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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