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Civic Infrastructure. Are we yawning yet?

Picture of the US flag on a political button.I recently read a provocative book called Diminished Democracy on the recommendation of a friend.  When he handed it to me, he said “Every time I put it down, I did not want to pick it up, and every time I picked it up, I did not want to put it down.”

The book discusses our anemic civic infrastructure and seems frustratingly accurate.  It presents an illuminating historical perspective that leaves one hoping for solutions.  It also seems relevant to the future we all choose for NCDD.

The author, Theda Skocpol of Harvard University, argues that the fee-based membership organizations which thrived especially during the century following the Civil War were vital to civic life.  They infused the population with a culture of deliberation, they often mixed all classes together, and they allowed average citizens to learn how to represent each other’s interests and prepare to enter politics.

She describes how the last fifty years saw the American middle class largely outsource its political participation to professional advocacy organizations.  These organizations managed their “members” by representing the beliefs they already held rather than providing space for their members to work through new issues in a deliberative way.

NCDD is a membership-based organization which is primarily driven from the bottom-up, so it seems we’re on the right side of history here.  As an NCDD member/supporter, what do you think of the excerpt below?  What opportunities does it suggest as NCDD continues to evolve?

Federated membership associations linked people across places and classes in a vast nation and infused American citizenship with shared meaning and organized clout.  In classic civic America, millions of ordinary men and women could interact with one another, participate in groups side by side with the more privileged, and exercise influence in both community and national affairs.  The poorest were left out, but many others were included.  National elites had to pay attention to the values and interests of millions of ordinary Americans.

Over the past third of a century, the old civic America has been bypassed and shoved to the side by a gaggle of professionally dominated advocacy groups and nonprofit institutions rarely attached to memberships worthy of the name.  Ideals of shared citizenship and possibilities for democratic leverage have been compromised in the process.  Since the 1960s many good things have happened in America.  New voices are heard, and there have been invaluable gains in equality and liberty.  But vital links in the nation’s associational life have frayed, and we need to find creative ways to repair those links if America is to avoid becoming a country of managers and manipulated spectators rather than a national community of fellow democratic citizens.

There cannot be any going back to the civic world we have lost, but we Americans can and should look for ways to re-create the best of our civic past in new forms suited to a renewed democratic future.  To accomplish this, we will need to go beyond moral exhortation and local do-goodism; and we certainly should avoid extending professional tendencies and patronage-based funding to our religious institutions, which have heretofore flourished through congregational fellowship and membership contributions.  New strategies for translocal association building must be devised.  And we must reform our national institutions to encourage and unfetter civic leaders who organize large numbers of their fellow citizens.

America has gained in important ways as professional management has displaced membership in our recently refashioned and enlarged civic life.  But we need to be clear about the good things we have lost–about the diminished democracy and losses in fellowship across class lines that contemporary transformations have, often inadvertently, wrought.  Taking lessons and inspiration from our nation’s rich civic history, we must find ways to fashion again for our own times the sorts of great voluntary combinations that long ago impressed Alexis de Tocqueville with the extraordinary capacity of Americans for the vigorous practices of civil and political democracy. (pages 291-3)

As a new Board member of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, I’m very interested in helping NCDD survive and evolve.  What thoughts might you have for NCDD’s leadership and your fellow NCDD members on these ideas and how they relate to NCDD?

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Lucas Cioffi
Lucas Cioffi graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Having served one year in Baghdad as an infantry officer, he realizes the need for effective dialogue and deliberation in preventing conflict. He is passionate about advanced online deliberative platforms and is co-founder of AthenaBridge.com.

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  1. Laurie Bezold says:

    Have you read "Bowling Alone: The collapse and Revival of American Community" by Robert Putnam? This book is all about this subject, why civic discourse and died out and the hope for the future

    • lucas says:

      The Diminished Democracy book listed above mentioned that reversing the pattern which caused the decline in civic participation would not necessarily succeed, that new methods need to be devised.

      Given NCDD's unique capabilities and energy, I'm wondering how we can have maximum impact. Did Robert Putnam's book offer any suggestions for an organization like NCDD?

  2. @jspady says:

    Hi Lucas, the sentence that stands out for me is, "New strategies for translocal association building must be devised." — translocal — I like that word.

    And picking up on the Putnam reference above — developing strategies that strengthen both the traditional" bonding" among familiar/well-known associations but also being willing to seek out "the other" across unfamiliar landscapes… the "bridging" element of building social capital in an emerging awareness within communities to cultivate translocal associations. Hummm….

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