The Disengaged

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 midnight riders went systematically about the task of engaging town leaders
    and military commanders of their region. They enlisted its churches and
    ministers, its physicians and lawyers, its family networks and voluntary
    associations. Paul Revere and his fellow Whigs of Massachusetts understood,
    more clearly than Americans of later generations, that political institutions
    are instruments of human will, and amplifiers of individual action.

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

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.

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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

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.

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