Theda Skocpol is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Her article in Issue 46 is from a chapter in Civic Engagement in American Democracy from the Brookings Institution.
President Barack Obama listens to Vice President Joe Biden's comments about high-speed rail during a University of Tampa event in January. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
The early 21st-century United States is falling behind the international competition in many areas of economic innovation. Eroding human capital, a cowed middle class worried about declining wages and fraying families, decaying traditional infrastructure, and a prolonged failure to invest in up-to-date communications, transportation, and energy systems all explain why a once leading nation is headed into "has been" status. Surveys tell us that Americans are pessimistic about our future and suspect that competitors such as China are overtaking us. But you don't really need a poll to tell which way the wind is blowing.
Coming together in trade unions and farmers' associations, fraternal chapters and veterans' organizations, women's groups and public-reform crusades, Americans more than a century ago created a raucous democracy in which citizens from all walks of life could be leaders and help to shape community life and public agendas. But U.S. civic life has changed fundamentally in recent decades. Popular membership groups have faded while professionally managed groups have proliferated. Ordinary citizens today have fewer opportunities for active civic participation, and big-money donors have gained new sway. Not coincidentally, public agendas are skewed toward issues and values that matter most to the highly educated and the wealthy.
In a middle-of-the-night vote held open for an unprecedented three hours on Nov. 21-22, Republican leaders finally corralled enough conservatives to ram through the House of Representatives a bill restructuring Medicare and authorizing a limited prescription-drug benefit. The vote was 220-to-215. Three days later, the Senate passed the same bill by a broader margin, 54-to-44. In early December, President Bush happily signed the Medicare restructuring into law, crowing that it fulfilled his party's campaign promises -- not only to help seniors pay for prescriptions but also to "modernize" their health care.