Power, Voice and Bowling Alone

Americans are increasingly focused on economic inequality, and especially the growing and dangerous gulf between the 1% and everyone else. But of course, no element of our social ecosystem is separate and distinct from the other elements, and the financial gap between wealthy and working class citizens is closely connected to other kinds of inequality.

Children from poor families attend poorly performing schools. The streets and sidewalks and parks in poor neighborhoods are rarely as well maintained as those in wealthier precincts. The prevalence of “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods—the lack of markets selling healthy foods at reasonable prices—has been the subject of numerous articles. These and other tangible manifestations of unequal access to social goods (health care, for example) are relatively obvious.

But there is a less-often recognized kind of inequality: disproportionate access to the public square and the marketplace of ideas. This lack of access to contending perspectives, abetted by the steady erosion of what sociologists call voice, doesn’t just disadvantage the poor. It hurts us all, by depriving us of perspectives we need to hear and understand.

It is certainly true that many Americans, not just the poor, have historically opted out of democratic deliberations. But they had voice–and influence–through a multitude of civic organizations.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote

 Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were responsive.

 “Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

 What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.

 Beginning in 1980, those organizations—a vibrant part of civil society—began to wither. Robert Putnum famously documented the decline in Bowling Alone.

The decline of unions has been especially consequential. As Reich notes, however, other former centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives, and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big agribusiness, and Wall Street. Many of these changes were an intentional result of public policies—everything from Right to Work laws to slackened banking regulations. Others reflected economic and technological shifts.

Meanwhile, political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphed from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.

Although Reich does not include it in his list, we might add the effects of so-called “privatization”—especially the practice of government contracting with nonprofit organizations to deliver public services. Nonprofit scholars have long expressed concern that the growing dependence of human services nonprofits on government dollars has operated to “hollow out” their essential character as mediating institutions.

Reich concludes that the only way to turn this situation around is through greatly increased political activism. I agree.

The open question is whether average Americans have the time, the energy, or the will to  reassert their right to be heard, and to insist on retaking their rightful place at the civic table.


  1. Envisioning utopia has been an interesting sideline intellectual exercise since we evolved past survival and it continues to be. Like many things it’s reinforced now by the Internet. Most of what I have stumbled across deals with what might be called post capitalism.

    People engaged in that dreaming consider major forces lose in the world today and how they might conspire to change what no longer is working to what might.

    One technosocial such force is networking replacing hierarchical structures. Perhaps what has evolved as a data driven digital electronic revolution might be mirrored into how we interact.

    Another obvious force is reflected in the temptation among geo!ogists to declare the end of the Holocene and the eve of the Anthropocene, the age when mankind is the definer of earth.

    Still another is the age when our options are dictated more and more by our common heritage, resources and their limited supply. We have a fixed inventory of the 100 forms of elemental matter which we are changing into a completely different set of compounds continuously, a fixed rate of energy supply, and only our portion of spacetime in which to exist. Like fixed income budgets we only get to spend what we have once so our thinking has to evolve from the moment to all time.

    Into this mix must also be thrown that both the transition and the end point must be considered.

    I personally see no alternative to the next 100 years being greatly disruptive, traumatic and revolutionary in all of its senses. But after that either utopian or dystopian, we know not which.

    Mother Nature will correct our excesses of which there are many today. There will be no free lunches. What gets debated here and there will be resolved into an entirely new set of problems as the ones we debate now get either get resolved with solutions or consequences.

    At least some will learn from these unfolding causes and effects and modify the path accordingly and the wisdom behind that learning will bend our track for better or worse, surely both.

    Our children and theirs ought to be both terrified and excited but, we hope, also determined that life’s story continue evolving positively.


  2. The last paragraph is so important. People working 40 or more hours per week really don’t have the energy or the time to search for the truth about what is really happening in our economy and government. Unfortunately, too many are falling prey to the propoganda from the ruling 1%.

  3. Most often, people invest their time and their energy in a long, up hill battle with the incentive to acquire, to defend, or to exact revenge. If our democracy continues to morph into a nation of citizens who genuinely feel the defeat and who are operating, both individually and collectively, with the assessment of, “Why bother?”, their incentives deficit, unfortunately, won’t yield much will.

  4. If “truth in advertising” could become the law of the land – it should begin with all politicians and media should pass it along to the public. “Cause and effect” must be known by all to produce positive results. Well; I can dream, can’t I?

  5. This is a great perspective on the ongoing and increasing division between the rich and the poor. I try hard not to ever have blinders on, but I may be guilty of it at times. It is too easy to assume that anyone can rise above a life that was below poverty level. There are precious few that have overcome this life of despair to become role models for future generations. Exposure to the arts and esthetics, which includes so many important aspects of life is disappearing in society in an alarming rate.

  6. “Change is gonna come” tells the song. Massive change. Disruptive change. Not the self imposed progress that we’re used to but forced change. Change that we are the cause of but reluctant victims of the effects. Our lives are no longer consistent with reality and that is by definition unsustainable.

    “Let it be” tells another song.

    Here’s a collection of thoughts for the optimistic among us who hang onto the thought that we may not be in control of all reality but we can still control ourselves and ration is on our side.


  7. I think Earl that right is when the consequences enhance the greater good and wrong is when the consequences either cost everyone or benefit the few at the expense of the greater good.


  8. Nancy (the other one) says it well above. Those who are working multiple low-paying jobs and have a family to support don’t have the time and funds (or transportation) to belong to service clubs, volunteer, be active in a church or to have a computer or subscribe to a newspaper. They seldom hear TV or radio news. Civic engagement is a luxury. And yes, many poor, middle class, and even well-off folks fall prey to the propaganda from the richest 1%.

    That’s why I’m so thankful for Sheila. She provides great informational ammunition with which to inform the masses, if only the rest of us will distribute and use it.

  9. I like what Sheila writes about civic responsibility. We have to educate ourselves on the policies, candidates, & just generally educate ourselves from reliable sources. Our local media & national news is a joke. I have known this , but even more emphasized this week with the over the top news coverage of the stage collapse at Westield High School. This was an unfortunate accident. Did we really need reporters on the scene at all of our local hospitals? The next day coverage looking at the side of a brick building & door. The need to sensationalize this incident & endlessly search for a bigger story or some blood & gore was sickening. Turn it off. Turn on PBS, NPR, or other trusted reliable & educational sources for news & information. Read from the same responsible sources.

  10. Unions and service clubs did thrive even when farmers, retailers, local bankers and others were working long hours. They were sources of socialization, entertainment, as well as collective community projects. Churches have morphed into mega-churches with passive watchers of entertainment as an essential part of the service.

    There are so many distractions that pass for entertainment now, so few newspapers, magazines, etc., that provide actual news instead of sports and infotainment. We had to see the interview with Bruce Jenner and then the interview with a Kardashian on Bruce Jenner. This was a lead news item. It should have been an opportunity to learn something about transgendered people in a serious way. Instead, it was sensationalized, almost purient.

    I am reminded of the ancient Rome and the bread and circuses approach to cementing power into the hand of the few.

  11. Somehow some way, we have to get past this cultural “funk” we are in where we see things that are wrong or need to be fixed for the common good but do nothing really to fix them. Instead, we accept this state of affairs and look to the future with very mixed emotions and with a increasingly deepening sense of loss of control over our own destinies. Personally, I call it “civilization fatigue”, where the rapidity of change, the political gridlock, and level of corruption and frustration that runs rampant just about everywhere, is coupled to the angst we all feel in some degree about our future as a country and as a people. We seemingly feel powerless against the race to whatever future we are headed for, as Pete aptly defined it – utopian or dystopian, with most feeling that the latter is to be our lot.

    We are not sheep and we don’t have to accept a future that some want to dictate to us since they feel that they have the right to impose their will and their vision of reality upon all of us. That’s not how this place, America, works. Every time we, as a nation, have been faced with great challenges we have risen to the occasion and have essentially “reinvented” ourselves as a nation each time. Historically, we call it progress.

    The responsibility for what future we end up with ultimately lies with all of us just as it has throughout this country’s history. Do we rise to the occasion or do we just sit back and accept the hand that is being dealt to us without uttering even a whimper?

    In a speech to the British House of Commons on 9 September 1941, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill, whose mother was an American, paraphrased the last two lines of the poem “Invictus”, stating “We are still masters of our fate. We still are captains of our souls.” We need to take to heart those words ourselves.

  12. No, Pete. Far too many variables. Intended good might turn bad. Or be good but turn bad later, or turn neutral or whatever. Good here could be bad elsewhere. Far, far to many possibilities. The only certainty are the consequences whatever they may be.

  13. What Earl has said, reminds me of what Peter Schwartz pointed out in his book Inevitable Surprises: “…….these forces are what scenario planners call “predetermined elements”……forces that we can anticipate with certainty because we already see their early stages in the world today. We know they are inevitable because they have already begun to take place. They are going to surprise us because while the basic events are virtually predetermined, the timing, results, and CONSEQUENCES are not. We do not know exactly how these events will play out, or precisely when they will occur. But we can anticipate the range of possible results, and the ways in which the rules of the game may change thereafter.”

    As Sheila has reminded us, individual political action is still vitally important. It can greatly effect the ultimate “End Game.”

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