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Americans Opt Out of Doing Civic Duty

Few people get involved in their community today, in contrast to previous generations.

June 20, 2004|Pauline Arrillaga | Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX — They used to gather in a cavernous hotel ballroom, tables packed with bankers and shopkeepers rubbing elbows with politicians. Those were the days when downtown Phoenix was booming, and the Downtown Lions Club boomed right along with it.

In the 1970s, it wasn't unusual for 150 members to show up at the weekly lunch meetings to catch up with colleagues and friends. Nor was it unusual for a boss to pay his employee's dues, since the club bred leaders and, sometimes, more commerce.

Amid the camaraderie, issues were discussed, ideas debated, referendums rehashed -- a proposed highway project, perhaps, or ways to keep litter off the streets. Lions Club luncheons were an arena for political engagement, one that drew dozens of ardent participants.

Now, in 2004, Meredith Stam gets "flak for coming here. Totally." Stam, 26, a paralegal, is completely out of place at a 21st century Lions Club lunch.

The group meets now in a cramped conference room. Its membership has plummeted to 30. Stam was one of four without white hair or wrinkles.

Civic involvement, Stam said, isn't much of a national pastime anymore.

"We're sitting on the sidelines," she said.

Twenty-first century America is not the nation of joiners that amazed Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s; it is not a place where people engage constantly to assemble democracy's quilt. The very groups that once promoted citizenship have seen their membership rates dwindle, groups like the Grange, Masons, American Legion, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

"Bowling Alone" is what Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam calls it -- a reference to an intriguing statistic that finds Americans bowling as much as ever but participation in leagues down sharply.

"There has been, at least over the past 40 years, a pretty strong downward movement in most forms of political participation," he said.

He cites Roper Polls that indicate the number of Americans who worked for a political party fell 42% between 1973 and 1994, who attended a public meeting fell 35%, who wrote to a representative fell 23%, who signed a petition fell 22%.

In America today, many of us sit back and watch others do the grunt work that was once widely regarded as a citizen's duty and privilege.

We have become, it seems, a nation of bystanders.

When ordinary citizens are not engaged in civic life, a democratic society becomes unbalanced. The minority that speaks out is heard; the majority that doesn't is ignored. For example, older Americans tend to be more outspoken than younger Americans.

The result? "We're not having the same kinds of debates about student loans and national service and training for a first job as we are about Social Security and Medicare," said William Galston, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Historically, this was not an issue in a nation where civic participation was once as much a part of the landscape as its mountains and plains.

But somewhere along the way, Americans grew less interested in being active citizens. What happened? The "old-timers" of the Phoenix Downtown Lions offer some ideas:

* "The problem," said Gene Hardin, 71, "is people die."

One factor is the loss of the "long civic generation" -- those who came of age during the Depression and World War II, spurred into action by hard times (and not yet distracted by television and the Internet). They were more inclined to vote, attend a meeting, join a group.

* "Things change," said Helen Tibken, 82, "and we change with it."

Putnam points to social and technological developments. Over the last 50 years, as the golden age of civic engagement lost some sparkle, suburban sprawl brought lengthier commutes. Women, once a backbone of organizations, entered the workplace. Television went from a diversion to a fixation. And the Internet made face-to-face contact nonessential.

* "People say they're just too busy," added Allen Nahrwold, 65, "and they really are."

Roderick Hart, director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at the University of Texas, agrees that a lack of time -- whether perceived or real -- is partly to blame. Today, with single-parent households or two-parent families in which both Mom and Dad must work to make ends meet, civic duties can become expendable.

Political scientist Theda Skocpol has another theory: Too many organizations are dominated by managers who can, and do, succeed without members doing anything.

Between 1959 and 1999, the total number of national organizations listed in the Encyclopedia of Associations grew almost fourfold, from about 6,000 to nearly 23,000. But membership rolls didn't. One study found that in 1962, the median size of groups listed in the index was about 10,000 members. In 1988, it was 1,000.

Call it the great irony of modern-day citizenship.

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