Getting Back to the Basics

Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, by Theda Skocpol. University of Oklahoma Press, 2003, 366 pp, $29.95 (hardcover).


The debate raging between centrists and left-progressives as to whether Democrats should get tougher on national security or become the anti-war party is largely irrelevant to the struggle for economic equality. What is relevant is the need to strengthen the nation’s civic organizations – including the nonprofit community groups concerned about the welfare of the poor – that operate outside the Democratic Party.

It may seem odd, but these organizations could learn a lot from old-line civic groups like the Elks Lodges, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Legion that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s and built chapter-based national federations of men and women across lines of class and place.

Today, the old-line civic associations, satirized by the “Honeymooners” as fraternal groups for men who wear childish hats and swig beer, are but a distant memory. But these groups were good at promoting national legislation that helped the less affluent. Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, in Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, sheds historical light on the organizers who built these network associations. She shows how in the local lodges, chapters and clubs, lower-income people, together with the more affluent, socialized and engaged in community service.

In the 1920s, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs successfully organized campaigns for mother’s pensions and the Fraternal Order of Eagles led successful campaigns for old-age pensions. The American Farm Bureau Federation and The Grange played a critical role in generating political pressure for state and federal aid to farmers. And after WWII, veterans’ organizations – the American Legion and the Veterans Of Foreign Wars – waged successful campaigns for pensions and educational assistance.

Skocpol reminds us that the G.I. Bill was possible only because the American Legion and its allies demanded the program be a universal entitlement. Skocpol compares the American Legion’s support for the G.I. Bill of 1944 to the Clinton Administration’s failed plan for universal health insurance. Although both were popular with the public, the G.I. Bill became law, and the Clinton plan failed.

The difference was that the American Legion was a broad-based network of local chapters whose membership crossed class lines. They drafted, lobbied for and helped implement what Skocpol describes as “one of the most generous and inclusive federal social programs ever enacted.” Contrarily, Clinton’s proposal was drafted by “highly specialized professional and advocacy associations.” Their recommendations were too complex for the public to understand, resulting in defeat.

From the early 1800s until the 1960s, organizers of these civic associations depended financially on mass membership dues, not on foundations and government grants. Supporters were continuously recruited through social networks and personal contacts. Organizers understood that their associations needed strong local roots and encouraged participation in discussions and activities. Every member, even the poor and less educated, had opportunities to develop civic skills of self-government and to attain positions of responsibility and trust. “Members and officers of voluntary federations were tutored in the organizational skills they would need to participate effectively in democratic politics,” Skocpol explains. “Rotating leaders learned how to run meetings, keep record books, make speeches and organize events…teach[ing] countless numbers of Americans what it meant to be a presiding officer, a secretary, a treasurer, an elected chaplain, a representative of a local group to a higher representative body and so forth.” The leaders knew that, if leverage over public officials was needed, a voluntary federation had to be able to influence legislators, citizens and newspapers across many legislative districts.

The Era of Demobilization
And then everything changed. People stopped joining. The women’s, anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s stigmatized these civic associations that included men and women, but excluded blacks or were blindly patriotic, therefore making these groups unfavorable to a new generation of activists.

Shortly after the civil rights movement, and as the old civic groups shriveled, new activists organized groups like Common Cause, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the Environmental Defense Fund, Children’s Defense Fund and other inside-the-beltway public interest organizations. Headquartered in Washington, DC, staffed by lawyers, lobbyists and policy experts, these groups sought to influence the government by relying on the courts, regulatory agencies and Congressional subcommittees rather than by doing the more arduous work of mobilizing the masses to their cause. Instead of developing state and local chapters like the American Legion, they sought support from foundations and from direct-mail fundraising.

These groups rarely brought individuals together across lines of income, education and social status. When the post-60s educated, upper-middle class professional organizers built their groups, they did not work closely with their poor and less educated fellow citizens. As Skocpol observes, in thousands of towns and cities, the older generation of “lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers once found it quite natural to join – and eventually lead – locally rooted voluntary federations that included broad swatches of their fellow citizens.”

Unlike their parents and grandparents, the new professionals organized and joined trade associations that represented their interests as lawyers, academics and social workers. Supporting a cause meant sending checks to their favorite national advocacy groups and donating money to a nonprofit focused on their chosen social woe. Even at organizations with local chapters, the professional staff drove the agenda, like AARP did in formulating the recent federal prescription drug program. You’re not likely to find a local chapter where the poor and working class meet with the wealthy and middle class to socialize and discuss national events.

Seeing no need for institutions with cross-class solidarity, the new activists practiced their own brand of class-based politics, moderately liberal on social issues, moderately conservative in economics. And after 40 years, while these movements and professional associations opened doors for those who suffered from discrimination, the percentage of poor people remains the same. Part of the blame, according to Skocpol, rests with the liberal civic organizers of the 1970s.

These organizations, which Skocpol calls “remarkably oligarchic,” spawned a top-down kind of politics that spoke with an upper-middle class voice. The gains that the new advocacy groups won for minorities and women have imposed a huge cost. By relying on foundations and mass-produced fundraising letters instead of organizing grassroots supporters, and by running to the courts and staff members of Congressional committees, these groups have weakened cross-class alliances and undermined the base for the inclusive social legislation (Social Security and the G.I. Bill) that lies at the heart of successful progressive politics. Skocpol’s sharp reprimand to today’s liberal activists is that whatever good you are doing, you represent the outlook of upper-middle class elites who have cut their ties and policy agenda from the concrete interests of the lower-middle class and the working poor.

The New Right
Not all organizers in the 1960s went the route of the inside the beltway crowd. Right-wing organizers have used face-to-face organizing to build their associations. Like the labor movement, these groups were more ideological and political. Lisa McGirr, in Suburban Warriors, traces the growth of the conservative movement from 1960 to 1981. McGirr’s “suburban warriors” were the middle class mothers who hosted coffee klatches for Barry Goldwater in their tract houses; the doctors, dentists and engineers who started anticommunist reading groups that spoke out against sex education; the Democrats who were increasingly drawn into conservative circles because of their opposition to abortion, busing and affirmative action; and the Midwest migrants who were attracted to jobs in the defense industry and found a sense of community in swelling evangelical churches.

They addressed concerns such as the danger of unaccountable government bureaucracies, the erosion of community, the weakening of the family and the loss of religion in national life. In 1981 their efforts contributed to Ronald Reagan being elected president and to dethroning liberalism as the reigning political ideology, and in the process transformed establishment policies for the next two decades. It’s not just religious faith, guns and traditional moral values that count for people in these organizations; it’s that they have successfully established churches and gun and garden clubs as places for people in rural, exurban and small towns to gather and associate.

Skocpol argues that political elites will eventually return to building cross-class, mass-membership groups when they realize that there is a limit to the power and influence that can be gained by D.C.-based, professionally managed advocacy groups.

Mike Tomasky, editor of The American Prospect, said in a recent New York Times book review that “One of the Democratic Party’s problems is that they don’t have enough contact with its rank and file. Right-wing people in this country have a place to meet and talk politics – their churches, increasingly the megachurches in the exurbs. There’s not a meeting place like that for liberals and for Democrats.”

Perhaps a new generation of leaders and organizers will adopt some of the lessons learned from the old-line civic groups and build organizations that can simultaneously provide a place to hang out, services to its members and the capacity to lobby and engage in electoral politics.

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