effects on civil society will be mediated by the economy

How will the current pandemic affect civic engagement? We certainly cannot know, but I would offer the following hypotheses:

People’s voluntary behaviors, values, and preferences will not change very much. If you can, you will snap back to pre-COVID habits and beliefs as soon as possible. However, the economic turmoil caused by the shutdown will destroy many nonprofit associations, newspapers, and businesses that are integrated into community life (such as cafes and barber shops). In the short term, not only will that destruction harm many people, but it will suppress civic life, since most people engage in and because of organizations. In the longer term, there will be space for civic innovation and growth, and maybe younger and more diverse leadership will emerge. However, civic organizations–particularly, local newspapers–that already have fragile business models may never be replaced.

Although it’s a century old, our best model for predicting the pandemic’s effects is the great influenza pandemic of 1918. In many parts of the world, its effects are impossible to disentangle from the impact of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the collapse of empires. However, the US was peripheral to those matters and lost less than 1/20th of one percent of our population in the Great War. Changes that occurred between 1918 and 1920 can be plausibly attributed to the pandemic, which killed 650,000 out of 103 million Americans (equivalent to about 2 million deaths today).

Graphs from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone show no significant or lasting impact on civil society. Deep trends–industrialization, urbanization, the Great Migration–were ongoing, and so were trends in civic life. For instance, the early 1900s was the era when Americans constructed national organizations with local chapters, and their growth proceeded unabated through 1918.

Putnam also presents trends for membership in professional associations and unions, the rate of playing card games, the number of police officers per capita, and telephone ownership. These rates do not all smoothly rise in the early 1900s, but none seems to bend around 1918.

One possible exception is the rate of founding of major membership organizations, which was lower in the 1920s than in the 1910s:

Putnam lists the actual associations by their date of founding. None were launched in 1918, but three came into being in 1919. I see little evidence that the pandemic affected associations, unless it caused a delay in foundings during the actual year of the flu. In 1920, Warren Harding won election on the promise of a “return to normalcy”–poor grammar but a pretty accurate prediction.

However, the civic life that Americans built in the early 1900s depended on small contributions, dues, or subscriptions (in the case of newspapers) from many ordinary people. As long as they had jobs, they could support the associations. Organizations seemed to have weathered any short-term loss of income.

In contrast, today’s civil society is heavily dependent on philanthropy from foundations and wealthy individuals and contracts with governments. Many 21st century nonprofits basically run as businesses with a small number of investors and lots of constituents who do not pay for their services. A market meltdown could easily kill them off. In an international survey conducted from March 24-26, 68% of nonprofits already report a decline in contributions.

I worry especially about the metropolitan daily newspaper, because I believe it was an interesting hybrid invented between 1890 and 1920. Newspapers were often very profitable thanks to advertising and wide reach. At their peak, they attracted more than 80% of households by providing a basket of goods–sports, classified ads, comics. Meanwhile, they served a civic function by presenting important news on the front page. They did not invest in reporting because it maximized their profits but because professional reporters and editors–“the press”–exercised some influence over the owners of newspapers. The resulting combination was valuable but vulnerable and already in steep decline by 2010. If the recession now kills the last surviving metropolitan daily newspapers, there is no reason to think that any functional equivalent will replace them.

See also: new research on “civic deserts”; The “civic state of the union”; Bowling Alone after (almost) 20 years; and the hollowing out of US 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.