why I still believe in institutions

(on the DC-Boston shuttle) Over the past 48 hours I have participated in three consecutive meetings in which an important point of debate has been whether to reform or rebuild institutions–flawed and disliked as they may be–or to look for “disruptive” changes and looser forms of community. In one meeting, in a tech space in Cambridge, I was one of the most “institutionalist” participants and was invited to defend that view. In a different meeting, near Dupont Circle in DC, I was perhaps one of the least institutionalist.

This is why I believe what I do. The graph shows levels of engagement for working class American youth in the 1970s and 2000s, using the kinds of survey measures developed in the seventies. Note that all forms of engagement are down except for volunteering, on which more below.

Note also that each of the key institutions that recruited working class youth in the 1970s had: a business model that allowed it to grow large and to be independent; arguments for joining that didn’t require any preexisting interest in civic engagement; incentives to recruit working class younger Americans; and a self-interest in making these members interested in politics. The newspaper offered sports and classifieds but put news on the front page. The church offered salvation and family but socialized people to participate. The party offered jobs and other benefits. You joined a union because the job was unionized.

All these institutions are shattered today. The only form of engagement that has expanded–volunteering–has become more of an institution. Many schools and some large districts require service. Others fund service programs and recruit volunteers. That is why volunteering has grown.

I know we live in an age of networks and personal choice. I still believe that unless we can build functional equivalents to the institutions of the later 20th century, we will not have mass participation in our democracy.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.