So, Is It Back to Bowling Alone? | The Nation


So, Is It Back to Bowling Alone?

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Don't Know Much About History

About the Author

David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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From the first colonial settlements to the early days of the new nation, political authority resided in the hands of the elite--gentlemen and landowners. The working class--and, of course, women and African-Americans--need not have applied. Despite the iconic status of New England town meetings, Schudson points out, little real democracy was practiced there. Order was emphasized over representation, consensus over open discussion and only one eligible man in ten even bothered to show up. While the resonant first words of the Constitution, "We, the People," pay homage to the ideal of the enlightened citizenry, many delegates to the 1787 convention (itself a closed event) were skeptical. To them, guided democracy made better sense. "The representative process would 'refine and enlarge' public views," James Madison argued in The Federalist Papers, "by 'passing through the medium of a chosen body of citizens; whose wisdom may best discern the truest interest of their country.'"

The nation that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about half a century after its founding in Democracy in America was a substantially different place. In many aspects of life, Tocqueville observed, Americans cultivated the "art of association"--developing what would now be called social capital. Newly powerful political parties were themselves a kind of association, a bridge between the private and public spheres. Soon enough, parties turned into engines of patronage. The old maxim "to the victor belong the spoils" took on new meaning. At the White House and city halls across the country, handing out jobs and sweetheart contracts became the first business of government.

"How are you goin' to interest our young men in their country if you have no offices to give them when they work for their party?" George Washington Plunkitt wondered in a 1905 book of his speeches, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. Yet patronage was on its way out by then, substantially replaced by the nonpartisanship of a civil service. Increasingly, parties could deliver policies but not jobs, and inevitably their power eroded. Presidential leadership--a mandate for the man, not the party--supplanted party leadership.

"A nineteenth-century voter demonstrated his citizenship through loyalty to party," Schudson writes. "A twentieth-century voter was obliged to act out something new and untested in the political universe--citizenship by virtue of informed competence." The hope was that experts--scientific managers, as they were called--could provide reliable data and devise sensible policies. In such venues as the Census Bureau and, more recently, the Congressional Budget Office, as well as think tanks like the Brookings Institution and RAND, this has sometimes been the case. But as those of us in the policy analysis business know from experience, devising policy is one thing and convincing politicians to listen is quite a different matter.

The more noteworthy development was the emergence of the PR man, who has morphed into today's spinmeister; the pollster, who, as George Gallup put it, could take and remake The Pulse of Democracy; and the plutocrat, the deep-pockets campaign contributor. All were bent on molding voters' "informed competence." Over the course of decades, trends that were once lamented evolved into conventional wisdom. The Candidate, an early seventies movie scornful of the packaging of candidates, was taken as gospel by Dan Quayle. While this was treated as just another example of Quayle's callowness, he was merely pronouncing what many of his more discreet colleagues, including the present occupant of the White House, firmly believe.

Contemporary American politics, Schudson asserts, is ruled "by everyone, and no one, all at once." Interest groups, the "factions" whose baleful influence the system of checks and balances was meant to minimize, have proliferated. The conception of civic virtue prized in the eighteenth century may be out and politics by polling in, but those who for a century and a half were obliged to come, hat in hand, seeking favors from officeholders now have rights that trump politics. Beginning in 1954 with the desegregation cases, the courtroom, not the legislative chamber, has been the great equalizer. Groups that were in effect disfranchised--women, blacks, the disabled--have a more level field on which to play.

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