How the civic groups that once defined America are thriving abroad, and what it means for us.
Bowling far from home: The Rotary club of Kalisizo, Uganda (Photo: Alyce Henson)
One sweltering day last spring, out of curiosity and a long-standing interest in the old-fashioned American institutions of civic engagement, I stepped out of my apartment building in the nation’s capital and walked over to attend a nearby conference of the Toastmasters. Founded in a Southern California YMCA basement for the betterment of tongue-tied young men, the Toastmasters have been offering “practice and training in the art of public speaking” along with “sociability and good fellowship” since the mid-1920s. In my mind, the group harked back to a half-imagined America of bowling leagues, church barbecues, and Rotary signs on the edge of town. What was funny was that my apartment resided in a sandy, congested neighborhood of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Under the Arabian midday glare, I scurried across one of the city’s sprawling six-lane boulevards—past a billboard that months earlier had advertised the local Krispy Kreme’s “Ramadan Dozen” special—to reach the campus of a local women’s college that was hosting the event. When I arrived at the main auditorium, I found it humming with a 300-horsepower murmur. The place was packed with men and women in off-the-rack power suits, plus a few starched white robes and black abayas. The room was decked end-to-end with gold silk banners, each, to my amazement, representing a different local chapter of the Toastmasters. By itself, Abu Dhabi—a young boomtown of global migrants roughly the size of Milwaukee—harbors seventeen active chapters of the group, I learned. The UAE as a whole, with a population of about eight million people, has seventy-one chapters.
When I first heard that the Toastmasters had a presence in Abu Dhabi, I pictured a small roomful of ill-adjusted American expatriates draining their water glasses, trading a few speeches, and then adjourning to a bar. Suffice it to say, my imagination had failed me. At the conference, I found only one fellow American in the crowd. In fact, I found only one other native speaker of English in the crowd. Instead, the group drew from a pretty representative sample of Abu Dhabi’s usually rather fragmented society: there was a strong majority from the Indian subcontinent, small contingents of Filipinos and Arabs from abroad,and a few actual citizens of the UAE—all guffawing warmly at speeches delivered in broken English about following dreams, learning lessons from failure, seeing through appearances, and other themes of uplift worthy of a motivational poster.
Curious, I called up the Toastmasters headquarters in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, to find out whether the United Arab Emirates was some kind of anomaly. It isn’t. The organization reports hotspots of growth throughout Asia and the Middle East. “Within India and Sri Lanka,” said Daniel Rex, the Toastmasters’ executive director, “we’re organizing about a chapter a week.”
Then, on a hunch, I began poking around to see how similar organizations were faring overseas—groups like Rotary, the Boy Scouts, the Lions, and the Kiwanis, which all came into existence during the same early-twentieth-century period that gave rise to the Toastmasters. Most of these groups have been bleeding members in the United States for decades. And yet, as I discovered, many have been growing nonetheless.
“We have 11,000 Kiwanians in Taiwan,” said a chipper spokeswoman for the Indiana-based group, which has seen a 59 percent rise across Asia in the new millennium. Rotary International, after a decade of 60 percent growth in South Korea, counts 60,000 members there. And a number of different groups have found particularly fertile soil in India. In addition to the Toastmasters’ strong showing there, the Lions have grown by 36 percent over the past decade, with a total membership of more than 200,000 in the land of Gandhi. Rotary has grown by 55 percent there over the same period. (Fun fact: There are twice as many Rotary clubs in Kerala as there are in Kansas.) As of July 1, the new president of Rotary International is Kalyan Banerjee, a chemical executive from the medium-size industrial city of Vapi, Gujarat. And between 1980 and today, the Indian equivalent of the Boy Scouts—called the Bharat Scouts—has grown by about a third.
In a radio interview earlier this year, the former Arkansas governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee sniffed at President Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia. “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings,” he said, “and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary clubs, not madrassas.” Huckabee’s innuendo was unmistakable, but he got one thing precisely backward. Indonesia has more than twice as many scouts as we do. In fact, with around 17.1 million badge-seeking, uniform-sporting, oath-swearing youth, Indonesia has the largest scouting association in the world. The United States, whose scout numbers are steadily dwindling, is not even a close second. And for the record, Rotary has around eighty-nine clubs in the country as well.
As Robert D. Putnam famously chronicled a decade ago in his book Bowling Alone, Americans in the latter third of the twentieth century precipitously abandoned the clubs and associations that once defined us. Many of the trends Putnam outlined have continued. Over the last ten years alone, American membership in the Lions has fallen by about 20 percent, in Rotary by about 8 percent, and the Kiwanis by about 22 percent. Since the mid-twentieth century, everything from card games to church attendance, from Sunday picnics to membership in unions has plummeted. Screen time has crowded out much else. Today, we might follow scores of people on Twitter, join a dozen Facebook groups, and sign up for a few mailing lists, but it’s considerably more rare for us to actually show up for anything.
This is, of course, a familiar story—one that has by now been subject to about as many interpretations as Moby-Dick. And there is disagreement as to how much we should mourn. Technophiles say we have simply moved beyond an old-line civic order into an online one, where powerful social networks offer infinite connection in a frictionless world. Others view these innovations as at best pale substitutes for the Grange Halls and other groups that helped drive progressive reforms in the twentieth century, or the once-thriving fraternal orders that sponsored Little Leagues and helped knit different classes of Americans together as recently as the 1960s. “We’ve reached a point where our most important elites do not join anything with anybody else,” says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government at Harvard who wrote elegiacally about the history of membership groups and fraternal organizations in her book Diminished Democracy.
And yet it’s worth pausing to consider that this familiar story of the decline of the old-fashioned American civic association may not, in fact, be quite accurate. Like the Fortune 500 companies that are expanding operations in emerging markets while trimming their U.S. payrolls, many of America’s major fraternal organizations are thriving globally even as they wither here at home. And while the decline of these groups domestically is certainly not a good thing for America, their growth abroad is hardly unwelcome. Indeed, it may represent a strength—a sort of commercial-civic soft power—that we barely know we have.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.