Unsolved Mysteries: The Tocqueville Files

Robert Putnam's analysis of the decline of civic engagement suggests that Americans have become a nation of couch-potatoes, turning to television for solitary entertainment, leaving bowling leagues, PTA meetings, and the Rotary Club behind. If true, this shift to homebody-ness entails a vast cost to public spirit. A long line of democratic theory stretching from Thucydides to Tocqueville suggests that a dynamic and diverse polity requires civic engagement, else threats to liberty and prosperity emerge.

As compelling as Putnam's argument is, he has left out the organizations that draw people into political participation--parties, groups, and movements. Like some analysts of voter behavior who ask whether citizens are more or less likely to participate depending on such factors as level of education, income, and age, Putnam assumes civic activity depends largely on traits and dispositions outside the polity. In keeping with this view, Putnam "holds constant" the political organizational context of civic engagement for the period 1920 to 1996. But does that make sense in light of the enormous changes in parties and groups since 1920?

Analyses of voter behavior can shed some light on this issue. The best work on voter turnout, Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen's Mobilization, Participation, and American Democracy, shows that people don't just come to politics; politics also comes to people. The institutional setting affects who participates and how; voter traits matter much less than commonly thought. Between 1960 and 1988 voter turnout declined about 11 percentage points in presidential elections. Rosenstone and Hansen demonstrate that the weakened social involvement that Putnam describes, along with the declining age of the electorate, accounted for about 35 percent of the turnout decline. But they found that 54 percent of the drop was due to what they call "decline in mobilization." Personal contact with voters gave way to television advertising, states moved their gubernatorial campaigns to "off" years, primaries proliferated, leaving fewer resources for mobilization during general campaigns, and the civil rights and student movements weakened.

So we can't talk about the drop in voting without talking about how galvanizing parties and movements are. The 65 percent decline in unionization since 1954, for example, has critically reduced resources for mobilizing voters. Many analysts of union decline point to the rise of consulting firms that specialize in "union avoidance," sharp increases in unfair labor practices among management, the limitations of labor laws and their enforcement, and labor's strategic errors in the face of economic change. Civic disengagement has not caused trade union decline; trade union decline has caused civic disengagement.

Putnam's indictment of television is deeply and appropriately Tocquevillian. Tocqueville warned that individualism could pull Americans into private concerns and leave us vulnerable to the degradation of public life. If Putnam is right, then Tocqueville's prophecy is now urgent. Alternatively, though, the polity may have abandoned the people. Imagine if unions still organized torchlight parades on Labor Day during a presidential election year; if presidential candidates came to town in motorcades and waved at supporters, stopping to shake their hands and kiss their children; and if local party politicians, church leaders, and others contacted voters personally asking for support for one candidate or another. Amidst all this activity wouldn't you be more likely to run into someone who asked you to bowl with his league? Or invited you to come to a meeting of an investment club? Mightn't you be more trusting of the world at large? The television might be on at the bowling alley, and on election night you might watch the returns on TV at the American Legion hall or gathered with friends. But you wouldn't be a couch-potato citizen.

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So maybe it's not that the people have lost interest in the polity, seduced by Friends one night and Frasier another. Maybe the polity, as it were, has lost interest in the people. It's not that Americans are tuning out. They're being left out.

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