location. Increasing diversity, as Putnam’s recently released study shows, decreases interpersonal and communal trust, even among people that are most alike, resulting in people drawing inward and away from social connections. The tendency increases with population density.

Putnam says, however, that the biggest factor in civic disengagement is TV. He said that back in 1996 before many people were connected on the Internet. Going online can be far more interactive than TV. It can even lead to civic discussion and coordination. But certainly not in the same way or at the same level as involvement in traditional civic organizations.

People also have more offerings competing for their discretionary time than ever before. And people have more capacity to take advantage of those opportunities than ever before. But every such opportunity competes for a finite resource: personal free time. And by extension, that means family together time.

All of this leads to a diminution of the sense of civic responsibility that was dominant among the pre-boomer generation. Consequently, people have turned JFK’s request on its head. They continuously ask what government can do for them rather than what they can do for their country/state/city. No, that’s not quite right. They demand that government satisfy their whims rather than being pro-active in bettering their country.

Politicians respond by campaigning on expanding government, much to the delight of their constituents. And then they raise taxes to cover those expanded services, always couching the increases in terms of discretionary things. They claim it’ll only cost as much as one Big Mac a week or one can of soda pop a day. They never say that it’ll only cost two weeks of groceries or a month’s dosage of a critical medication.

Voters, too busy with other matters, often go along or aren’t informed enough to even know that taxes are being raised. Regulatory agencies get into the act by raising taxes as well in the form of fees with no debate whatsoever.

A properly functioning democratic republic requires citizens that do their civic duties. Civic disengagement ultimately leaves a political class in charge of more of our lives than we ever thought possible, and without adequate checks and balances. We need to teach citizens both the importance of doing their civic duties and how to go about doing them in every possible venue. Otherwise we bequeath a faulty legacy to the next generation.


Frank Staheli said...

My dad and a lot of people were involved in the Lions' Club when I was growing up. I don't even know if it exists anymore. I know of one person in my city who USED to be a Lion, but I don't think he is anymore.

In the information age, I feel such a bombardment with a need to know everything (internet news and blogs, books, newspapers, etc.) that I don't think I would have time to be in such an organization. I've been invited to be in the Sons of Utah Pioneers, and it's a really neat organization, but so far, I've only been able to make it to one meeting in the last several months.

y-intercept said...

Those fuddy duddy old civic clubs will all die out soon. Civic mindedness is best manifested by mass protest demanding services from a centralized government than by groups that go out and does stuff.

Once we have socialized medicine, the need for all of the groups you named will mysteriously vanish. You just wait and see. It will be a paradise on earth.

Instead of leading balanced lives where we are involved in our communities. I think we should be burdened with really high taxes and have the government take care of us.

That getting involved in the community thing is best left to professional government paid employees.

Charles D said...

While I agree that Americans have become civically disengaged, that is hardly responsible for an increase in the desire to have government provide assistance to citizens. A cursory look at history will prove the exact opposite: the more Americans have been engaged with one another and in the political process, the more they have demanded that government respond to the needs of the people.

Charles D said...

To continue my prior comment, I think it is clear that the periods of strongest pressure from the citizenry to have government actually serve their needs (as proven by the fact that government responded) were during the Great Depression and during the height of the civil rights movement. Both eras exemplified citizen civic involvement at a high degree.

Civic disengagement does leave the political class without adequate checks and balances. However, the political class at present consists of those who fund the elections of our alleged representatives. That political class opposes further government assistance to individual citizens because it diminishes their potential profits. We appear to differ here in who we think is a member of the political class.

I would submit that the political system is run by those who pay for it, not by its consumers.

y-intercept said...


I am happy to see you figured out one of the paradoxes of big government. There is a moment of great civic involvement followed by a strong push for a single solution. Everybody is happy for a bit, then the next generations find that they are disenfranchised living with an oppressive system that cannot influence.

It is difficult to find something that is sustainable through the generations.

Charles D said...

Not so fast, Y. The oppressive system that cannot be influenced by the public is not a result of government programs to help the public. It is rare for an ordinary citizen to consider himself oppressed by a program that provides important benefits to him.

The programs are generally reversed because the public disengages again due to the fact that their lives have improved due to the government programs. Then the corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues move in and start cutting the program funding, appointing political hacks to run them, making it more difficult to obtain benefits, etc. Once they ruin the program through these efforts, they all yell "See, big government doesn't work" and kill the program.

Then the cycle begins again.