Thursday, November 09, 2006

 

The Way We Were

These comments come from Approach 2 in the discussion guide on reinventing democracy …

Throughout the first two centuries of our history as a nation, most Americans shared common experiences and almost instinctively came together when necessary to take common action. They formed a wide variety of organizations and associations—clubs, churches, associations, neighborhood groups, unions, secret societies, and more.

Through such experiences, Harry Boyte and Sara Evans write in their book Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change, “People learned civic skills and developed a civic identity. People encountered an intergenerational mix of ages, interests, and points of view. They learned to argue artfully, to think strategically about public work, and to work together across lines of difference.”

In these places, in other words, people learned the art of citizenship.
The problem is that there are fewer public spaces today and far less engagement with one’s local community. “We do not communicate, relate or connect as a people,” writes Roberta Brendes Gratz, of the Project for Public Spaces. “And we have few public places left. Without the variety of common grounds on which a diverse people mix and mingle in an unplanned manner, the health of the commonweal is undermined.”

Across the nation, says sociologist Robert Putnam, people have disengaged from churches, unions, associations of all kinds. “We have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.”

Most people no longer have the time nor, it seems, the inclination to do what citizenship requires. Politics and public life have become, for many Americans, a spectator sport. As a result, our civic muscles have atrophied and democracy itself has weakened.

In 1995, Putnam focused the nation’s attention on its civic habits in his book Bowling Alone, which argued that America has changed from a society in which people form and join bowling leagues to a society of people who bowl alone. He pointed out that not only has voter turnout declined, but people report going to fewer public meetings, serving on fewer volunteer groups, and working less often in political campaigns.

Across the nation, Putnam said people have disengaged from churches, unions, and associations of all kinds.

What is needed to rebuild the web of civic connections? And what needs to happen to revive an active sense of citizenship?

Reviving civil society will be no easy task. In an era in which many adults struggle to balance the demands on their time, carving out time and energy to devote to civic associations is by itself no small task. But it is clear that efforts to revive civil society have to start with a conviction that the role of citizen is both demanding and rewarding, and indispensable in the life of a democratic nation.

What is needed to get Americans engaged again?
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