Traditional Civic Associations

In the Robert Putnam’s reading, he points out the declining trend of Americans participating in civic life, meaning Americans generally do not willingly and actively participate in major organizational groups that range from political to religious and have an effect on society as a whole. Putnam uses the example of an increased amount of bowlers but a decrease in bowling leagues to show how the American society has become more focused on the individual and strays from groups and cooperation. However, in this reading it is a response listed just after Putnam’s article that caught my attention by Katha Pollitt.

No, the whole theory is seriously out of touch with the complexities of contemporary life. If church membership is down (good news in my book), it’s hardly because people are staying home to watch TV. More likely, organized religion doesn’t speak to their spiritual needs the way (for example) self-help programs do. Putnam dismisses the twelve-step movement much too quickly. At the very least, its popularity calls the TV-time-drain theory into question. I know people who’ve gone to A.A. every day, for years. As for building social capital, my own brief experience with Alanon more than fifteen years ago is still my touchstone of ordinary human decency and kindness. What’s that if not “trust”? My membership in the P.T.A., by contrast, is motivated mostly by mistrust: As another parent put it, we join the P.T.A. to keep our kids from being shafted by the school system.

I think Pollitt brings up a great point about motivations behind members of these more civic organizations. My generation participates in what Putnam labels simply writes off as “support groups focused on the individual” because these groups showcase more empathy, acceptance, equality, and a strong drive to change the status-quo for the betterment of the group or society. “Traditional civic associations” are often occupied by people who are motivated by power and control. America has gotten to the point where these traditional civic associations are so overpopulated by more individualistic people that there is no room for those who seek to change the system. Therefore, we do not participate in these associations because it is futile and instead turn to support groups. Perhaps these “traditional” civic associations should be considered just that… traditional. Old fashioned. The old way of doing things. Perhaps our society has changed so that people no longer desire such stuffy organizations and prefer more flexible and casual options as American life is now busier and even more fast-paced due to the technology and information age pushing the standard of operating hours to 24/7?


Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Journal of Democracy, January 1995, pp 65-78


Democracy: Greece vs America

The question raised in this section of the documentary is how does the democracy practiced by the ancient Athenians compare to what we in the United States refer to as democracy. There are clear differences, from how representatives are selected, how much power they have, to how they are removed. The Athenian system places much more power directly into the hands of the people; they are the final and direct decision makers. So the question then becomes, why is the democracy we practice in the United States so different? The answer to this is in two parts: origin and practicality. The origin of American democracy can be traced to the enlightenment ideas that the founders of our country were well versed in and where they got the idea of democratic government in the first place. However, where the Athenian system places the people on top, the American founders clearly did not trust the common people at all. This is evident in how the system was set up with representative rather than direct democracy. The restriction of voting early on to only landed white males ensured that only those with a lasting stake in the region could participate, traders and merchants were too transitory to be trusted and women and people to color too inferior. Few also realize that initially only members of the House of Representatives were elected, Senators were chosen by the state governments (changed by the 17th Amendment in 1913). They did this because the founders only wanted men of a certain class and education to be Representatives as only they could be trusted with the business of the nation. Even the now despised electoral college was a safeguard against populist uprisings, taking the power from the people if those in the political elite think their choice for president was unwise. So, American democracy is founded on a base of simply not trusting the people. The second reason for our democracy being so different from Athens is practicality. This is the argument most will give today on why we cannot have a direct democracy. Fairly counting the vote of every man and woman when any piece of legislation needs to pass in a country of over 300 million is simply not practical. We can hardly get people to vote every 2 years let alone vote every 2 weeks as would be required to run the states and the national government effectively, not to mention the cost involved, and electronic online voting would be too susceptible to hacking and fraud.  

While no reasonable person would argue that what is practiced in the United States is a true democracy, it is a great model of a republic. Of course it needs to function better; partisanship and gerrymandering have done great harm to the democratic aspects of our republic making it harder for politicians to be removed from power and disenfranchising millions, especially minorities. So to conclude, no, Athenians would not consider the United States to be a democracy. However, I believe they would be glad to see that the arts they lay the foundation for drama, comedy and the rest still play a prominent role in shaping public opinion and criticizing politicians.


National Geographic, The Greeks; Chasing Greatness (2016)