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.
In just a third of a century, Americans have dramatically changed their style of civic and political association. A civic world once centered in locally rooted and nationally active membership associations is a relic. Today, Americans volunteer for causes and projects, but only rarely as ongoing members. They send checks to service and advocacy groups run by professionals, often funded by foundations or professional fundraisers. Prime-time airways echo with debates among their spokespersons: the National Abortion Rights Action League debates the National Right to Life Committee; the Concord Coalition takes on the American Association of Retired Persons; and the Environmental Defense Fund counters business groups. Entertained or bemused, disengaged viewers watch as polarized advocates debate. The largest membership groups of the 1950s were old-line and well-established, with founding dates ranging from 1733 for the Masons to 1939 for the Woman's Division of Christian Service (a...
A s Bob Dole's generation eases into retirement, commentators of various stripes complain loudly about generational bias in American social policy. The fiscally conservative Concord Coalition--along with independent presidential contenders Ross Perot and Richard Lamm--complains that working-age taxpayers have to cover the costs of overly generous social programs for America's elderly. The Children's Defense Fund calls upon Americans to "stand for children," marshaling facts and figures to show that the nation invests way too little to help poor children and young families. Antigovernment Republicans arrayed behind Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and John Kasich assert that we must cut way back on federal government spending for the poor and the elderly in order to preserve the American dream for "our children and grandchildren." Each of these proponents of generational equity is speaking to a gaping "missing middle" in U.S. social policy. In recent decades, very little has been done...
I f only folks would turn off the TV and start
attending PTA meetings, America's future could be as bright as its civically
engaged past. This diagnosis is taking shape in foundation-sponsored gatherings
and among highbrow columnists. Privileged men and women--who spend most of their
waking hours in their offices, on jet airplanes, and in front of computer
screens--are converging on the belief that civic irresponsibility is the fault
of average Americans.
Today's concern with civic engagement is widely shared, deceptively
suggesting a consensus. "We find ourselves at a unique moment in American
history," applauds multimillionaire Arianna Huffington writing in the
Wall Street Journal , "when thoughtful people all across the political
spectrum are coming together to recognize the primacy of civil society to our
national health." Americans are "returning to Tocqueville,"
agrees Michael Barone...
What to do about poverty is, once again, on the public agenda in the United States. A decade ago, social researchers and research-funders, stung by the backlash against the War on Poverty, averted their attention from race-related social ills. Then Charles Murray's rightwing broadside against social programs in Losing Ground (1984) provoked critics to reenter the fray, and William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) revalidated discussion of "the underclass" by progressives. This renewal of controversy is good news for citizens interested in doing more to fight poverty. But there are also reasons to worry Public discussion today, while less optimistic than in the 1960s, is repeating many themes and assumptions of the War on Poverty and Great Society. Policy makers then attributed poverty in part to behavioral problems and cultural deficiencies that they hoped special training and community action programs for the poor could correct. Similarly, the welfare reform consensus...