How the civic groups that once defined America are thriving abroad, and what it means for us.
“Religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited,
immensely large and very minute”—American associations, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s view, were the defining feature of the nation he anatomized in 1835. His visit to America happened to coincide with a period that the historian Mary P. Ryan has called the “era of association,” when the expansion of male suffrage and the rise of mass political parties spawned a proliferation of cross-class fraternal societies and clubs. Putnam’s historical account in Bowling Alone focuses on a more recent boom in voluntary associations, one that arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.
This time, the catalysts were industrialization, massive urban migration, the rise of corporations, and breakneck economic growth. Jeffersonian bumpkins streamed into Hamiltonian industrial cities; a good portion of the Old World’s tired, poor, and huddled masses were freshly arrived too. The social networks that had once served these new arrivals back at home were either dashed to pieces, left behind, or else ill-suited to helping them advance and associate in this new world. The reaction against these economically charged but civically impoverished conditions was a geyser of new clubs, associations, unions, lodges, and fraternal orders—“a crescendo,” Putnam writes, “unmatched in American history.” It doesn’t seem like too much an abuse of history, I think, to note that much the same basic conditions apply in developing countries today.
When I wrote to Putnam, he said he knew nothing about the overseas expansion of the groups he’d written about in Bowling Alone (though he said he was very interested to hear of it). Just about all of the academics I contacted said much the same thing, expressing mild wonderment when I told them about the growth rates that groups like Rotary are posting in the developing world. Theda Skocpol pointed out that it’s hardly novel for American associations to spread vigorously abroad. (The temperance movement apparently had serious legs.) But this more recent phenomenon—of American civic groups’ expansion overseas during a period of contraction at home—seems to have largely escaped scholarly notice.
Michael Woolcock, a leading scholar of social capital at the World Bank, wasn’t very familiar with the trend I described to him. But he did offer a possible theory to explain it. Historically, he said, the growth of civic groups is often tied to rapid urbanization. And there may be no greater hallmark of our moment in history than the breakneck growth of cities in the developing world. “The world is now, as of last year, more urban than rural,” he said. “That could suggest flush times ahead for groups like Rotary.”
Like Russian immigrants newly arrived in Brooklyn from the shtetl, or Okies plopped down in San Francisco after the Dust Bowl, youth with narrow social networks are streaming into cities from the countryside in vast waves in nations like India. “It’s the proverbial yokel going to town,” said Anirudh Krishna, a professor at Duke University’s School of Public Policy who studies social capital in India. “His sleeves are too short, he knows his table manners are atrocious, his breath smells like garlic.” For educated newcomers with professional aspirations, groups like the Toastmasters or the Lions or Rotary might stand to offer “a school in which villagers can learn to conduct themselves with dignity in a city setting,” Krishna said.
For their part, the leaders of these voluntary associations themselves see their overseas expansion fairly straightforwardly as a phenomenon tied to rapidly expanding global markets. “Rotary thrives in areas that are becoming much more active economically,” said Donna McDonald, the manager of membership development at Rotary International. Explaining his organization’s rapid growth on the subcontinent, Daniel Rex, the executive director of the Toastmasters, said, “It has to do with the rise of India and the buying potential there, and the rise of middle and high-level management.”
At the same time, the Americanness of these groups seems essential to their appeal. (No expert I contacted could think of much in the way of analogous indigenous groups in, say, India or Egypt.) Embedded in the DNA of organizations like Rotary and the Toastmasters are the memes of American business culture, with all its odd tribal rituals, upbeat nostrums, manners, and codes. The Toastmasters not only provide a safe harbor in which to practice one’s English in front of a crowd, the group has also perennially stressed the training it offers in the somewhat baroque skill of running a formal meeting. (The founder of the Toastmasters, Ralph C. Smedley, was also the chief biographer of Henry M. Robert, of Robert’s Rules of Order fame.) “It’s a lot of cultural information,” said Rex.
And in places where America still stands for aspiration, many of these clubs offer a simple marker of status. A Scottish friend of mine who works for the World Bank recently described checking into a hotel in Bhubaneswar, the ramshackle capital of Orissa, which was until recently India’s poorest state. The concierge promptly assured her of the hotel’s quality by informing her that the local Rotary club met there. And at a Toastmasters meeting I attended in a little upstairs room at an Indian restaurant in Abu Dhabi, I watched a very solemn induction ceremony for a few new members, during which an officer of the club offered this somewhat garbled testament to the organization’s prestige: “If at all you are going to be the president of the United States, he has to be a Toastmaster.”
At the end of his travels, Tocqueville came away thinking of the democratic structures of American politics as “great free schools to which all citizens come to be taught the general theory of association.” In his view, it was the peculiar institution of American democracy that gave rise to the thicket of clubs and societies he found in the hinterland. But more recent observers have wondered whether Tocqueville got it backward. What if democracy was the general theory, and fraternal orders, commercial associations, and religious committees were the schools? “This was the civic garden in which people learned all these skills of negotiation and dialogue and speaking in the public square,” says Michael Woolcock. In Robert Putnam’s 1993 book Making Democracy Work, a study of regional governments in Italy, he found that even the presence of completely nonpolitical groups, like choral societies, correlated with more responsive governance. If associations grow thick on the ground, Woolcock says, “it can’t help but have osmosis-like effects in political life.”
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