Preferred Citation: Theda Skocpol, "Unravelling From Above," The American Prospect no. 25 (March-April 1996): 20-25 (

The Tocqueville Files


Theda Skocpol

If 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 in a Washington Post commentary that concludes that 1990s "new" Democrats must develop "an acceptable variant of the Republican faith," where "government leaves to voluntary associations . . . functions that elsewhere and at other times have been performed by the state." But this conclusion is too hasty.

On the right, civic responsibility means drastic reductions in the role of the national government. In the words of George Will, "swollen government, which displaces other institutions, saps democracy's strength. There is . . . a zero-sum transaction in society: As the state waxes, other institutions wane." Accordingly, Newt Gingrich wants to "renew America" by "replacing the welfare state with an opportunity society" featuring market incentives and "volunteerism and spiritual renewal." And Arianna Huffington promotes Gingrichism through a new Washington-based advocacy group called the Center for Effective Compassion.

Many conservatives are rallying around this notion of civil society as an alternative to extra-local government. Fresh from years of successful government bashing inside the Beltway, the Heritage Foundation has rechristened its journal Policy Review as Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship. "We think of our mission as 'Applied Tocqueville,'" declare the editors. "We will focus on the institutions of civil society--families, communities, voluntary associations, churches and other religious organizations, business enterprises, public and private schools, local governments--that are solving problems more effectively than large, centralized, bureaucratic government . . . . We hope many liberals and centrists will join us in this endeavor."

But liberals and thoughtful centrists are rightfully reluctant to conflate business and the market with civil society, while pitting voluntarism and charity in zero-sum opposition to government. The United States has never had much of a "centralized bureaucratic" welfare state; instead the federal and state governments have often subsidized and acted in partnership with the efforts of voluntary, religious, and nonprofit agencies such as Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army. It is not at all clear that spontaneous local voluntarism would take up the slack should national social provision be destroyed. Besides, economic forces can hurt civil society as much as needlessly intrusive government. "The market acts blindly to sell and to make money," Senator Bill Bradley aptly declared in a February 1995 speech to the National Press Club. "Too often those who trash government as the enemy of freedom and a destroyer of families are strangely silent about the market's corrosive effects on those very same values in civil society."


At the center of this discussion are the writings of Harvard University's Robert D. Putnam. By embellishing the idea of "social capital" borrowed from the late James Coleman, Putnam has persuaded his fellow political scientists, and even the occasional economist, to take up issues of the sort usually relegated to lowly and underfunded sociologists. With admirable gusto, he has plunged into empirical data to look for causes of the "disappearance" of civic America.

"Disappearance" is too strong a word, of course. As Putnam acknowledges, Americans remain more likely to join churches and other voluntary groups than the citizens of any other advanced industrial nation. Some researchers do not agree with Putnam that volunteering has declined in recent years. Questions can be asked about the General Social Survey (GSS) on which he chiefly relies. The GSS asks respondents about "types" of organizations to which they belong, not concrete group memberships; as groups have proliferated within certain categories, the extent of individuals' involvements may well be undercounted. What is more, newer types of involvements--such as parents congregating on Saturdays at children's sports events, or several families going together to the bowling alley (just visit one and look!)--may not be captured by the GSS questions. As many fathers and mothers have pulled back from Elks Clubs and women's clubs, they may have turned not toward "bowling alone" but toward child-centered involvements with other parents.

Despite qualms about the data, I accept Putnam's broad finding of a generational disjuncture in the associational loyalties of many American adults, starting around the mid-1960s. Once-vibrant federations of locally rooted associations (such as the PTA, the American Legion, and many fraternal groups) did not continue to attract younger adults as readily as they had in the past. Moreover, the group involvements of U.S. adults coming of age after the 1950s may not hold the same significance for U.S. civic life as the PTA, the American Legion, and other such voluntary federations.

These federations once had an enormous impact, both locally and nationally. Early in this century, the PTA (then the National Congress of Mothers) joined with other women's voluntary federations to push for historic breakthroughs in social policy, including mothers' pensions (later to become Aid to Families with Dependent Children); the establishment of the federal Children's Bureau; and the enactment of the federal Sheppard-Towner program to promote maternal and infant health (later to become part of the Social Security Act). Similarly, during the 1940s the American Legion formulated the GI Bill, modern America's greatest program of federal investment in higher education and youthful family formation. Millions of Legionnaires, arrayed in thousands of local posts and in state and national headquarters, waged a popular campaign calling upon Congress to enact this program. Without the American Legion, access to college would not have been so fully opened up to working- and middle-class Americans after World War II. Conservatives may imagine that popular voluntary associations and the welfare state are contradictory opposites, but historically they have operated in close symbiosis. Voluntary civic federations have both pressured for the creation of public social programs, and worked in partnership with government to administer and expand such programs after they were established.

Putnam has put his finger on a historic break in U.S. associational life. Yet as others delve deeper into the dynamics of civic engagement in U.S. democracy, they should critically examine the largely individualist and localist premises on which Putnam has so far based his research. To be sure, Putnam's research on the decline in social capital does not demonize the welfare state. Nevertheless, fresh inspirations need to come into play, to avoid an inaccurate picture of how and why American civil society has historically flourished and recently declined.


Ironically for a scholar who calls for attention to social interconnectedness, Putnam works with atomistic concepts and data. He writes as if civic associations spring from the purely local decisions of collections of individuals--with everyone in the socioeconomic structure potentially counting the same as everyone else. Putnam sorts individuals by gender, educational levels, job-market involvements, and "exposures" to television. He tries to derive group outcomes by testing one variable at a time against such highly aggregated individual-level data. Perhaps unintentionally, Putnam largely ignores the cross-class and organizational dynamics by which civic associations actually form and persist--or decay and come unravelled.

An association may decline not only because people with the wrong sorts of individual traits proliferate in the population, but also because opportunities and cultural models for that association (or type of organization) wither in the larger society and polity. An association may also decline because the defection of crucial types of leaders or members makes the enterprise less resourceful and relevant for others.

Consider what occurs when better-educated women shift from family and community endeavors into the paid labor force. As capable women who once devoted energies to the PTA (and similar locally rooted federations) have switched their allegiances to workplaces and national professional groups, PTAs may have become less attractive for other potential members, including housewives. PTAs may also have become less powerful in local, state, and national politics. Such trends are magnified if, at the same time, more and more privileged two-career married couples move to high-income neighborhoods or switch their children from public to private schools. Putnam argues that female entry into the paid labor force cannot explain membership decline because employed women join more groups than housewives. But he does not tell us what kinds of groups employed women have joined; nor does he explore the potential unravelling effects of the withdrawal of women leaders from locally rooted cross-class federations like the PTA.

Throughout U.S. history, well-educated and economically better-off citizens have been key founders, leaders, and sustaining members of voluntary associations. The commitment of business people and professionals, and of women married to them, has been especially important for the great cross-class and cross-regional associations--such as veterans groups, fraternal bodies, temperance associations, ethnic benefit societies, and women's federations--that played such a major role in U.S. civic life from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century.

Maybe what has changed recently has less to do with TV watching than with shifting elite allegiances. Members of a burgeoning upper-middle stratum of highly educated and munificently paid managers and professionals may have pulled out of locally rooted civic associations. At one time participation and leadership in the American Legion or the PTA were stepping stones for professionals, business people, and privileged homemakers. But now their counterparts do better if they work long hours and network with each other through extra-local professional or trade associations, while dealing with politics by sending checks to lobbying groups headquartered in Washington, DC. If this scenario is credible--and I suggest it is just as plausible, given the data, as Putnam's TV argument--then maybe the quest for "who done it" strikes uncomfortably closer to home for the privileged people (myself included!) who fly off to elegant meetings to ponder the civic misbehaviors of the great unwashed.


Another irony: Although Putnam directs our attention toward succeeding generations, he gives short shrift to the cultural splits between older and younger Americans that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Putnam does not view a "sixties and seventies period effect" as an important cause of declining civic engagement, on the grounds that everyone would have dropped out in equal numbers. But ever since the work of Karl Mannheim, historical social scientists have hypothesized that epochal watersheds have their biggest influence on the outlooks of young adults. Perhaps Americans reaching adulthood in the sixties and seventies looked anew at the world, and did not find so attractive those civic associations that their elders still held dear.

The sixties and seventies did bring divisions in outlook between Americans who came of age from World War II to the height of the Cold War versus those who reached maturity during the era of the civil rights struggle and the war in Vietnam. We know that this contentious watershed adversely affected enrollments in the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The sixties and seventies also brought changes in race and gender relations, which may well have rendered mostly segregated associations less attractive to younger people--again, without necessarily loosening the established group loyalties of their parents.


But why didn't new locally rooted federations emerge to replace those that started to fade in the 1960s? To some degree they did, for example in the environmental movement. Yet new federations did not grow enough to carry on the organizational tradition of the PTA, the Elks, and the American Legion. Why not brings me to my last argument--about the Tocqueville romanticism that not only undergirds right-wing versions of the civil society debate, but also influences aspects of Putnam's research. Of course Putnam does not share Gingrich's hostility to the welfare state. Yet he often speaks of social capital as something that arises or declines in a realm apart from politics and government.

A romantic construction of Tocqueville supposes that voluntary groups spring up de novo from below, created by individuals in small geographic areas who spontaneously decide to associate to get things done "outside of" government and politics. Supposedly this is what Alexis de Tocqueville saw in early national America. But local spontaneity wasn't all that was going on back then. True, once local villages and towns passed a threshold of 200 to 400 families apiece, voluntary associations tended to emerge, especially if there were locally resident business people and professionals. But research on America in the early 1800s shows that religious and political factors also stimulated the growth of voluntary groups. In a country with no official church and competing religious denominations, the Second Great Awakening spread ideas about personal initiative and moral duty to the community. In addition, the American Revolution, and the subsequent organization of competitive national and state elections under the Constitution of 1789, triggered the founding of newspapers and the formation of local and translocal voluntary associations much faster and more extensively than just nascent town formation can explain. The openness of the U.S. Congress and state legislatures to organized petition drives, the remarkable spread of public schooling, and the establishment of U.S. post offices in every little hamlet were also vital enabling factors, grounded in the very institutional core of the early U.S. state. (As a nobleman critical of the centralized bureaucratic state of contemporary post-revolutionary France, Tocqueville naturally riveted on the absence of a bureaucratic state in early America. He briefly acknowledged but did not emphasize the effects of early American government on the associations of civic society.)

In the latter part of the nineteenth century came another great wave of U.S. voluntary group formation--this time prominently featuring three-tiered federations of associations at the local, state, and national level. Again, political events and processes were critical, along with industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. The Civil War and its aftermath encouraged ties between central and local elites and groups. Between the mid-1870s and the mid-1890s the intense electoral competition of locally rooted, nation-spanning political parties encouraged the parallel formation of voluntary federations, and gave them electoral or legislative leverage if they wanted it--as groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic, the Grange, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union most decidedly did.

Twentieth-century voluntary federations were often built from the top down, deliberately structured to imitate and influence the three tiers of U.S. government, and encouraged by parts of the federal government itself. Thus the American Legion was launched from the top by World War I military officers and later nurtured by the Veterans Administration. And the American Farm Bureau Federation was encouraged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The PTA itself, now romanticized as a purely local voluntary group, did not originally bubble up from below. It was founded in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers (and renamed the PTA in 1924). The original Congress of Mothers was knit together from above by elite women. It started out as the brainchild of a new mother married to a prominent lawyer in Washington, DC. She decided to launch a women's organization resembling the U.S. Congress and paralleling the levels of U.S. government, so that "mother thought" could be carried into all spheres of American life. Once the Congress of Mothers began to take shape, as prominent women wrote to their counterparts in states and localities, it immediately turned to influencing local, state, and national governments to work in partnership with it for the good of all mothers and children. From its very inception, the Congress of Mothers/PTA was actively involved in public policymaking and the construction of a distinctively American version of the welfare state.

Although U.S. history contradicts the premises of Tocqueville romanticism, this vision has insinuated itself into current scholarship about U.S. civil society. Political patterns and developments (such as levels of trust in government, and rates of electoral participation or attendance at public meetings) are treated simply as "dependent variables." The assumption is that local voluntarism is fundamental, the primary cause of all that is healthy in democratic politics and effective governance, in contrast to the dreaded "bureaucratic state." But just as Marxists are wrong to assume that the economy is the primal "substructure" while government and politics are merely "superstructure," so Tocqueville romanticists are wrong to assume that spontaneous social association is primary while government and politics are derivative. On the contrary, U.S. civic associations were encouraged by the American Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, and World Wars I and II; and until recently they were fostered by the institutional patterns of U.S. federalism, legislatures, competitive elections, and locally rooted political parties.


From the 1960s onward the mechanics of U.S. elections changed sharply. Efforts to mobilize voters through locally rooted organizations gave way to television advertising, polling and focus groups, and orchestration by consultants paid huge sums with money raised from big donors and mass mailings. Around the same time, the number of lobbying groups exploded in Washington, DC. Both business groups and "public interest" groups proliferated. Advocacy groups have clashed politically, yet their structures have become remarkably similar.

By now, almost all are led by resident professional staffs, and funded more by outside donors or commercial side ventures than from membership dues. If today's advocacy groups connect at all to society at large, they do so through mailings of magazines, newsletters, and appeals for donations to millions of individuals. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), founded in 1958, now has around 35 million members fifty years of age and older. But only 5 to 10 percent of AARP members participate in local affiliates, and new members join after getting a letter in the mail, not an invitation to a local club meeting. The AARP is not like the locally rooted federations that once dominated the ranks of nationwide U.S. voluntary associations.

Just as younger adults were turning away from traditional voluntary associations, America's ways of doing electoral politics and legislative advocacy were sharply transformed. Television was certainly a major factor, as were computerized modes of data analysis and direct-mail targeting. Complementary changes happened in the media, and in ways of doing policy business in the federal bureaucracy and Congress. Interlocking transformations added up to a new set of constraints and opportunities for voluntary groups. No longer do the great local-state-national federations, rooted in face-to-face meetings in localities, have a comparative advantage in mediating between individuals and politicians, between localities and Washington, DC. Professional and business elites increasingly bypass such federations. One exception, on the right, is the Christian Coalition, which since the late 1980s has successfully melded top-down and bottom-up styles of political mobilization.

Throughout much of U.S. history, electoral democracy and congressionally centered governance nurtured and rewarded voluntary associations and locality-spanning voluntary federations. But since the 1960s, the mechanics of U.S. politics have been captured by manipulators of money and data. Among elites new kinds of connections are alive and well. Privileged Americans remain active in think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade and professional associations, jetting back and forth between manicured neighborhoods and exotic retreats. Everyone else has been left to work at two or three poorly paid jobs per family, coming home exhausted to watch TV and answer phone calls from pollsters and telemarketers.

How ironic it would be if, after pulling out of locally rooted associations, the very business and professional elites who blazed the path toward local civic disengagement were now to turn around and successfully argue that the less privileged Americans they left behind are the ones who must repair the nation's social connectedness, by pulling themselves together from below without much help from government or their privileged fellow citizens. This, I fear, is what is happening as the discussion about "returning to Tocqueville" rages across elite America.

Progressives who care about democratic values should pause before joining this new "consensus." They should not hastily conclude that the answers to most of America's problems lie in civil society understood apart from, or in opposition to, government and politics. The true history of civic associationalism in America gives the lie to notions propagated by today's government bashers and government avoiders.

Organized civil society in the United States has never flourished apart from active government and inclusive democratic politics. Civic vitality has also depended on vibrant ties across classes and localities. If we want to repair civil society, we must first and foremost revitalize political democracy. The sway of money in politics will have to be curtailed, and privileged Americans will have to join their fellow citizens in broad civic endeavors. Re-establishing local voluntary groups alone will not suffice.

Copyright 1996 by New Prospect, Inc. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all HTML codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact The Electronic Policy Network (, P.O. 383080, Cambridge, MA 02238, or by phone at (617) 547-2950 (voice) or (617) 547-3896 (fax).

Electronic Policy Network | Economics & Politics | Welfare & Families | Civic Participation | Health Policy
The American Prospect Online

The American Prospect / Send us a message at
Copyright 1996 New Prospect, Inc.