Building Community Top-down or Bottom-up?: America’s Voluntary Groups Thrive in a National Network

Many conservatives tend to blame the rise of big government over the course of the 20th century for the decline of American civil society. Convinced that once upon a time voluntary groups flourished within “self-contained” local communities, they often cite Alexis de Tocqueville in support of the notion that in the early days of the American republic local voluntary groups prospered apart from politics or government above the local level. In reality, however, the great Frenchman’s Democracy in America repeatedly highlights the ways in which America’s nascent electoral democracy promoted all sorts of voluntary associations. And recent research by historians underscores the enduring importance of the U.S. federal government in promoting a vibrant civil society.

Voluntary Groups and National Government

Between the establishment of the Constitution and the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville made his famous visit to our country, the fledgling United States enfranchised most free men and established competitive elections for state and national offices. As Richard Brown has shown, the Revolutionary War and subsequent electoral politics stimulated the formation of new voluntary groups in small villages and towns that otherwise might not have developed such groups. Recently, the historian Richard John has documented that the early republic developed an extraordinarily extensive and administratively efficient national postal system, encompassing even the remotest frontier hamlets. Much bigger than the postal systems of the bureaucratic European monarchies of that time, the U.S. postal system created a network of communication and stagecoach transportation that facilitated commerce, subsidized the dissemination of countless newspapers, stimulated popular political participation, and encouraged the activities of thousands of local and extralocal voluntary associations. One early reform association, the General Union for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath, took advantage of the mail system to organize a nationwide movement to demand the closing of post offices on Sunday! Temperance crusades and antislavery movements also spread their messages through the mail. In short, a strong and effective national state and a democratic civil society grew up together in early America.

Scholars have documented that the formation of voluntary groups in America came in major bursts. One took place before the Civil War, from the 1820s to the 1840s; others came after the Civil War, from the 1870s through the turn of the 20th century, and during the 1930s. Waves of voluntary group formation got under way during periods of intense political party mobilization and highly competitive national elections. The waves also coincided with periods of national cultural and political debate—focused before the Civil War on issues of morality and slavery and afterward on responses to industrialization and economic crises.

As part of a Civic Engagement Project at Harvard, my colleagues and I are assembling data on the emergence and growth of large voluntary associations in America. So far we have identified 55 “extensive associations”—defined as those that have enrolled 1 percent or more of American adults at any point between 1790 and the present. These groups too were founded in waves that roughly coincided with the more general bursts of activity in voluntary group formation documented by other scholars.

Although the project has just begun developing a detailed “life history” of each of these 55 groups, already it is obvious that many groups launched during the 1800s survived and flourished into the 20th century. In fact, more than four-fifths of all extensive associations ever founded still exist today. As U.S. politics became more nationally focused around the Civil War, World War I, the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War, the voluntary associations did not wither away. On the contrary, many established ones added new local and state units, recruited more individual members, and branched into new activities. For some groups, membership dipped during the Depression when people could not afford to pay dues. Some of those groups never recovered, but others reached further membership peaks during the 1960s and 1970s.

Contrary to the conservative view that federal social policies are harmful to voluntary groups, popularly rooted voluntary associations have often grown up in a mutually beneficial relationship with federal policies, including federal “tax-and-spend” programs. Civil War benefits, for example, stimulated the growth of the Grand Army of the Republic, which in turn promoted and helped to administer federal, state, and local support for veterans and their families. Early 20th-century local, state, and national policies to help mothers and children were championed by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Congress of Mothers (later the PTA), and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs—groups that themselves expanded in part because of encouragement by government. State and federal efforts to support farmers and farm families have been championed and administered by associations such as the Grange and the American Farm Bureau Federation, the latter of which grew into a nationwide federation in conjunction with New Deal farm programs. New Deal Social Security legislation was originally encouraged by the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the Townsend Movement and has, in turn, stimulated the emergence of more recent local, state, and national associations of the elderly. The GI Bill of 1944 never would have taken the inclusive shape it did, opening up American higher education to hundreds of thousands of less privileged men, had not the American Legion taken the lead in writing generous legislation and encouraging public and congressional support for it. In turn, the GI Bill aided the postwar expansion of the Legion.

Those who say that America’s modern systems of social provision have choked off—or crowded out—voluntary activity in civil society could not be more wrong. America’s version of the modern social security state features core programs that give benefits in return for individuals’ service to the nation, helping large numbers of middle-class and poorer citizens at the same time. This distinctively American social security state has gone hand in hand with locally and nationally vibrant voluntary civic activism. If we dismantle or avoid national social provision in the future, we will harm civil society, not help it.

Local Efforts: Part of Something Bigger

Just as it is a mistake to see the federal government as automatically opposed to a healthy civil society, so too is it wrong to imagine that most American voluntary groups have been self-contained local efforts. Of course, particular groups have come and gone in communities and workplaces. But most local voluntary groups are directly or indirectly linked to parallel efforts across many communities, states, regions, and (often) the entire nation. People in local groups take heart or example from what others linked to them are doing at the same time elsewhere. As the social historian Alexander Hoffman has very aptly put it, “[s]ustained by both internal and external links, local institutions and organizations may best be understood as branch offices and local chapters—the building blocks of a ?nation of joiners’…Americans enlisted in local church groups, fraternal lodges, clubs, and other organizations that belonged to nationwide networks.”

Studying just one place at a time, historians have at times mistakenly described local groups as purely idiosyncratic efforts. But systematic data are becoming available to help scholars sorts things out more accurately. Over the past year, for example, Gerald Gamm and Robert Putnam have collected a rich data set counting all the groups listed in directories from more than two dozen cities and towns for each decade between 1840 and 1940. About a third of the groups Gamm and Putnam counted were fraternal or sororal groups—which were central to American social and civic life from the 19th century until the 1960s. When the Civic Engagement Project at Harvard took a close look at the fraternal groups mentioned in Gamm and Putnam’s local directories, we found that at least three-quarters of the fraternal group titles referred to units within translocal federations. Gamm and Putnam’s data set also lists lots of churches, women’s clubs, union halls, and service and professional groups—many of which my co-researchers and I believe were linked, during a period of American history that people often imagine to have been a time of localism, into regional or national networks of voluntary associations.

During the entire “modern” era of U.S. voluntarism, from the Civil War to around 1960, the quintessential form of translocal U.S. voluntarism was the federation, linking membership groups in cities and towns into networks with an organizational presence in each of 48-50 states, and at the same time tying the localities and states into a national organization that ran conventions and disseminated publications. Until recently, most large U.S. voluntary associations have had this three-tiered federal structure, paralleling that of U.S. government: local, state, and national. For U.S. voluntary associations, this federal form has been extraordinarily resilient and flexible. It has allowed local participation and democracy to be combined with group decisionmaking at state and national levels. It has allowed voluntary groups, if they chose, to relate to all levels of U.S. party politics, public administration, and legislative decisionmaking. It has also allowed for pluralism within unity, because local and state groups in particular parts of the country could pursue their own purposes, while at the same time cooperating for other purposes with groups in other places.

A nationwide voluntary association like the American Legion, for example, has deployed the federal form to perfection, as demonstrated by both Richard Jones and William Pencak. Local Legion posts run parades, supervise youth activities, help veterans and their families, and otherwise contribute to, and take vitality from, local communities across America. At the same time, the Legion can and does deliberate about, and then speak out on, state and national affairs. Like the PTA, the Knights of Columbus, countless fraternal groups, environmental groups, and many other U.S. voluntary federations, the American Legion demonstrates that local community involvement and an intense commitment to national identity have historically gone hand in hand in American democracy. The genius of the most successful and extensive U.S. voluntary efforts has been to make local and state and national commitments complement—rather than oppose—one another.

What Has Gone Wrong Lately?

Recent social shifts in voluntary group activity, however, have made it harder for Americans to band together to get things done—either through or in relationship to government. To be sure, thousands of grass-roots groups and national advocacy groups proliferated between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s—at the same time that the rise of professional groups, trade associations, and think tanks was turning Washington, D.C., into an “imperial” capital, as Kevin Phillips puts it. But there has been a “missing middle” in all this recent associational proliferation—an absence of links from national to local groups. With several notable exceptions, such as the Christian Coalition, few new local-state-national federations have been founded since the 1960s and 1970s. And many of the 30-40 nationwide voluntary federations that flourished in mid-20th-century America have gone into absolute as well as relative membership decline.

Both class and gender transformations have affected U.S. associations. Most large voluntary federations from the 1800s through the 1960s were cross-class, single-gender affairs. Business and professional people joined together with white-collar folks and perhaps with more privileged farmers or craft or industrial workers. But it was predominately men or women, not both together, who formed most of these multi-purpose voluntary associations. For much of American history, segregated male and female roles provided broad, shared identities through which huge numbers of Americans could band together across regional and class lines.

Until recently, male military veterans and higher-educated women have been leaders of nationally prestigious voluntary groups. But between 1974 and 1994 better educated women led the way in withdrawing from many types of voluntary federations, while simultaneously increasing their participation in occupationally based groups, such as unions and professional associations. The United States has also developed a very large professional-managerial upper-middle class, full of men (and now women too) who see themselves as specialized experts. Along with business people, today’s managers and professionals seem more oriented to giving money to or working with national advocacy organizations than to climbing the local-state-national leadership ladders of traditional voluntary associations.

Better educated Americans, in short, have pulled out of broad community groups in record numbers since the mid-1970s, sometimes leaving behind people with high school educations or less. America’s largest cross-class associations have withered. The best educated people are still participating in more groups overall, but not in the same groups as their less well-educated fellow citizens.

One answer to improving the nation’s civic life will turn out, I believe, to lie in encouraging privileged Americans to rejoin—or recreate—the group settings in which they have daily chances to work with a broad cross-section of fellow citizens to address the nation’s concerns. Americans need to place a new emphasis on working together, not just on “helping the poor.” “Doing with” rather than “doing for” should be our watchword, if we want to revitalize the best traditions of American voluntarism.