This guest article is by my friend Eric Siegel:
One of the ironies of the current transition in community and network building is that we seem to have forgotten or ignored the previous transition. The “institution-centric” mode of civic engagement (to use Brad’s phrase) is a relatively recent invention, at least in America. (For a variety of historical reasons, an argument can be made that the institution-centric model has been around somewhat longer in Europe and elsewhere.) In our not-too-distant past, community engagement was much more along the “citizen-centric” model that seems to be emerging, albeit with some important catalyzing functions played by significant social and political institutions.
Here’s a prime example. I teach American Government at the Community College of Rhode Island. I talk in my classes about the decline of political parties in our system. Part of this decline is due to the reduction or elimination of the role that political parties once played in helping connect people to their communities and to each other. A hundred years ago, local political party organizations published newspapers, held dances, sponsored amateur sports teams, arranged for social services. One of the most important functions they served was to help integrate recent immigrants into existing immigrant/expatriate communities. (Anyone who has seen the film “Gangs of New York” will have some idea of what I’m talking about.)
Lots of other public and quasi-public institutions served similar functions. They brought people together so that they could pursue their interests better — not to serve the needs of the organization per se (although they did do that), but to help people serve their own needs. Parties recruited volunteers for campaigns, mobilized voters for elections, and developed partisan loyalty. But they also helped people, especially vulnerable, isolated individuals and nuclear family groups, establish roots and connections that they needed to survive, and that enabled communities to flourish.
Over the last century, these kinds of institutions made a transition from fulfilling a social networking function (in addition to their other roles) to being merely service providers. Now we are beginning to (re)discover the importance of the social networking aspect to the viability of our communities, and discovering that the institutions that used to help do that for us (or should I say with us?) no longer do.
Beginning at the turn of the last century, the political party system began to be remade. The passage of anti-patronage laws in civil service hiring undercut the ability of political organizations to cement people’s loyalty through the distribution of public-sector jobs. Over the course of the 20th century, campaign finance reforms made individual candidates more responsible for their own campaign development, further reducing the need for strong party loyalty ties. Today, the relation between political parties and voters is basically a customer-brand relationship; we’re important to them for our numbers, and they provide us with a choice of elected representatives. But there’s no other real mechanism (or reason) for fostering those deeper ties, for making interpersonal connections, and for developing community bonds. The institutions that once helped us build networks now only want clients.
Eric Siegel is a lecturer in Political Science at the Community College of Rhode Island, and co-Chair of the Green Party of Rhode Island. And a big Martin Scorsese fan.