It is an irony permeating foundations’ early interaction with the labor movement that the first organized philanthropies were established by Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, and others like them who had supposedly earned their fortunes from the exploitation of labor. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that early attempts by these foundations to deal with labor issues of any kind were viewed with suspicion.
It is a commonplace of American democracy that individuals develop the civic virtues that make self-government possible through their participation in private voluntary associations. It is a curiosity of history that the progenitor of this enduring idea was Alexis de Tocqueville. Yet there is a certain poetic justice in that it took a French aristocrat to observe that the art of association is important not only because it accomplishes useful things, but also because it teaches us to be good citizens.
Times have changed, and we are now faced with a lively debate about whether civil society and civic participation as described by Tocqueville are in decline. Is a corrosive brand of individualism loose in the land, destroying the connections that Americans once had with one another? Or, while some of the older modes of participation are no longer in fashion, have Americans simply found new ways to get involved and to express themselves?
There are important questions at stake in these debates, and one can’t help occasionally feeling a bit lost amongst the reams of data that the different factions pile up in their defense. We should be grateful, then, for Robert Wuthnow’s Loose Connections, which is of considerable usefulness in clarifying what the important questions are, even if, in the end, he is unable to tell us what we ought to do. His method is well-grounded social analysis based most importantly on intensive interviews with more than 250 people from all walks of life as well as a national survey of more than 1,500 people.
Wuthnow is a distinguished Princeton University sociologist and the prolific author of books on the roles of religion and civic participation in American life. Before we run out and join a bowling league, he wants us to understand the ways we are engaged now and how (and why) they differ from the past. Wuthnow is particularly interested in the recent past, the 1950s to be precise, that supposed golden age of civic participation. He believes that there have been changes in the character of civic participation in this country, and that they have been complex and multidimensional. Thus the story he tells proceeds along two, occasionally crisscrossing, lines, the individual and the institutional.
Individual relationships today are epitomized by what the author calls “loose connections,” by which he means “looser, more sporadic, ad hoc connections in place of the long-term memberships in hierarchical organizations of the past.” These older, more tightly bound organizations experienced their zenith in the 1950s, the era of the organization man—and this is no mere coincidence. It was in fact through civic participation—through service—that the organization man expressed himself. He was a member of the new postwar middle class, a white-collar worker, and his proof of this was that he had the leisure time to dedicate to clubs and organizations. Perhaps the most enduring aspect of this involvement was the idea of membership. According to Wuthnow, “Above all, organization men were members, who participated in their service clubs and lodges over long enough periods of time that they became known to their fellows. They were thus constrained to live by an implicit code of respectability.”
The counterpart of the organization man was the club woman, and it was through her involvement—and the services that those clubs provided to the community—that she attained a sense of recognition outside of the home. According to Wuthnow, “The civic ideal that was modeled by the club woman of the 1950s was thus a diffuse role that included practical knowledge, sociability, and service.” When the club woman and the organization man were at home, the ideal of civic engagement was what Wuthnow calls the “good neighbor.” “Good neighbors did not have to be friends or confidants; they were valued for their familiarity, their predictability, perhaps even more than their dependability.” Good neighbors were simply there, and that helped to foster a sense of community that involved both people and place.
The children of the organization man and the club woman came of age in the 1960s, and found their parents’ idea of civic involvement a bit authoritarian for their taste. Rather, they sought organizations through which they could express themselves and their views, often their ideas about politics. If the motivation of the organization man was service, the new modes of participation were more inner-directed. “The growing emphasis on personal fulfillment, new insights, and heightened levels of consciousness permitted young people to believe they were making a contribution to humanity by pursuing these self-realizing aims.”
By the 1960s, the federal government had “discovered” poverty, and the nonprofit sector would eventually realize a massive infusion of government dollars. More and more women began looking to the workplace out of their desire for recognition. “In response, organization men and club women used their skills to start nonprofit organizations, expand municipal government, and create service agencies . . . . A clearer distinction developed between service and leisure. Service activities came to be more focused on serious problems, such as crime and urban redevelopment, while leisure was commercialized for mass consumption, so that people attended movies and professional sporting events . . . .” As the character of involvement began to change, the meaning of community began to change as well. The “good neighbor, ” a creature of time and place, was out and a new sense of community was in, expressed “in terms of personal achievements, beliefs, and varied experiences that are more difficult to classify.” Or, as Wuthnow puts it elsewhere, “Proximity is no longer imperative to their sense of community.”
The character of our institutions—and not merely our voluntary associations—began to change as well. While the changes were complex, Wuthnow believes that their common effect was to make institutions more “porous,” meaning that they now have “social boundaries that permit people, goods, information, and other resources to flow across them with relative ease.” As American society has opened up, and the global economy has become dominant, the “social boundaries” affected include our families and communities but also our work and the mechanisms by which we deal with government. As a consequence, Americans’ views about how to contribute to organizations have changed. “The belief that one can contribute more effectively to the community as a nonprofit professional, volunteer, or member of a self-help group has come to make sense because our lives are molded by social conditions that make looser connections seem more appropriate.”
Thus we now have institutions and opportunities for participating that fit within our harried schedules and a world that is chock full of nonprofit organizations that are apparently doing useful things. But what happens when these connections become loose, short term, flexible, and ad hoc? Can it be that they no longer have the same effect—or that they no longer serve the same purpose?
In the old, more tightly bound communities, the moral force behind civic engagement for most people came from the community. According to Wuthnow, “People attended meetings, helped pancake feeds, or voted because it was customary. They knew that respect, offices, and mutual aid flowed to those who fulfilled these customary expectations.” They were compelled to do so, in a sense. Some of them may not have been thrilled about it, but they bit their tongue and got involved. Today, in contrast, communities—even small towns—are no longer able to exercise moral force in this way. Our community life is more porous, our connections looser, our lives busier, and therefore the moral compulsion to get involved in one’s community must come from within.
If there is a melancholy theme that runs through Wuthnow’s book, it is his sense of the distaste many Americans have for politics. His interviewees, almost without exception, have very little interest in reading about politics, much less getting involved with political organizations or parties. Wuthnow comments, “Setting government to the side of one’s thinking may have become the condition for believing that civic involvement matters at all.” Even the woman he interviewed who has dedicated her life to peace activism seems to be somewhat wistful about what might have been: “I wanted to make some effort, no matter how minimal or ineffective,” she says.
Perhaps participation in politics and participation in civil society are one more loose connection, and, as loose connections are wont to do, they eventually come apart? Perhaps the old Tocquevillian paradigm with which we are so comfortable simply no longer holds? Professor Wuthnow is a good social scientist and thus he ends his book without the annoying chest thumping that one has become accustomed to in the civil-society debate. But, in allowing his data and stories to speak for themselves, he left at least this reader feeling just a bit gloomy. Americans may not like the loose connections that characterize their personal relationships and the porousness that defines their institutions. But they do find them convenient. With that, it’s worth recalling the line upon which Tocqueville concludes his discussion of associationalism: “To save a man’s life, I can understand cutting off his arm. But I don’t want anyone to tell me that he will be as dexterous without it.”
John Barry is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.