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.
Their response to the apparently hearty civil vitality of Plymouth would no doubt be to isolate the case as an outlier in an otherwise nearly universal trend. And while that may be true, Putnam and his co-author Lewis Feldstein have built an entire book around highlighting the exceptions in civic life. After the dire assessment Putnam offered in Bowling Alone, he has chosen to isolate the individuals and organizations that are managing to forge ties and encourage activism. Noting that "beginning, roughly speaking, in the late 1960s, Americans in massive numbers began to join less, trust less, give less, vote less, and schmooze less," the authors have set out to find instances in which that trend has reversed. What they found includes the Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Shipyard Project, through which people of all ages from both the town and the shipyard built connections through interpretive dance. And a United Parcel Service innovation that facilitates communication between management and workers, leading to better morale and working conditions. And a Wisconsin junior high school where students tested the power of political participation by corresponding with their elected representatives.
IT'S HARD to know what to make of a collection of admittedly unrepresentative exceptions. Certainly, the authors admit that their book offers no blueprints or secret recipes for the revitalization of civil society. Nor do they have any set answers for why some efforts fail and some succeed. The most they can do is point to similarities among some of the projects and "hope and believe that they may perhaps guide and inspire others who are seeking ways to build social capital." Even there, though, their aspirations clash with one of their observations—none of the successful community efforts set about attempting to "build social capital." In each case, leaders and participants were focused on achieving some concrete goal. The formation of social ties was only a byproduct of a larger effort, achieved almost by accident.
These "accidental" organizations are worlds away from the civic associations Skocpol describes as forming the building blocks of mid-20th-century American society. Groups like the Elks Club or the Knights of Columbus not only put their stamp on small towns and suburbs across the country, but even influenced popular culture—think Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble with their Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo Lodge handshakes and hats. These membership-based voluntary associations used to drive political involvement and volunteerism, Skocpol argues, but were displaced by the rise of centrally run interest groups that offer a passive sense of involvement with no real opportunities for ordinary Americans to engage in political activity. Professionally managed organizations like the Sierra Club and the AARP give the illusion of communicating grassroots fervor without providing an outlet for the input and influence of their members.
To illustrate the limits of advocacy work that keeps too much distance from homes and sidewalks, Skocpol draws on the example of the Christian Coalition, an organization that overstated its grassroots support from the start, never managed to reach the heights of power it envisioned for itself, and has had much more success as a reformulated umbrella organization focused on mobilizing political action at the local level. And it's true that associations that have a local presence can be much more effective at forming the kind of social capital so prized by social scientists.
But civic life is not a zero-sum game. Central advocacy organizations serve a very different, but still essential, purpose and can't simply be replaced by grassroots, community-building efforts. At the same time, there is still a place—apparently more likely in small Midwestern towns—for the civic associations of old. Furthermore, both types of more traditional groups are now being supplemented by new social trends. Some revolve around familiar organizations like the Girl Scouts, which continues to grow in size and has seen the largest membership increase in the number of minority girls from previously underserved populations. Others are new organisms. The almost-overnight mobilization of Internet grassroots support for the candidacies of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark is proof of the power of a central organizing structure complemented by local activism in the form of MeetUp.com gatherings.
And for this year's Plymouth Fall Festival, the Women's Auxiliary Club booth has several new neighbors, including the Plymouth Newcomers, a community organization that developed to help welcome new residents to the town and that has since become an active part of community life. Today's civic associations may not come with funny hats or bowling bags, but they are an integral part of civil society nonetheless.
Amy Sullivan is a doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University and the author of Political Aims, www.politicalaims.com.