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Jewish World Review /Sept. 24, 1998 /4 Tishrei, 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben American civic engagement thriving

IN THE NEW MOVIE, "One True Thing," traditional mother Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep) is active in the Minnies, a small, informal women's group in the Rockwellian New England college town of Langhorne. To her daughter Ellen (Rene Zellwegger), an ambitious New York glossy writer, the Minnies are a "cult" -- insular, frivolous pre-feminist relics like the Victorian homes that line Langhorne's streets.

Meryl Streep in One True Thing
But these ladies do more than lunch (and lunch itself is harder to than it looks, as Ellen learns when she torches an innocent chicken paillard and garnishes it with toxic foxglove blossoms). The Minnies are part social service agency, part mutual support group and part civic association. Raising money for the elderly, providing crucial emotional support for each other and bringing the community together for festive holiday pageants, the Minnies are a tiny node of "civic engagement."

Groups like the Minnies form the stock of what social scientists call "social capital." Social scientists believe that such spontaneous social networks are indispensable to the strength of a nation's larger political, economic and social institutions. Whether they are called "points of light," "little platoons," or (in post-doctoral English) "secondary associations," groups like the Minnies pervade the American social landscape. They provide armies of volunteers who coach, tutor, watch polls, prepare meals, donate clothes, build housing, read to the elderly, save the whales and much more.

But these small, informal groups are the quantum particles of the social universe: They may be invisible to social science's conventional instruments of measurement. In a recent Bradley lecture sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, "Bowling With Tocqueville: Civic Engagement and Social Capital," Everett Carll Ladd argues that civic declinists have underestimated America's social capital, in part because such groups have been undercounted.

The Ladd lecture, adapted from his forthcoming book, The Ladd Report (Free Press), is a reply of sorts to sociologist Robert Putnam's famous 1995 essay, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." Just when societies in the old Soviet Bloc were trying to revitalize social networks atrophied by totalitarianism, Putnam argued, civic engagement was in decline in America, the nation of joiners.

Putnam had noticed that while the number of bowlers in America had risen 10 percent between 1980 and 1993, those participating in league bowling had, paradoxically, declined by 40 percent over the same span. While "bowling alone" proved an irresistible metaphor to journalistic trend spotters, Putnam cited a variety of more significant indicators: falling voter turnout, a de-unionizing work force and steep drops in the membership levels of a host of civic and fraternal organizations like the Boy Scouts, the League of Women Voters and the Elks. He was especially alarmed by plunging participation in the PTA, "a particularly productive form of social capital."

Ladd sees essential continuity underlying much formal change in patterns of American civic engagement. In a competitive marketplace, people are voting with their feet: the Elks may be down, but the Sierra Club is up; scouting may be down, but youth soccer leagues are multiplying. "Churning, not decline," he calls it. And while political volunteering may be down, religious and other non-political volunteering is up: no big disaster in a culture that has always preferred less political forms of civic involvement. But on balance, we are "building up our supply of social capital, not depleting it," argues Ladd.

In the PTA's decline, Ladd sees decentralization, not disengagement. New research suggests that large numbers of local parent-teacher groups have simply disaffiliated from the national PTA and established very active, new, independent groups, often calling themselves parent-teacher organizations. While some parents were turned off by the national organization's liberal politics, many just wanted to retain their dues money for local use. By most measures, Ladd shows, parental involvement in education is actually rising. synagogues and churches are by far the largest centers of civic association and action in highly religious America.

In this sphere, Ladd sees a similar trend -- away from large, traditional, mainline Protestant churches and toward more dynamic, often evangelical, denominations and decentralized, non-denominational "community" churches. Indeed, Ladd finds evidence across the American civic spectrum of a trend toward localism paralleling governmental devolution from Washington to state and local governments. "Voluntarism and civic participation evince a degree of devolution that may surpass what's occurring in the governmental sphere," he writes.

But the smaller and more numerous the groups, the harder they are to measure. One sociologist, J. Miller McPherson, has estimated that in America roughly 100,000 or more such small groups are typically active in a city of one million. Comprehensive measurement may be impossible: A Rockefeller Foundation-funded attempt to compile a comprehensive list of national, state and local actors in the civic revival movement was simply abandoned as an exercise in futility.

In a demassifying America, it is a mistake to derive sweeping conclusions about our civic health from the fate of an unrepresentative sample of mass organizations. The age of the masses is over. Long live the Minnies!


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Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.