Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life / Edition 1

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Pundits and social observers have voiced alarm each year as fewer Americans involve themselves in voluntary groups that meet regularly. Thousands of nonprofit groups have been launched in recent times, but most are run by professionals who lobby Congress or deliver social services to clients. What will happen to U.S. democracy if participatory groups and social movements wither, while civic involvement becomes one more occupation rather than every citizen’s right and duty? In Diminished Democracy, Theda Skocpol shows that this decline in public involvement has not always been the case in this country—and how, by understanding the causes of this change, we might reverse it.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Her sharp-eyed focus on the state's role in civic life is a useful corrective to the romantic localism and the airier kinds of cultural analysis so prevalent in American political thought today. — Kimberly Phillips-Fein
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806136271
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Series: Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 632,578
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Theda Skocpol is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology and Director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of numerous books, including Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States and The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy.

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Read an Excerpt

Diminished Democracy

From Membership to Management in American Civic Life

By Theda Skocpol


Copyright © 2003 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5017-8



MORE THAN A MILE DOWN A narrow winding road, the earthly remains of William Warren Durgin of North Lovell, Maine, lie in a small out-of-the-way cemetery peppered with tiny headstones nestled amid trees along a brook. The unpretentiousness of Durgin's resting place is appropriate for a backwoods farmer, lumberman, and spoolmaker who lived most of his long life—just over ninety years stretching from December 18, 1839, through January 27, 1929—in this rural region of woodlands, rocky fields, and small hamlets at the western edge of Maine, bordering Kezar Lake and facing the foothills of the White Mountains in neighboring New Hampshire.

But the headstone for "William W. Durgin" is a surprise. On a large granite slab towering above the others, an inscription tells of the life-defining moment when Durgin served as "One of Abraham Lincoln's bearers and escort to Springfield Ill. Helped to place Remains in tomb." After four years of service in the Union army during the Civil War, 1st Sergeant Durgin was chosen one of eight pallbearers, including illustrious officers and four "first Sergeants ... selected with reference to their Age, length of Service and good soldierly conduct for escort duty to the remains of President Lincoln to Springfield, Illinois." He helped to carry the presidential casket to the hearse, escorted it to the Capitol where Lincoln lay in state, and rode the famous funeral train as it made its lugubrious way from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, passing through such cities as "Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago, [and] Indianapolis," all of which Durgin still recalled many decades later, just a year before his death, when he was interviewed by a newsman.

As if serving as Lincoln's pallbearer were not enough, Durgin's gravestone tells us much more about the doings of the man known in life by his middle name, Warren. Under the dates bracketing his birth and death, a boldly engraved line says that Warren Durgin was a "G.A.R. Commander"—that is, the elected head of his local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the post–Civil War association of Union veterans. The next line of the stone indicates Durgin's affiliation with the "P. of H.," the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange; Durgin was probably a member of Kezar Lake Grange No. 440 of North Lovell. Finally, in an oblong rectangle at the very top of the gravestone appear three intertwined loops—a sure signal to those in the know that Warren Durgin was affiliated with a leading U.S. fraternal association, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, no doubt as a member of Crescent Lodge No. 25 of North Lovell.

Warren Durgin's gravestone first came to my attention after my husband, Bill Skocpol, learned about it while driving the back roads of western Maine. Out of curiosity about the man whose life and death the gravestone marked, we obtained more information and leads from the Lovell Historical Society. When I later went to see the gravestone first-hand, I was stuck by how many strands of America's civic history Durgin's story illuminates.

The sight brought home to me, for one thing, how much the meaning of associational affiliation has changed. Gazing through the dappled forest sunlight from the vantage point of many decades later, I could readily understand why Durgin would want to proclaim for all eternity his service as Abraham Lincoln's pallbearer. But given such momentous wartime service, why add the ties to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Grange, and the Odd Fellows? Much as I value my own memberships in the American Political Science Association and the Social Science History Association, two fine scholarly organizations in which I have had the privilege to hold high office, I could not quite imagine asking for "APSA" and "SSHA" to be chiseled into my gravestone. Warren Durgin was part of a civic world no longer intuitive for me, in which associational membership was, in and of itself, honorable and intensely significant.

Other reflections came to mind. By the time I saw Durgin's resting place, I had already done enough research into the history of U.S. voluntary associations to realize that this humble man, a poor farmer and laborer, had been a member, indeed an officer, in exactly the same voluntary associations joined by many of the most privileged and powerful Americans of his day. The GAR, the Grange, and the Odd Fellows not only appear on Durgin's gravestone. During the decades surrounding 1900, these same associations were proudly listed in the biographical profiles of the businessmen, well-to-do farmers, and educated professionals who served as Maine's U.S. senators and representatives and as its elected state officials. What is more, the same associations were frequently cited by the more urbane and cosmopolitan officials of Massachusetts. Indeed, membership in them was proclaimed by elites in and out of government all over the United States.

As we will soon learn, the Odd Fellows, the GAR, and the Grange were three of the largest and most encompassing voluntary membership associations in U.S. history. These and dozens of other major voluntary membership associations were launched by civic organizers who took inspiration from America's federally organized republican polity—so much so that they modeled their organizations after U.S. governmental institutions, creating vast, nation-spanning federations consisting of local chapters linked together into representatively governed state and national bodies. Union victory in the massive Civil War of the 1860s was a key watershed in this story, for it gave renewed impetus to the creation and spread of cross-class voluntary federations, like those Warren Durgin joined and had later emblazoned on his gravestone.

Durgin's joint proclamation of Civil War service and membership in great voluntary associations thus made symbolic as well as biographical sense. As U.S. leaders did when they saved the Union by mobilizing volunteer armies and relief networks, the organizers of America's greatest voluntary associations practiced cross-class fellowship. They aimed to gather good men or women (and occasionally, as in the case of the Grange, men and women together) into vast, encompassing associations that mirrored—and had the power to influence—the democratic republic of which they were a part. Not only Warren Durgin, therefore, but millions of other Americans of modest means could readily become members, even officers, of the same voluntary associations that enrolled the most privileged and powerful citizens. Although particular associations rose and fell, memberships shared across class lines were characteristic of much of American civic life from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century—that is, for all the decades of Durgin's earthly span, plus a few more.


But how greatly American civic life has changed by now! In the early-twenty-first-century United States, it is almost impossible to imagine a humble man like Warren Durgin belonging to the same nationwide voluntary associations as the high and mighty. To the extent that nationally influential membership associations still flourish, they are likely to be professional groups (such as the APSA and the SSHA in which I am an active participant). Otherwise, U.S. civic life has been extraordinarily transformed. Where once cross-class voluntary federations held sway, national public life is now dominated by professionally managed advocacy groups without chapters or members. And at the state and local levels "voluntary groups" are, more often than not, nonprofit institutions through which paid employees deliver services and coordinate occasional volunteer projects. In our contemporary civic world, it is much easier to imagine Warren Durgin as the client of a nonprofit agency, or as a recipient of charitable assistance, than it is to envisage him as an active member of any voluntary association that includes people from a broad range of social backgrounds—apart, perhaps, from a church.

Another shift seems to have happened as well. No longer are supreme acts of national citizenship—such as Warren Durgin's Civil War service—understood as going hand in hand with active participation in voluntary associations. And no longer do we highlight the achievements of politically active, cross-class voluntary associations, like the GAR and the Grange to which Durgin belonged. (Durgin was a Civil War pensioner, and the GAR agitated politically for generous benefits to all Union veterans.) For some years now, America's most visible and loquacious politicians, academics, and pundits have proclaimed that voluntary groups flourish best apart from active national government—and disconnected from politics. The downplaying of the governmental and political wellsprings of civic engagement is subtle among academics and middle-of-the-road commentators but quite blatant among conservative pundits. As Christopher Beem shows in a wide-ranging review, contemporary writers of all stripes focus on local community and consider "governmental actions, and the actions of large political organizations ... at best irrelevant to, and, at worst, inimical" to a healthy civil society.

Through his well-known books, Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert D. Putnam has done more than any other contemporary scholar to shape understandings of civic engagement. In Putnam's view, family picnics, local choral societies, and neighborhood bowling leagues are fonts of civic engagement. His key concept "social capital" encompasses feelings of social and political trust, plus all sorts of interpersonal social connections—from informal ties of family members, friends, and neighbors to recurrent participation in organized groups—as long as those connections entail repeated face-to-face interchanges. Well-networked local communities have pride of place in his assessments of social capital, because recurrent interactions have often been centered in them. Putnam privileges primary interpersonal ties above all other forms of social and political activity, because he believes such interactions uniquely foster trust and cooperation. The more face-to-face group interaction a nation has, the healthier its people and the more efficient its government and economy will be.

Although their theories of civil society differ from Putnam's, liberal and moderate communitarians such as Michael Sandel, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and William Galston similarly privilege local community and interactions among family members, friends, and neighbors. In Sandel's major work, Democracy's Discontent, healthy civic life is portrayed in Jeffersonian terms as an aspect of local community, with national government at best irrelevant and at worst inimical to republican virtue. Similarly, the final report of the Council on Civil Society, a national commission cochaired by Elshtain, decries weakened family life, local fragmentation, and declining standards of personal responsibility as the chief sources of civic decline in the United States.

Government and politics barely figure in this report—and they are equally marginal to the portrayals of healthy civic life and indices of decline to be found in the report of another recent national commission coordinated by Galston.

The delinking of civic engagement from politics and national government takes on an even harder edge among contemporary U.S. conservatives—for many of them adhere to a zero-sum conception, in which the more the national state "intervenes" in society, the less the citizenry engages. With a few exceptions (such as the intellectuals clustered around the Weekly Standard), contemporary American conservatives routinely portray active national government as inimical to a healthy civil society. In an influential statement, political theorists Michael S. Joyce and William A. Schambra finger the liberal-progressive "vision of national community" and the concomitant growth of "a massive, centralized federal government" as the chief enemies of "natural" civic community, which they believe is rooted in autonomous families, neighborhoods, and local ethnic and voluntary groups able to solve social problems on their own, without involving extralocal government. Similarly, Peter Drucker contrasts America's tradition of "voluntary group action from below" to "the collectivism of organized governmental action from above," while in his inimitably colorful way, George Will speaks of voluntary groups as neighborly "little platoons" doing battle with "the federal government's big battalions."

Misleading beliefs such as these jarred against sea changes in American perceptions and hopes in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—which, like the outbreak of wars in the past, spurred an upsurge of patriotism and national fellow feeling. Suddenly, Americans regained faith in national government and became eager to contribute to shared public endeavors. After September 11, moreover, some leaders called for new domestic social security programs to aid the unemployed and spread the sacrifices caused by the coincidence of terrorism and national economic recession. Strong voices also urged the administration of President George W. Bush to seize the opportunity to promote national civic revitalization, perhaps by calling for a new, compulsory national service program for all of the nation's youth. Federal initiatives of this sort could translate patriotic feelings into action, proponents argued, by giving millions of Americans a new sense of active, participatory citizenship.

But in the immediate aftermath of the crisis as well as before, President Bush remained leery of bold new domestic social initiatives. And U.S. leaders in general were much more reluctant to expand civilian efforts at home and engage in mass civic mobilization than their counterparts had been at the start of earlier U.S. wars. Although the president did eventually call for a modest expansion of AmeriCorps, the nationally managed U.S. public service program, in the crucial months immediately after September 11, 2001, his most audible messages stressed the need for people to buy more in the private marketplace in order to stimulate the economy. In his calls for heightened civic involvement, President Bush highlighted local efforts and called on Americans to give money to private charities. His administration's chief priority for strengthening civil society consists of a "Faith-based Initiative" designed to encourage churches and local community groups, rather than government, to tend to the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

Were he to revisit the United States today, Alexis de Tocqueville would be puzzled at so much emphasis on nonpolitical civic localism, for he believed that vigorous democratic government and politics nourish and complement a participatory civil society. Warren Durgin clearly lived in a full-fledged version of Tocqueville's civic America, where "democracy" spread "throughout the body social a restless activity ... and energy never found elsewhere" and "political associations" were "great free schools to which all citizens come to be taught the general theory of association." By contrast, early-twenty-first-century Americans live in a diminished democracy, in a much less participatory and more oligarchicly managed civic world. Even more worrisome, many thinkers misdiagnose the civic challenges America faces today, for they have forgotten that national community, active government, and democratic mobilization are all vital to creating and sustaining a vibrant civil society. The true lessons of America's civic past are fading from view.


This book tells a big story about the interplay of democratic politics and civic voluntarism in the United States, offering a bird's-eye view of association building and patterns of civic leadership from the birth of the nation to the present. The evidence and arguments I present should provoke debate, for they challenge accepted wisdom on both ends of the political spectrum.

Contrary to conservative presumptions, I document that American civic voluntarism was never predominantly local and never flourished apart from national government and politics. Large-scale, translocal membership groups took shape from early in the history of the U.S. Republic and then spread into every part of the country and every sector of the population during the decades between the 1820s and the 1960s. Americans joined and led voluntary associations not merely to interact with friends and neighbors and solve local problems but also so as to reach out to fellow citizens of a vast republic and build the organizational capacity to shape national culture and politics. Through times of war and peace, U.S. representative institutions and public policies encouraged the growth of voluntary federations—which, in turn, often got involved in politics to influence the course of public policy. In the United States, democratic governance and civic voluntarism developed together, whatever today's conservatives may want to believe.


Excerpted from Diminished Democracy by Theda Skocpol. Copyright © 2003 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1 Warren Durgin's Gravestone - Understanding American Civic Democracy 3
2 How the United States Became a Civic Nation 20
3 Joiners, Organizers, and Citizens 74
4 From Membership to Management 127
5 Why Civic Life Changed 175
6 What We Have Lost 211
7 Reinventing American Civic Democracy 254
Notes 295
List of Tables and Figures 351
Index 355
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2003

    The Urge to Belong

    A very nicely written book that raises several speculations. The author points out that in the 19th century, many of the local groups that people joined were chapters of national or transnational organisations. This was part of their attractiveness. Joining a local group gave comradely ties with others across the nation, that you had never met, and probably would never meet. How peculiar was this to the US, as compared with the European countries from which many of these people recently left? Is there any way to quantify this? A little unfair to ask, perhaps, because of the sheer amount of research needed to flesh it out. But the above questions arise naturally out of the research summarised in the book. Historians have asked if the US was qualitatively different from other countries. ('Vineyard of liberty' etc.) The issues raised by the book give us another way to address the question. Perhaps Americans were more inclined to join such nation spanning groups because as an immigrant, footloose people, if they did not have centuries of binding to the same soil and neighbours, they wanted some other and multiple means of belonging? Was the striking success of the groups in some part due to such inchoate urgings? Another way to test would be to look into the history of similar groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Skocpol also points out that from the 1960s onwards, the membership of such groups in the US fell significantly. She advanced several reasons. But there is one possible reason for some of the decline that she did not mention. From the mid 1950s, TV became pervasive. Remember that joining a volunteer group is done in your recreational time. TV is a notorious competitor for that time, due to its convenience and cheapness. Plus, and more specifically, if one of your reasons (possibly unconscious) for joining a national group is to be part of a larger world, then TV assuages that to some extent. Granted, some of this may be illusory, but so what?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2003

    Enlightening social perspective on society

    Understanding history is a key competent of being able to view the world and understand what exactly is going on. Theda Skocpol¿s book Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life is a comprehensive detailed study of how organizations developed within American society and how organizations of tradition gave way to modern issue management organizations. This unique perspective is delivered from one of Americas unique treasures Skocpol¿s institutional knowledge and ability to breakdown the big issues into understandable prose is truly one of a kind. One of the best uses of comparative analysis within the book details how organizations used to include members from all facets of life and that individuals from all classes were members of the same organizations. Skocpol discusses how breaking down differences and barriers was an important part of how civic life developed. Being able to look at specific examples of individuals and the civic pride they had for being involved in government and society like Warren Durgin who was one of Abraham Lincoln¿s palm barriers. The analysis of how civic life changed the detail that went into the presentation of that information add a flavor to the book that leaves the reader with a broader perspective on the development of civil society. The concluding section on reinventing American Civic Democracy is an well expressed set of ideas about how to create inclusion and redevelop a strong sense of civic engagement through bridging the gap in society that is created from managed organizations back to institutional involvement within society. Expressing the idea that perhaps being apolitical and not focusing on politics is a mistake and that to energize individuals it is time to reinvent engagement to include working within political organizations. What I took away from Theda Skocpol's book Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life is that the way to build civic mobilization is to create and reinvent organizations to have local chapters and meetings that involve people as well as incorporating the modern uses of lobbyists and computerized mailing lists. That perhaps a mix of the best practices from history and current technology will yield a stronger society. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys look at civil society, engagement, and participation. The book is exceptionally well written had has an excellent flow to it that made it an enjoyable afternoon read.

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