On the first weekend of every September, before cold winds off the Great Lakes turn the air chilly, the Plymouth Fall Festival takes place along Main Street in my hometown of Plymouth, Michigan. Small tented booths are staffed by every organization in town, with the National Honor Society selling Italian ice, the Polka Club offering kielbasa, and the First Baptist Church—in typically ascetic style—giving away water and biblical tracts. The Elks Club, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Jaycees are always well represented, even if no one really remembers what any of those groups actually do.
Reports of the death of American civil society are, the residents of Plymouth could tell you, premature. Yet the hand-wringing that began in 1995 with the publication of Robert Putnam's influential article Bowling Alone (followed by the 2001 book of the same name) continues with the release of Putnam's follow-up, Better Together: Restoring the American Community, and a book by sociologist Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. While the two Harvard colleagues differ on the import of the decline and possible solutions, they agree on one thing: Civil society in America is a pale reflection of its former self.