I f recent trends hold up, only about one of every three eligible voters will show up at the polls this fall. Inevitably, many will conclude that Americans have once again failed as citizens. The problem, however, may not be individual failure so much as our contemporary conception of how democratic citizenship ought to work. Nothing puts that conception into clearer perspective than changes in the act of voting over the past 200 years. Imagine yourself a voter in the world of colonial Virginia where George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson learned their politics. As a matter of law, you must be a white male owning at least a modest amount of property. Your journey to vote may take several hours since there is probably only one polling place in the county. As you approach the courthouse, you see the sheriff supervising the election. Two candidates for office stand before you, both of them members of prominent local families. You watch the most prominent members of the...
R obert Putnam's important and disturbing work on
civic participation (" The Strange
Disappearance of Civic America ," TAP , Winter 1996) has led him
to conclude that television is the culprit behind civic decline. But lest we be
too disturbed, we ought to consider carefully whether the data
adequately measure participation and justify his conclusions and whether his
conclusions fit much else that we know about recent history. I suggest that his
work has missed some key contrary evidence. If we could measure civic
participation better, the decline would be less striking and the puzzle less
perplexing. If we looked more carefully at the history of civic participation
and the differences among generations, we would have to abandon the rhetoric of
decline. And if we examined television and recent history more closely, we could
not convict TV of turning off civic involvement.
Consider, first, the...
UNSOLVED MYSTERIES The Tocqueville Files
" What If Civic Life Didn't Die? " by Michael Schudson
" Unravelling From Above ," by Theda Skocpol
" Couch-Potato Democracy? " by Richard M. Valelly
Robert Putnam Responds
C riticism of television's impact on democratic debate has given rise to a growing list of remedies: longer soundbites on the evening news, new procedures for making presidential debates more illuminating, more diverse broadcast formats for questioning candidates, even nationwide electronic town meetings. Refurbishing public discourse is a worthy cause, but will it cure the massive ills of modern democracy? Is the problem with our politics, at its root, a failure to communicate? If these proposals were enacted and succeeded in expanding citizen participation in elections, they would be laudable. Still, they would do nothing to ensure that government is more responsible, responsive, and effective so that people would feel continuing reason to participate. But, worse, carrying out these proposals would do little to increase citizen involvement. Even the most radical reform, the electronic town meeting, is unlikely to increase public participation in government. After the novelty wore...
On January 31, 1990, when McDonald's opened in Moscow, Soviet citizens seemed stunned by the politeness of the people behind the cash registers who smiled and said, "May I help you?" They were delighted at the efficiency of the service despite a wait of two hours; many took home their McDonald's logo-laden refuse as souvenirs. Tongue in cheek, The New York Times wrote of hope-starved Soviet consumers won over to "delectable materialism." The Washington Post , similarly jocular, painted a portrait of a factory worker standing beneath the golden arches and said of him, "He had seen the future -- and it tasted good." American journalists poke fun at the Soviet passion for American consumer goods because they cannot think of consumerism in the United States without ambivalence. It takes an immigrant, or these days a Soviet visitor, to speak of American abundance in beatific terms. Boris Yeltsin, now president of the Russian Republic, returned from a nine-day American tour in the fall of...