Tocqueville for Toffs

On any given day in Washington, D.C., the city’s hotels teem with civic activity. Trade associations, lobbies, corporations seeking government contracts, lawyers looking to influence agency rules—all form a beehive of action. At last count, there were 12,200 registered lobbyists in Washington, according to, and that doesn’t include the many thousands of corporate attorneys who are technically not lobbyists. Of the top-spending trade associations or issue organizations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce leads the list with a budget of more than $46 million. Only one quasi-liberal group, the AARP, is even in the top 20. This is the vision of Alexis de Tocqueville made flesh, with one notable difference: Nearly everyone in this associational paradise speaks for the top 1 percent or 2 percent of the income distribution.

Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, famously identified “the art of association” as an essential complement to American constitutional democracy. The franchise was only the beginning of an effective republic. Political associations, to Tocqueville, were “great free schools” of democracy. They breathed civic life into formally democratic institutions of government. To engage with public issues, people did so more effectively in groups, not as isolated individuals. “Americans of all ages, all stations of life … are forever forming associations,” he wrote admiringly.

But something has changed dramatically since Tocqueville wrote those words in 1840. “All stations of life” no longer applies. Civic and political association and the organized exercise of influence have increased for the elite and have all but collapsed for the bottom half, even for the bottom three-quarters.

Thus, while inequalities of campaign finance have gotten most of the attention and indignation of reformers, participatory inequality is just as important. Perhaps it is even more important, since the most promising antidote to the narrow, concentrated power of wealth is the broad power of organized people. When non-rich people are disorganized, disconnected from practical politics, or overwhelmed by the networking power of elites, money rules.

The 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court is only the latest assault on legal efforts to keep money from destroying democracy. Ever since the scandals of the original Gilded Age, when Senate seats were for sale and Republican operative Mark Hanna was the first fundraiser as political boss, concentrated wealth has threatened citizenship. Regulation of campaign finance has ebbed and flowed, from the Tillman Act of 1907, which explicitly prohibited corporate contributions to political campaigns, to the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which restricted the proliferation of “soft” money. Both have now been substantially undercut by Citizens United, creating a new era of American plutocracy—unless citizen power can offset concentrated financial power.


Americans have been struggling with the question of participatory inequality for a long time. In the idealized world of political-science textbooks of mid-20th-century America, civic “pluralism” complemented democracy, Tocqueville-style. You might have one set of religious and ethnic and professional affiliations, but you had crosscutting identities as a parent, a trade unionist, a fisherman, and a member of the Elks. In these associations, you met and interacted with people of different religious and partisan preferences. That brand of pluralism was said to produce cross-class and cross-party bonds and empathies. Groups that put professionals and working-class people, or Republicans and Democrats, in the same rooms created a social basis for stable democracy and tempered extremes.

In the pluralist story, associations that represented the common people, such as trade unions, the Democratic Party, cooperatives, and mutual self-help societies, roughly offset the power of business associations such as the American Medical Association, the Farm Bureau, the oil and gas lobby, and diverse industry trade associations. Or so the pretty picture of pluralism insisted.

It was the great midcentury political scientist E.E. Schattschneider Jr. who demolished this idealized vision with the oft-quoted line “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.” He added, “Probably about 90 percent of people cannot get into the pressure system.” Even in the heyday of trade unions, economic elites had more dense and influential networks than regular people. Half a century later, that imbalance has only worsened.

In their classic 1995 work, Voice and Equality, political scientists Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady demonstrated conclusively that political activity varied by class. Well-off people were more likely to be engaged with associations, more likely to get involved in campaigns and to contact their elected representatives, more likely to make political donations, more likely to vote. The study found that 86 percent of high-income people reported having voted but only 52 percent of low-income people did; 73 percent of high-income people were involved with a political organization, compared to 29 percent of low-income people.

Voice and Equality concluded that lower-income people don’t participate as much as those with higher incomes for three reasons: “they can’t,” because they lack the time or money; “they don’t want to,” because they don’t believe that politics will make a positive difference in their lives; and “nobody asked them,” because the political system has few avenues of recruitment for lower-income people. In a survey of why so many people avoided politics, a key stated reason was that politics felt irrelevant. This, of course, was also correlated by class. Nobody in large corporations believes politics is irrelevant. In a forthcoming sequel, titled The Unheavenly Chorus (in homage to Schattschneider), the authors offer new evidence of deepening chasms in political association and influence by class.

“As the amount of money in politics increases, any form of political voice based on money is going to become more unequal,” Schlozman told me. Money not only underwrites campaigns; it finances pressure groups and associations. So as income inequalities widen, so does the gap in political association and influence.

Political disengagement on the part of less affluent Americans is circular and cumulative. Disconnection from politics leads to disaffection with government and doubt that government policies can make a positive difference, which leaves the field to elites. In October, a New York Times/CBS poll showed that a record 89 percent of Americans believed that government could not be trusted to do the right thing most of the time. That view, in turn, leads to further desertion from civic life. Less affluent people are more reliant on public institutions than more affluent ones are. They need to be politically involved to take back government from elites, so that government can once again provide opportunity and security and remedy economic inequality. Thus, participatory imbalance reinforces the deepening class divide.


There was a time when a more equal America was characterized by a greater, though far from symmetrical, equality of civic engagement. In addition to the impact of widening income gaps, three relatively independent trends over the past half-century have intensified participatory inequality.

First, large mass-membership organizations that once engaged lower- and middle-class Americans in civic and political life have declined or atrophied. Second, an entire habitat of mutual self-help organizations, ranging from unions to local building and loan societies, which also served as a civic training ground and avenue of influence for the non-rich, has been substantially depleted. Finally, the mass entry of women into the labor force has deprived society of civic capital. In the absence of an offsetting shift in men’s roles, the gain for the economic status of women became a loss for voluntary institutions. Many of the large social-reform organizations of a century ago were women’s groups. To the extent that it was predominantly women who organized and attended Parent Teacher Association meetings, volunteered with the League of Women Voters, and attended zoning and tax-override meetings, the fabric of non-rich community and civic life has been weakened by the time squeeze on the two-income family.

As Harvard social scientist Theda Skocpol demonstrates in her work on large, democratically governed federations, a century ago there were dozens of cross-class associations, organized into local chapters, each with total memberships of at least 1 percent of American adults. Some were fraternal and service organizations such as the Elks. Others—such as the National Congress of Mothers, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, or any of several labor unions—had explicit reform goals. Still others, such as the Grange, combined fraternal, vocational, and political objectives. A majority included working-class as well as professional-class members. They were “schools for democracy,” in precisely Tocqueville’s sense.

Local groups elected leaders, who in turn were the constituents of state and finally national organizations. They held meetings, took positions, testified before local and national legislative bodies, used Robert’s Rules of Order, and engaged regular people in civic and political life. This is not an observation made after the fact; the connections were well understood at the time. A poster from the early 1920s, cited by Skocpol, calls for an eight-hour working day and adds:


8 Hours for Work!

8 Hours for Sleep!

8 Hours for Home and Citizenship!


By the 1970s, most of these groups had either petered out or converted into Washington-based advocacy groups. These were mostly mailing-list organizations, with no chapters or mass members, typically with small professional staffs. Some were pseudo mass-membership organizations, such as the AARP, which sells insurance products to the elderly, does some issue advocacy on the side, and has a self-perpetuating board and no direct accountability to its “members.”

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street has heartened many progressives, but it was a huge embarrassment for the Washington-based groups and coalitions that had been trying (and failing) to organize large-scale demonstrations against banks ever since the 2008 crash. That OWS emerged almost spontaneously from the ether of the Internet has underscored how hollowed out many Washington-based advocacy groups have become—hardly anyone came when they called.

On the liberal side, today’s groups are heavily financed by mainstream foundations, a dependency that often blunts their political edge. Their conservative counterparts are financed both by more explicitly ideological foundations and by business groups pursuing an explicit agenda.

Writing in 1999, Skocpol counted 25 remaining mass-membership organizations, down from a peak of 58, but few were organized along democratic lines with true local memberships. Just four of the large membership groups might be characterized as progressive or reformist—Greenpeace, AARP, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the AFL-CIO. (A fifth, which has grown since then, is the American Civil Liberties Union.) Several of the remaining or newly created mass-membership groups, such as the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, and the National Right to Life Committee, are conservative, and they receive significant support from the corporate right.

To the political scientists who were skeptical of the pluralist story, political parties—on both the local and national level—were the antidote to the power of elites. But parties that once rallied large numbers of the common people to civic life have also become more of a mailing list, checkbook, and professional-operative affair. This also is a disproportionate loss for the progressive side.

What remained as the prime surviving associations for the poor and the working class were religious groups. In much of America, the main institution that connects people to their neighbors is their church. Historically, churches were often at the forefront of social-justice goals and actions, such as the civil-rights movement. But here, too, the tilt lately has been to the right. As mainline Protestant groups, which are typically liberal on economic and social issues, have waned, evangelical Christian church membership has exploded. In the Catholic Church, abortion has tended to crowd out social-justice issues and make the church a more conservative force generally. Among Jews, the centrality of Israel has weakened organized Judaism as a domestic progressive force. Concern for Israel has created alliances of convenience with right-wing Christians who fervently support the Jewish state for eschatological reasons from which Jews recoil.  There is a faith-based left, but it is no match for its conservative counterpart.

In the meantime, the most potent mass-membership organization of political recruitment and representation for people of moderate means, the trade-union movement, has been the object of relentless attack by business elites. Union membership has dwindled from about one-third of the private-sector workforce in the 1940s and 1950s to less than 7 percent today. For many working-class Americans, their only organized connection to civic and political life is their union. The remaining trade unions continue to be schools for democracy, venues for cross-race and cross-class collaboration, as well as advocates of good wages and working conditions, but fewer and fewer Americans are members. Even so, the November Ohio referendum that repealed a law abolishing collective bargaining for public workers demonstrates a lot of residual goodwill for the labor movement, despite the right’s efforts to divide the middle class into undeserving public employees and beleaguered taxpayers.

In addition to unions and the mass-membership civic organizations cited by Skocpol, other economic self-help groups that once recruited ordinary working people into civic and political activity have also become nearly extinct. From the early 19th to the middle 20th century, a number of economic functions were performed by not-for-profit institutions. To provide their services, they enlisted people into civic and political roles through volunteer boards and organizing efforts. Many were structured along lines of mutual self-help, often by immigrant groups. For example, beginning in 1831, building and loan societies (later called savings and loans) pooled capital so that people of modest means could finance homeownership. According to David L. Mason’s authoritative history, From Buildings and Loans to Bail-Outs, building and loan leaders and members understood their enterprise “as a movement, not an industry.” Credit unions likewise were organized to serve people who could not get bank loans. Volunteer fire brigades grew into mutual fire-insurance associations. In the first wave of group health-insurance plans in the 1930s and 1940s, many were organized as co-ops.

In the Western states, where there were producer as well as consumer co-ops, the movement was one of the core constituencies of local Democratic Party politics and also a training ground for small-d democratic civic participation. Jerry Voorhis, the liberal California congressman whom Richard Nixon defeated in 1946, was later executive director of the Cooperative League of the USA. When the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, one of the pioneering prepaid group health plans, was organized in the late 1930s, its founders included activists in trade unions and co-ops. Because such groups were fiercely opposed by organized medicine, their leaders and members necessarily had to become active in politics.

Government often played a supportive role by providing funding, expertise, and enabling legislation so that farmers’ co-ops, rural electric co-ops, nonprofit savings and loan associations (S&Ls), and credit unions could gain an economic foothold. Here, too, ordinary citizens served on boards and became involved in politics in order to defend and advance the interests of institutions that were often somewhat insurgent in the context of conventional capitalist enterprise.

By the 1980s, this world, too, had mostly been destroyed or absorbed by conventional American capitalism. Nonprofit savings and loans, mutual life-insurance companies, and nonprofit health plans and hospitals had hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves that corporate executives coveted. When a mutual institution was transformed into a stock institution, executives could vote themselves options, take the company public at a low price, and then cash in as the value of the stock rose. Nonprofit S&L executives envied the high-risk/high-return speculative activities of their for-profit brethren. In the anything-goes atmosphere of the 1980s, business lobbied Washington and state legislatures for rules changes to enable these conversions. Reagan’s regulators likewise revised the law so that federally chartered S&Ls could be owned by one person, abolishing the requirement of at least 400 shareholders of which 125 had to be from the community. A side effect was the weakening of social and civic capital.

One other trend: As charity and local social services have become bureaucratized and professionalized, their links to progressive politics have been weakened. The late Kip Tiernan, who formed and led Rosie’s Place, Boston’s most successful shelter for homeless women and children, was also a radical activist on behalf of ending homelessness. She liked to say that her goal was to put Rosie’s Place out of business. Doing good is not the same as political activism. Unlike the Settlement House movement of a century ago, many of today’s volunteers fail to make the connection between service and systemic reform.

Another rival for civic participation could be screen time. In his 1996 American Prospect piece, “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,” which laid the groundwork for his later book, Bowling Alone, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam treated the decline of social connectedness as a murder mystery. One by one, he ruled out other possible suspects—the time squeeze, the mass entry of women into the labor force, suburbanization, the growth of the welfare state, and so on, until all that remained was the influence of television, the great killer of civic time. According to Putnam, the “long civic generation” that grew up in the Great Depression and the World War II years came of age before TV. Participation, according to Putnam, went into decline with the advent of the generation that grew up with TV.

But TV can’t fully or even substantially explain the widening disparities in who participates or in how influence is exercised. The resurgence of class-consciousness on the part of organized business in the 1950s and the all-out assault on unions did not occur because unionists were lulled by their favorite sitcoms. Business groups, precisely through the power of association, have become ever more effective at crushing unions. Conversely, the young people who organized the sit-ins and freedom marches of the 1960s had grown up with television, but that didn’t prevent them from organizing when transformative change seemed newly possible.

Although Putnam has clung to the picture of an across-the-board decline in association of all kinds, others such as Skocpol have demonstrated that the decline has been far more intense among blue-collar, middle-class, and cross-class associations. She makes two persuasive points: Putnam-style social association is not the same as civic association, which in turn is not the same as political association. For democratic equality, it matters less whether ordinary people participate in bowling leagues than whether they have associations through which to exercise influence in politics. Second, government policy and political association influence each other, in both directions. Whether workers can join unions, or S&Ls are commercial or civic institutions, or immigrants are socialized to become citizens are all functions of the ground rules set by government—and in turn are influenced by who has disproportionate power to lobby government.


So are the prospects hopeless for the engagement and mobilization of regular people as a counterweight to the concentrated influence of money? Not necessarily. As Schlozman and her colleagues show, voting participation by lower-income people has bounced around in recent years; it has not been a one-way downward trend. When a national figure like the Barack Obama of 2008 comes along, interest in politics is rekindled. When hope fades, as it did in 2010, turnout is depressed. A credible grassroots leader like a Martin Luther King Jr., a Cesar Chavez, or a Harvey Milk can transform deep-seated patterns of civic passivity. In the 1960s, when politics seemed an avenue of genuine social improvement for blacks and poor people, participation soared.

But it is a mistake to wait for national leadership to breathe life into local associations. If anything, the causality often runs the other way. The remaining effective grassroots membership groups, such as the Los Angeles Association for a New Economy (LAANE), are schools for leadership as well as civic participation. LAANE is the rare group whose close alliances among labor, immigrant, neighborhood, and electoral groups make it a major force in local politics. With a progressive governing coalition in power in Los Angeles, government can deliver ground rules and victories for the community that, in turn, help LAANE to achieve its goals and increase its credibility with its members. In this virtuous circle, LAANE then becomes a key ally of the governing coalition.

National government can also reinforce or even create institutions of civic involvement for the non-rich, as it did with the Community Action Programs during the War on Poverty or with laws such as the Wagner Act and the Community Reinvestment Act. Conservatives have been alert to this threat. The right’s hit job on Acorn wiped out one of the few such grassroots organizations that mobilized ordinary people.

However, this role of national government has been dwindling. Although the Democratic Party has benefited from civic associations of the non-rich, it has been increasingly reluctant to invest political capital in maintaining or rebuilding them. The presidential Democratic Party, whipsawed between a liberal/labor wing and a Wall Street/New Democrat wing, has not been willing to prioritize labor-law reform to enable working people to exercise their rights under the Wagner Act to organize or join unions. Even when Democrats had a working majority in Congress, as they did for two years under President Jimmy Carter, two under Bill Clinton, and two under Barack Obama, the White House refused to make labor reform a priority. The Democratic Party, ostensibly the instrument of the common people, is increasingly financed by elites.

The great new associational force is of course the Internet. But whether it is a boon or drain for political democracy is hotly debated. On the one hand, much of the activity fomented by Facebook and Twitter facilitates private connections more than civic networking. The Internet and its electronic cousin, TV, are not just time thieves and instruments of privatism and commercialization. They also serve to render politics and civic life just one more spectator sport rather than the central pursuit of a democracy. Thousands of civic groups use the Internet, but these are dwarfed by Web-based communities of interest that are in no sense civic or political, which in turn are dwarfed by the Internet’s purely commercial use.

On the other hand, movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring relied heavily on the Internet in their organizing. A 2009 report to the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded that on balance, the Internet reflects rather than transforms the class bias of political association and influence. Yet the report’s survey of Internet use offers the guardedly hopeful finding that “there are hints that forms of civic engagement anchored in blogs and social networking sites could alter long-standing patterns that are based on socioeconomic status.” The report found that “those who use blogs and social networking sites as an outlet for civic engagement are far more active in traditional realms of political and nonpolitical participation than are other Internet users. In addition, they are even more active than those who do not use the Internet at all.”

We cannot restore the world of mutual self-help and local associational vigor that characterized 19th-century America at its best. But there are 21st-century versions, ranging from strong unions in parts of the service sector to Internet-based organizing drives and the use of the Web to revive local associational life.

Marie Antoinette never actually said, “Let them eat cake.” Another probably apocryphal remark attributed to the French queen, supposedly uttered after her first experience with sex, was “Can the common people do this? It’s too good for them.” As American society becomes more like the world of Marie Antoinette, the common people even more than the elite need to reclaim democratic life. It’s too good just for the rich.

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