Comment: Civics as Politics
Voting turnout is very likely to decline again this year. Some of the decline reflects the fact that both candidates are widely seen as boring. But dwindling voter interest also represents a long-term trend.
In this issue of the Prospect, "Rousing the Democratic Base" by
Robert Dreyfuss underscores what political scientists have long observed: The mobilization of voters is not a generic civic process but rather the work of engaged political organizations committed to a particular viewpoint and candidate.
In this case, the labor movement and the NAACP are working hard to get out the vote, presumably for the Democrats and Al Gore. If Gore should win, it will not be because working- and middle-class voters suddenly grasped the value of Gore's program, but because activist groups took the trouble to organize prospective Gore supporters. Oddities of our tax laws and campaign finance system do not quite require these worthy groups to acknowledge what they are doing, especially when they are doing it with tax-exempt or soft money.
The minuet goes like this: Membership organizations have a right to educate their members and the public generally. Their educational campaign can point out (1) that a particular candidate is a good friend of, in this case, labor or civil rights and (2) that it's a good idea for members to exercise their influence by voting. If the member puts one and two together and concludes that it would be wise not only to vote but to vote for the favored candidate, that is the member's business.
Republicans make a big fuss about this routine, particularly when it comes to the unions. It is supposedly unfair for unions to run political education campaigns funded by members' dues. But of course Republicans do it too, and usually with a lot more money. When large corporations pour soft money into politics, usually to support conservative causes or candidates, nobody polls the shareholders. The proliferation of interest groups of varying degrees of partisanship, and the constitutional right of such groups to advocate, means that even if the McCain-Feingold bill succeeds in banning soft money contributions to parties, a lot of unregulated money will continue to find its way into politics. That is the natural outcome of a society rich with interest groups.
There is a real paradox here. As observers of America since Tocqueville have pointed out, the United States is honeycombed with voluntary associations. Yet what do these associations add up to politically? How is it that America's wealth of voluntary organizations co-exists both with a poverty of political participation and with substantive outcomes more conservative than in most Western democracies?
The Prospect addresses this paradox in an ongoing series of articles on nonprofits, philanthropy, and civil society, titled Common Wealth, which is underwritten by the Nathan Cummings Foundation. (Our associated Web page, also titled Common Wealth, is available via www.prospect.org.)
Political scientists have offered two explanations for the Tocqueville paradox. First, parties tend to be better builders of coalitions of the nonwealthy than far-flung interest groups are. And second, interest groups as a whole tend to be rather individualistic and inward-looking. Therefore, it's not accidental that political systems in western Europe, with stronger parties and weaker interest groups, generally do a better job of aggregating the pocketbook interests of the nonrich, leading to substantive policies such as universal health insurance and child care that we can only wish for. America, with stronger interest groups and weaker parties, gets more conservative politics.
Further, as Theda Skocpol has pointed out, groups lately have become less genuine membership associations and more professionalized. They have no real members, so when they do politics, they often rely on an air war of polls and TV spots rather than a ground war of deliberation and organizing. At any given moment, the ads may sway public opinion. But over time, letterhead organizations and endless TV ads contribute to the degradation of real politics and to dwindling voter turnout.
The one exceptional group that works for the economic interests of the nonrich generally and that has real members is the labor movement. And in some places, labor functions almost as a surrogate Democratic Party. With just 10 percent of the private-sector work force organized, labor can only do so much. But it represents the closest approximation to year-in, year-out ground troops.
A related article in this issue and in the Common Wealth series is Michael Massing's "Should Jews Be Parochial?" Massing reports on the recent trend in Jewish philanthropy of a deliberate pulling inward. Jewish leaders, concerned with assimilation and the erosion of Jewish identity, are building something very new in America: a large system of Jewish day schools.
Historically, as members of what Justice Louis Brandeis called a "despised minority," American Jews have worked hard for a tolerant, secular society. Jews have been great supporters of public institutions, including public schools; of social justice; and of the Democratic Party. What is the significance of this apparent turning inward for American Jews and for their role in American society? The leaders of this movement insist that this is not a zero-sum game. By becoming more self-conscious as Jews, American Jews can also be more effective at "mending the world"--and not just the Jewish world. But there are only so many hours in the day.
Our country is blessed and cursed with nonprofit and charitable institutions, often deeply committed to bettering humanity. But this profusion doesn't reliably add up to a progressive politics. That must be achieved on its own terms, as politics. ¤
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