Unsolved Mysteries: The Tocqueville Files

Any social change as broad gauged as that
sketched in "The Strange Disappearance of
Civic America
" is surely complex--with multiple causes, conflicting
countertrends, and uncertain consequences--so I welcome a lively discussion of
these issues, especially with interlocutors as sophisticated as those in this
symposium. In my view, four central questions must be considered:
1. Is it
true that civic engagement has declined in the last few decades--that is, have
Americans' connections with their communities become attenuated? My 1995 article
on "Bowling Alone" surveyed this issue, and "Strange
Disappearance" briefly reviewed the evidence. This is the central question
addressed by Schudson.

2. If so, why has it happened? "Strange Disappearance" was a
first attempt to sort through some possible answers to this question. Schudson,
Skocpol, and Valelly all respond in part to this question.
3. Does it
matter? That is, does civic engagement (or its absence) actually have
significant consequences for the health of our communities? This question has
not been debated thus far, and I shall here assume--like my critics here--that,
for the most part, the answer is "yes." However, "civic
engagement" comes in many forms, some healthful and others not, so
exploring the diverse consequences of those different forms will be a central
concern of my larger project.
4. What can we do about it? This is, in many
respects, the question that most concerns me. It is the focus of a gathering
debate in conservative circles, but until now it has been ignored by
progressives. I am thus delighted that it is at the core of Skocpol's

First, has anything changed? Americans engage
with our communities and with one another in many different forms--in families,
around the water cooler, at church, on the street corner, over the barbecue, in
voluntary associations, in political gatherings, and myriad other settings. No
single archive records all these encounters, but I have tried to pull together
as diverse an array of evidence as possible--multiple surveys, membership
records, time budgets and so on--in order to detect and decipher underlying
trends, without limiting my attention to a single sphere, such as politics. The
title "Bowling Alone" was chosen precisely to suggest that civic
disengagement in contemporary America is not primarily a political phenomenon,
although of course it has powerful political consequences. (By way of analogy,
neither universal education nor television is primarily a political phenomenon,
although both have had powerful political consequences.)

Politics, however, is the focus of the critiques by Schudson and
Valelly, and I am happy to address it. I am not the first scholar to notice a
decades-long slump in many forms of political engagement. Valelly correctly
cites, for example, Rosenstone and Hansen, whose pathbreaking work (as modestly
extended in my own) shows substantial declines in such activities as attending
meetings on community affairs or working for political parties. Equally
ominously, interest in political and social issues among students entering
college reached a 30-year low last fall.

The forms of engagement that have resisted this trend--political contributions,
civil litigation, talk radio, membership in "mailing-list" and "single-issue"
lobbies, such as the AARP or the NRA, and so on--are without doubt politically
significant, and they betoken a widespread recognition of the power of politics,
for good or ill. Americans have not stopped trying to influence government,
even though most of us are increasingly skeptical about our chances of success.

For the most part, however, these rising forms of political engagement rest on
a constricted notion of citizenship--citizen as disgruntled claimant, not
citizen as participant in collective endeavor to define the public interest.
Just as much of our community service today is "drop-by," much of our
politics is "surf-by" and "call-in." We are no less free
with our opinions, but we are listening to each other less. We are shouting and
pressuring and suing, but we are not reasoning together, not even in the
attenuated sense that we once did, with people we know well and will meet again
tomorrow. Financial capital grows in political importance, while social capital
declines. To those Americans who have more money than time, this may seem a mere
change in coinage, but the transformation is fundamentally debasing our

Schudson is surely right that there was something special about "the long
civic generation"--that is, after all, why I labeled it such--and he and
Skocpol are both right that levels of civic engagement have risen and fallen in
the tides of American history. In fact, the unusual civic engagement among
Americans raised in the first half of this century was probably the fruit of a
period of civic revitalization around the turn of the century. (I am currently
engaged in research on precisely this question, in the hopes of uncovering
lessons relevant to our current predicament.) If Schudson believes, however,
that contemporary progressives should rest content with today's post-civic,
Reaganite "normalcy," then I dissent.

Assuming for the moment that social connectedness has in fact atrophied in
recent years, what could explain that trend? My greatest regret about "Strange
Disappearance," I confess, is that its formulation seems to have invited
hasty readers to conclude that I propose a simple-minded, mono-causal
explanation--the boob tube as the root of all evil. I do believe that television
has had a profoundly negative affect on community bonds in America, but I do not
believe (and I did not write) that it is the sole culprit. (In the longer
published version of my essay from which TAP excerpted "Strange
Disappearance," I wrote that "like Agatha Christie's Murder on the
Orient Express
, this crime may have had more than one perpetrator, so that
we shall need to sort out ringleaders from accomplices.") My references in "Strange
Disappearance" to the Zeitgeist of World War II, to the changing role of
women in America, to altered family structures, and so on, should perhaps have
been less fleeting. More important, I agree with all three critics that those of
us investigating this puzzle should look more systematically for evidence of
what Skocpol calls "structural" effects, what Valelly terms "organizational
context," and what Schudson felicitously calls "spark plugs"--in
short, the supply side of civic life, as well as the demand side.

On the other hand, I would not automatically upgrade this hypothesis from "plausible"
to "proven," for I have met too many conscientious leaders of
community organizations around the country who are despondent about their
inability, despite heroic efforts, to reverse the slow ebbing of their members'
involvement--spark plugs in an engine running out of fuel. Moreover, the
organizational supply or "spark plug" theory is more plausible for
some forms of disengagement (political parties and women's clubs, for example)
and much less so for others (fraternal groups and bowling leagues, for example).
Finally, even if civic disengagement did begin among erstwhile "spark
plugs," rather than among organizational backbenchers, the leaders'
withdrawal still needs explanation and (if disengagement matters) remediation. "Shifting
elite allegiances" is a label (or an epithet), not an explanation or

Subscribe to The American Prospect

So what is to be done? So far the recent debate
on how to restore social connectedness has been, as Skocpol says, largely a
monopoly of the right. One important merit of Skocpol's important essay is
precisely that it opens up this issue on the left. Another is that she brings
historical evidence to bear on contemporary debates. For good historical
reasons, progressives should resist the view, now being articulated by some
simple-minded reactionaries, that government can be replaced by "civil
society." As I wrote in this journal three years ago (rather plainly, I
thought, and in italics, no less): "Social capital is not a substitute for
effective public policy but rather a prerequisite for it and, in part, a
consequence of it."

That said, progressives cannot allow ourselves to be pushed into the position
that government energy can replace civic vitality or that grassroots
connectedness does not matter. Surely we do not need to rehearse sterile
academic debates about "the state" versus "civil society,"
for both are plainly important. What we need instead is a thorough, empirically
grounded debate about how to revitalize civic engagement.

Public policy will be part of the answer, as I wrote three years ago. Take a
single contemporary example: Neighborhood crime watch groups seem to be a
notable exception to the general decline in social connectedness over the last
quarter century, and most such groups emerged from community crime prevention
programs sponsored by various federal, state, and local agencies, beginning in
the 1970s, working often in partnership with community groups. So Skocpol is
right to criticize "Tocqueville romanticists" who would claim that
politics and government are irrelevant (or worse yet, intrinsically inimical) to
civic vitality and who idealize "bottom-up" solutions. (Whether she is
right to put me into that category is a less important question that I shall
leave to others.)

On the other hand, "top-down" or government-driven solutions are
hardly a panacea, and I cannot believe that Skocpol holds that extreme view,
either, despite language in her commentary here that occasionally suggests that
an active civic life can exist only as the product of an active government. The
Washington elites whose creativity she celebrates may have played an important
role in creating the American Legion, the Farm Bureau Federation, and the PTA,
but so also did millions of ordinary Americans in thousands of local
communities. Finding practical ways to encourage and enable their descendants
(us) to reconnect with our communities, especially across lines of race and
class, is a matter of high urgency, and we should not be distracted by false "either/or"

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

, after login or registration your account will be connected.