Skocpol: Decline of civic groups has changed tone of public debate in U.S.

Harvard professor Theda Skocpol held up a sheet of paper during her keynote lecture Monday night on the USD campus to demonstrate a trend from the not so distant past that helped transform American society.

"As of the early 1960s, most Americans everywhere were avid participants in groups that might be called fellowship associations," she said. "They brought people together across many walks of life in some cases, or maybe it was just farmers or workers, and they were often based in lodges or clubs or posts that had a presence in virtually every community, in every neighborhood, across the entire United States."

Those "fellowship" groups had amazing staying power. "They started proliferating in the United States before the Civil War, and large numbers of them spread posts and clubs and lodges across nation from the time of the Civil War to the 1920s, which was the peak period for their growth," Skocpol said.

Even Henry, a small town located near Watertown, once could boast of a Progressive Study Club, organized at the turn of the 20th century. Skocpol held up a copy of a pamphlet printed by the club in the early 1900s that she discovered in her research.

"Those associations brought Americans together to pursue not just political or economic purposes, but often to exemplify certain kinds of moral ideals – what it meant to be a good person, or what it meant to be a good citizen," she said.

Today, the influence of those groups has declined, Skocpol said, because of several factors. Accompanying that decline is a drastic shift in the way American citizens address issues of public importance.

"These big cross-class membership federations, the brotherhood and sisterhood organizations that got involved and helped to shape good citizens in America – their decline and replacement with single-issue advocacy groups run by professionals has probably changed both the tone and the content of our public debate," she said. "Those big voluntary associations tended to look for causes or issues that benefited the vast middle of the country, and people of average opinion."

In contrast, today there are lots of groups "yelling" in politics. "You see them on the cable channels every night … they may not represent where average public opinion is on any side of the spectrum," Skocpol said. "Single-issue advocacy groups have an interest in creating anger and controversy and fear, and convincing people something bad has happened. That's how they get people to write checks, so naturally, they are giving loud voices to the extremes, and drowning out the average, common sense middle in many of these discussions."

Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, traveled to Vermillion to deliver the keynote address of the inaugural W.O. Farber Public Affairs Lecture Series in the Muenster University Center.

She also met with students and faculty during the day. Students involved in the university's Political Science League made her appearance possible.

Skocpol's keynote address, entitled "Voice and Inequality: The Transformation of American Civic Democracy," touched on the power of "belonging," of how through the years civic organizations, not simply government, has played a crucial role in shaping the nation's democracy.

"U.S. democracy has always been held up as a model," she said, "because of the role that organizers and joiners in voluntary associations play in shaping and supplementing the activities of our democratic government … this is a part of America – organizing, joining voluntary groups – that has been long celebrated. But I'm not sure it has been well understood.

"We tend to have a romantic vision of associations in the past; we think of them as local groups that were simply intimate collections of friends and neighbors," Skocpol said, "and we don't take into account some of the impacts they had on state and national life."

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, Americans launched more nationally visible associations than ever before in the history of the country, but late 20th century citizens, she said, stopped becoming such avid "joiners."

"They kept organizing, but they stopped joining to the same degree that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had done," Skocpol said. "They stopped, in particular, organizing and participating in membership associations that built bridges across places and brought citizens together across walks of life and lots of occupations."

Research has revealed that nearly half of all civic organizations in the 1950s and 1960s were business-related. However, she noted, data also shows that Americans of both genders and all levels of education were more likely to join and hold offices in voluntary associations than citizens of Great Britain or Germany.

Americans were unusually likely, compared to German or Britain citizens, to claim more and more membership in church-related associations, such as, for example, the Knights of Columbus, in civic groups, and fraternal groups.

And while most of these groups are identified closely with party politics, they have a history of shaping the nation's public affairs, she said.

"At the very least, groups often educated their members about the public issues of the day," Skocpol said. The women who belonged to the Progressive Study Club in Henry, for example, "were thinking about all of the national, state, local and international issues of their day."

One-half to two-thirds of the 20 largest membership associations in the 1950s were also directly involved in legislative campaigns or public crusades.

"The Fraternal Order of Eagles, which still has an aerie right here in Vermillion, actually championed the Social Security Act," she said. "The American Legion, the veterans group which would hardly qualify as a Socialist group, lobbied for one of the most generous public programs in all of American history – the GI Bill of 1944, which sent half of the returning veterans from World War II to college or post-high school training."

Skocpol described these groups as "brotherhoods and sisterhoods" that were involved in shaping citizens and often in shaping the public policy of the American democracy.

The Great Civic Transformation

Three simultaneous happenings have changed the role and impact these civic groups traditionally held for decades, she said.  

"Business groups lost ground compared to public interest groups, such as environmental associations, pro-choice and pro-life groups, rights groups of various kinds, good government groups, anti-tax groups, and pro-tax groups," Skocpol said. "Between 1960 and 1990, the number of nationally-visible organizations … went from 6,000 to 23,000. The share of business associations, though, shrank from 42 percent of the 6,000, to 17 percent of the 23,000."

Groups that were focused on social welfare and public affairs burgeoned from 6 to 17 percent.

"Another way of thinking about it," she said, "is that during a burst of organizing nationally visible groups in the late 20th century, the balance of organized voice shifted. There was more voice for various kinds of public interest or values-advocacy causes."

At the same time, many of the fellowship federations, fraternal and church-related groups that brought men and women together experienced a sharp decline in membership.

"The networks of local chapters became much more sparse," Skocpol said. "At the same time, elite professional associations didn't decline as much."

A third factor contributing to the nation's civic transformation, she said, is the founding of public interest advocacy associations in the 1970s and 1980s that were very different than civic groups of the past.

"Lots of new groups are organizing during this period, but they aren't drawing in members in the old way," Skocpol said.

Several factors contributed to these changes; perhaps the most notable was the Vietnam War, which caused many college students to turn away from the idea of military service. "That drove a wedge between the orientation of young men and their fathers and grandfathers," she said. "This coincided with the 'rights' revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. They were pivotal because they created new ideals of gender and race relations.

"That caused a lot of younger people not to want to belong to associations that had a long history of being organized separately by gender, or excluding non-whites from membership," Skocpol said.

Between 1960 and 1980, the federal government became more active in regulating economic and social life. "It kind of became a magnet for civic organizers to move to Washington, hire a staff, and talk to the bureaucrats," she said.

Over the last four decades, Skocpol said, American associational life became more pluralistic, more voices of all kinds were heard, with less business focus but at the same time it shifted away from popularly rooted groups and toward professionally-managed organizations.

"Today's advocacy groups are less likely than those traditional membership federations to draw masses of American citizens indirectly into politics. The truth is, most people, most of the time, don't care about politics," she said, "but in classic civic America, people could go to their club or lodge or post meeting for a social occasion, or they could go for cultural expression … but once there, people also often engaged in a charitable activity or heard about public causes and they could be engaged by their national or state leadership in lobbying the government for a farm program, an education program, or a veterans program. You could get indirectly enticed into political and public affairs."

Skocpol, who was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 2007, has served as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and as director of the Center for American Political Studies. In 1996, Skocpol served as president of the Social Science History Association, an interdisciplinary professional group, and in 2002-03, she served as president of the American Political Science Association during the centennial of this leading professional body.

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