The Advocacy Implosion? Popular Membership in Civic Life

Winter 2023 #40
written by
Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
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Since the financial crisis, setting up social consultancies, agencies, think tanks – and other “memberless entities” – has seemed to be the only option for a new generation of civic organisers. In more than a decade of relentless experimentation, there’s been a proliferation of 'by design' civic initiatives operating in an extremely competitive market of policy brands and inclusive economic models, each contending for the limited resources of private foundations and local government. But why has a certain “civic trend” – the transformation from popularly rooted membership groups to staff-driven NGOs – come to monopolise the current definition of political action and social reform?

In Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life – an institutional survey of the US as a “civic nation” – political scientist Theda Skocpol reflects on the shift from membership to management through a historical review of the pre-1960s “civic fauna” and the post-1960s “advocacy explosion.” What changes have contributed to the disappearance of mass involvement in democratic life? Why has civic life become over-dependent on hired experts? Could the displacement of mass membership bodies by specialist advocacy groups be partly responsible for new forms of political resentment? And, ultimately, is our current “civic health” a cause for optimism or worry?

My review of the book focuses on how civic entrepreneurs – from professional or elite backgrounds – largely abandoned membership associations in the post-war period to establish “an unprecedented number of nationally active associations that lacked popular and subnational roots.” More specifically, it will outline the causes and consequences of the reconfiguration of the broad-based civic models of the past in favour of centralised, staff-heavy, and memberless advocacy groups whose efforts are primarily focused, as George Hoare puts it, on securing “policy achievements away from democratic contestation.”

Becoming a civic nation

The role of “democratic solidarity and leverage” in social reform was a defining feature of US civic life from the late eighteenth to the mid twentieth century. For most Americans, it was secured through “nation-spanning” religious, fraternal, and industrial membership federations, which consisted of “local chapters” that were “linked together into representatively governed state and national bodies.” Rather than the result of “spontaneous local organising”, the majority of civic involvement was inspired by institution building at the national and regional level, with a close relationship between political parties and “grassroots networks that were capable of mobilising popular votes” during elections.

Though civic voluntarism “took shape from the start of national life”, the most formative event in the rise of democratic associations was the US Civil War. According to Skocpol’s research, more large membership associations launched in the late 1860s “than in any other five-year period in all of U.S. history.” During and after the ferment of this period, membership associations ranged from temperance societies, farmer’s alliances, and industrial unions to women’s clubs, anti-slavery societies, and a wide range of fraternal groups. These associations created a “democratic citizenry” that was capable of supporting and offering fellowship, social services, and political representation. Unlike today’s staff-driven NGOs, they also enabled “millions of Americans of modest means” to “become members, even officers, of the same voluntary associations that enrolled the most privileged and powerful citizens.”

During the reconstruction period, while there was still “fierce repression” of African Americans' efforts to join trade unions, fraternal associations enabled Black communities to provide such social services and political representation, particularly in the Northern and upper Southern states. Similarly, this period also “heightened the aspirations and increased the civic capacities” of women, who either pressed for full membership in male-only associations, or used popular guides on organisational models to create new associations, which would be involved in moral crusades, such as the temperance movement, or successful campaigns to secure political suffrage.

The later emergence of the welfare state – and earlier federal activism such as the 1930s New Deal – was not enough to suppress civic associations. Not only had “major fraternal associations abandoned or marginalised their social insurance programmes” or merged into commercial companies in the previous decades, Skocpol argues that it's inaccurate to refer to such associations as mere “social service providers”, a still persistent misinterpretation within both liberal and conservative accounts. It was, of course, civic associations that mobilised members to advocate for political reforms within national government in the first place.

Also contrary to the recent debates on civic engagement, the shared definition of a healthy civic life for most of US history was inimical to more recent expressions of “nonpolitical civic localism.” Despite selective readings of writers like Alexis de Tocqueville, classic American associations were in fact representative supralocal and national networks, supporting both “intimate solidarities” at the local level and a “common institutional framework” that facilitated members to influence the national government. Local roots, Skocpol argues, did not come “at the expense of national involvement”, but were part of abetween democratic government and a participatory civil society. Even though it’s rarely recognised, such widespread civic experimentation had a significant influence on representative models of government at the national level.

Civic decline

The long-standing civic associations and federations of pre-1960s America experienced an “abrupt and fundamental” transformation, either disappearing, reforming, or accepting managed decline in membership levels. While new social movements and “small groups” were still engaging significant – even larger – numbers in political action or local fellowship, individuals were not joining or creating new member-led federations. Broadly, civic energy was redirected into “professional advocacy, private foundation grant making, and institutional trusteeship”, a new civic universe which Skocpol describes either as “diminished democracy”, or more provocatively as “oligarchic.”

But why were there such high levels of disaffiliation during this period? What accounts for such significant membership losses for two thirds of the US associations featured in Skocpol’s research? The book outlines a confluence of social, political, and technological shifts for this “great disengagement”, focusing on why individuals were either disinclined from joining or reforming existing federations or were incentivised to embrace new approaches to social reform.

The elevation of individual engagement over group mobilisation became the focus of clientelist approaches to revitalise democracy. The role of popular membership groups was replaced by the direct consultation of “disaggregated” individuals who were treated as consumers of policy preferences.

The effort of “mobilising fellow citizens into dues-paying, interactive associations that met regularly” no longer appealed to a new generation of highly educated professionals and “ambitious elites” who had access to philanthropic resources and who offered reliable expertise and stability to grant makers.

The “private-public initiative of tax deductions” created a post-war wave of philanthropic foundations which, according to the late Randy Martin, enabled the “disposal of wealth in the frame of public policy through non-democratic processes.” These new resources provided indirect public finance to NGOs that permitted national associations to set the agenda without securing public input or support.

The promise of new forms of professional advocacy seemed to be more capable of responding to the new gains of conservative lobbying by imitating the advocacy methods of other pressure groups. Rather than mobilising fellow citizens, the new preference for professionals was to contribute to “national or local well-being by working with other specialists to tackle complex technical or social problems.”

For professionals working outside of the NGO sector, the prospect of joining civic associations was disincentivised by new opportunities to “simply send checks to advocacy groups, or contribute to service providers, or serve on the boards of their favorite charities.”

Gender and racial segregation of associations informed participation in “classic civic America.” With the proliferation of rights-oriented groups, old-line membership federations were partially “delegitimated” by association with past or current discrimination. The slow – and conflicted – reform of these institutions often deterred young “joiners”.

Beyond the civic deficit: the role of membership

While not every organisation should be a membership body – and there’s still an important role for NGOs – there are many ways to both work with and encourage the creation or revival of democratic institutions. But why is membership, and associational models, decisively important in our efforts towards civic reform?

Federated chapter building can link local associations to regional and state institutions, facilitating both local community life and access to policy influence on national legislation.

Organisational permanence creates the opportunity for long-term interventions, enabling more “institutional memory” in response to a fast cycle of complex – but not discrete – challenges.

Elected leadership – rather than professional spokesperson networks – have more legitimacy in public interest debates, unlike today’s NGO leaders who “rarely arrive at their positions by working from within the groups they supervise.”

Dues payment allows organisations to be (partially) financed by a broad membership base, enabling a meaningful sense of member control and encouraging everyone – no matter how little – to financially contribute.

Cross-class participation is far more common in membership bodies than in NGOs, which supports opportunities for non-professionals – and those with low or no educational credentials – to be elected into leadership positions.

Member accountability can exert pressure on leaders to follow member-driven agendas, rather than the professional prioritisation of issues, which can alienate the wider public.

Reciprocal ties are stronger than volunteer or donor relationships. Rather than the sporadic interactions with modern NGOs through petitions, funding campaigns, volunteering, and mailing lists, membership bodies prioritise the function of fellowship as well as stated political or business objectives.

Civic revival: has there really been a return of the public?

Has there been an advocacy implosion? While there has been an encouraging increase in citizen activism within NGOs during the two decades since the book’s publication, it’s still not actively inspired new approaches to civic or business membership, has largely ignored existing civic associations, and has over privileged “interpersonal ties” – promoting neighbourliness – between local residents to the detriment of involvement in the national political community. Despite NGO-led attempts to create a “deliberative wave”, democratic speech therapy initiatives are no substitute for large-scale involvement in civic society and have been mostly experienced as technocratic gestures, only possible under well-funded staff supervision.

Even though the book concerns the past and contemporary situation in the US, its approach to civic decline and revival are relevant to the UK. Should social reform remain a private endeavour between the lobbyists of competing advocacy bodies? Can more than a decade of NGO-led civic innovation – employed relatively successfully in public institutions, such as local government – be applied to reinventing civic associations? With the now apparent consequences of the civic deficit – political polarisation, public distrust, and widening social equalities – this could be the long overdue moment to revive popularly rooted associational models.

But is the revival of civic associations an anti-professional movement? Some analysts – such as Michael Sandel, a conservative advocate of civic virtues – misinterpret the distinctions between the role of professionals in civic associations and NGOs as “overdrawn.” Of course, voluntary associations were and are managed by professional – paid – staff, who have played a vital role in “cross-class” federations. This is precisely why the book is so keenly critical of the professional and elite abandonment of such democratic bodies from the 1960s onwards. If anything, the prescriptions in the book are an invitation for professionals to rejoin democratic – member-driven – institutions after generations of privately pursuing policy goals through NGOs.

There are many potential ways that employees of NGOs can interact with civic and democratic associations. Here are a few of the book’s recommendations.

Anticipating even more social conflict and widening inequality over the next few years, campaigners and advocates should turn towards democratic models for social reform. This is a call for a new generation of association builders and joiners who are committed to being part of – not apart from – a democratic citizenry.

This article is the first in a series of research to reimagine civic society, create new proposals for change, and support the democratisation of social reform.

Winter 2023 #40
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