Exercising the democracy muscle

We have this view of America as a place of rugged individualism, but a piece in The Atlantic argues this is precisely why it faces a democratic crisis:

…participation in civic groups and organizations of all kinds declined precipitously in the last decades of the 20th century. The trend has, if anything, accelerated since then; one study found that from 1994 to 2004, membership in such groups fell by 21 percent…

…Trump secured the Republican nomination by speaking directly to those voters who had the least experience with democratic institutions… among those who seldom or never participated in community activities such as sports teams, book clubs, parent-teacher associations, or neighborhood associations, Trump led 50 to 24 percent.In fact, such civically disengaged voters accounted for a majority of his support

For two centuries Americans created, joined and participated in “democratic institutions”, ranging from parents associations to sports teams, unions and even freed slaves.

It’s an interesting concept, that democracy is not just something you are born a part of, but a skill or temperament that can be developed through practice. It also makes intuitive sense – teamwork and going through a process doesn’t come naturally, building connections and friendships can make it all easier. It’s why incumbent politicians are often more effective than rookies.

It also makes sense that operating at a sub-political level creates space for this kind of development. There aren’t the cataclysmic debates over things like abortion. It’s a lot easier to see how a fellow parent at your child’s school is on your side – both your children will benefit from higher standards.

Voluntary associations have provided the people with their greatest school of self-government, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote in 1944. Rubbing minds as well as elbows, they have been trained from youth to take common counsel, choose leaders, harmonize differences, and obey the expressed will of the majority. In mastering the associative way they have mastered the democratic way

…Democratic governance is never the most efficient means of running an organization, as anyone who’s attended a local zoning hearing can attest. Its value lies instead in harmonizing discordant interests and empowering constituents. A nation of passive observers watching others make decisions is a nation that will succumb to anger and resentment, witness the United States

I’m not sure how you replace this kind of volunteerism, as it seems to be the victim of several irreversible trends, such as the rise of online communities (supplanting the local one), the explosion in activities to distract yourself with, and human sorting. But it does seem the importance is the practice, rather than education.

…One recent study found that, holding all else equal, greater knowledge of civics among high-school seniors correlated with a 2 percent greater likelihood of voting in a presidential election eight years later. Active participation in extracurricular activities, however, correlated with a 141 percent increase.

Putting a copyright notice here feels kind of pointless. So I'm just going to appeal to your better nature - please don't steal without credit. A backlink would be nice :)