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"Too Many Evenings"

One of the questions that the "Death of Environmentalism" authors don't address at all, but should have, is, the issue of membership in environmental organizations. What makes someone consider themself an "environmentalist" and join, say, the Sierra Club? They portray an environmental movement as if it is made up of the technical experts who work for the mostly non-membership groups like Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense C, etc. But the political power, or lack thereof, of the environmental groups depends more than anything else on its ability to move large numbers of people -- voters -- to act politically on behalf of these issues.

In the environmental world, the big membership bases are the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Federation and then the "hook and bullet" groups: Trout Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited. All these groups have a certain amount of the technical expertise that the Reapers deride, but their main activity is managing their members. The League of Conservation Voters -- an incredibly effective organization -- has members of its own and organizes some of the political activities for the other groups.

A good movement has both agile advocacy or idea-generating organizations that don't have to worry about members, and membership organizations, but its dangerous to get too far ahead of where members want to be. In the case of environmental issues, this is easy to see. A lot of the strength in the base has come from the hook and bullet groups, and LCV has helped to encourage those members to vote as environmentalists. But that doesn't mean that those members are ready to consider themselves "progressives" on every issue from health care to labor rights. Indeed, it may be that these members, primarily motivated by their own community concerns with clean water or air, or open space, also hold the movement back in dealing with the more cosmic and long-term issue of global warming.

In any case, membership, and the question of what makes someone decide to join or not join an environmental organization or another is inseperable from the questions raised in "The Death of Environmentalism." To some extent, the essay reads like an assault on identity politics, in which individuals cluster into narrow groups that are too small to have influence and can't act collectively. But "environmentalists" aren't identities like Latinos and gays; they have all chosen to make this their priority; they have often been marketed to by the environmental movement. That the movement has claimed more people in this way than any other grouping is probably its strength and weakness. The weakness comes because the most visionary leaders on the environment just can't get too far out ahead of where the members are.

I've been interested in the question of membership before, and I've suggested that the big phenonenon here is that the basic nature of membership itself has changed, from deep, dues-paying loyalty to a more transactional relationship, such as people have with moveon.org. It's been a long time since an organization like the Sierra Club, Common Cause, or NARAL was launched and built up its main membership base; it's unrealistic to expect that that will happen again or that aging members will become young again.

In the very good new quasi-blog, Personal Democracy Forum, edited by Micah Sifry, former Dean campaign official Zephyr Teachout takes up some of the questions of membership that have interested me. In fact, she uses the same two examples: the Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union. But her argument is almost the polar opposite of mine. I believe that the era of mass membership organizations that Theda Skocpol identifies in Diminished Democracy (a book Teachout draws heavily on) is actually ending and that we have to think what's next. Teachout, on the other hand, thinks that there is a longing for "ritualized, secular societies that meet pretty regularly, weekly and monthly." She proposes that organizations using the web be much more aggressive in calling attention to local activities, and in effect, encourage something like Dean's "meet-ups."

My own view is that membership in the modern world is defined by giving people things to do. One of those things might be going to local meetings, but while that worked for the young and single people who populated the Dean campaign, it's not as likely to work for those of us who have a little more going on in our lives. I shouldn't use myself as an example, because I get more than enough political stimulation during the work day, but it would take a lot of loyalty for me to join anything that meets "weekly and monthly." That's not something my cohort, made up of very likely voters, is going to jump into. Teachout refers to both Robert Putnam's and Theda Skocpol's analyses of the changes in participation; I have always thought that the key variable that explains the decline of face-to-face, local organizations like the Elks, which Putnam identified, is workforce participation. Dad doesn't go to the Elks' meeting (or whatever) because Mom's working late, or vice versa.

I think Teachout's effort to use the internet to restore a sense of the local to both national organizations such as the ACLU and to the Democratic party is admirable. But I don't accept, or see any evidence for, the proposition that people are just dying to join some organization such as the ACLU if only they could attend a lot of meetings. I think that the ACLU should instead dramatically lower the bar to someone considering themselves a "member," and encourage much more micro-transactions (signing a petition, seeking out information on an issue, looking up candidate endorsements) that will slowly draw individuals into the organization.

In short, I've always tried to remember Oscar Wildes' comment that "the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings." But read Teachout's very well-informed analysis. Maybe she's right.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 11, 2005 | Permalink


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Yes, nobody has the time for meetings except the people you mention. And that won't change -- workforce participation and the "new" economy erect significant barriers. I agree that transactional models will become increasingly prominent.

Teachout is clueless...again. It's yet another example of (liberal or conservative) political activists generalizing from their own desires and experience and not seeing how unrepresentative they are.

"Giving people things to do" that are meaningful and not too time consuming is the way to go. For those who can afford it, giving money is part of that, as long as proper communication models making people aware of the gratitude and utility of their investments.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Feb 11, 2005 1:20:58 PM

I don't think Zephyr is totally off the wall here. Speaking as someone who is younger and single and doesn't have the commitments of a full adult yet, I think there is a real desire for in-person meetings and community among those of my demographic, and that there is something to the Great American Loneliness she speaks of, especially for people in their 20's who are still trying to establish themselves. So, why not use the web to encourage that, especially when it doesn't cost that much in the scheme of things? I also think that it potentially fills a noticeable void in terms of local, on-the-ground organization for progressives. The other side has it in the form of the churches and associated social networks, and I think we need an equivalent of some sort to match them. It's certainly not a sole solution, but it sure seems like a worthy part of a larger and more comprehensive one.

Posted by: J. Dunn | Feb 11, 2005 2:26:27 PM

Another aspect of workforce participation is that communities used to have a large cohort of married women, often with education and good skills, to draw on for volunteer efforts. Now, of course, almost all of these women are working and are thus much less available for volunteering. My belief is that this change has probably had profound effects, but I've hardly ever seen it mentioned as significant.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Feb 11, 2005 2:46:22 PM

I think that community is important. It's why I go to church.

I also think that there need to be real rewards for some of the participants beyond just feeling good about making a difference.

There needs to be networking and opportunities for some of the people who get involved locally to get paid work and to move up in the ranks, and there needs to be real status associated with involvement. Do you really think that people run for the Harvard Board of Overseers just because they want to give back?

I think this fits in nicely with your point about the end of isms. A lot of people don't have time to join a whole bunch of different groups, but if there's one DFA or the Democratic party which broadly speaks to their ideals, then it's easier to be involved.

Posted by: Abby | Feb 11, 2005 3:14:11 PM

JDunn - agree totally. *Some* people (a small minority, but an important enough number) will have some time to spend.

Rebecca - I heard this once: greater workforce participation is why we don't have *as many* super-talented women teaching in schools anymore. They now have other jobs to attract them: law, medicine, business.....which coincidentally are all even harder on personal time (though in the beginning of a teaching career, you're working longer hours)

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Feb 11, 2005 6:39:44 PM


"In short, I've always tried to remember Oscar Wildes' comment that 'the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.'"

Which, maybe, is another way of saying that capitalism just takes up too much of the rest of our time.

Posted by: Rwells | Feb 11, 2005 9:33:01 PM

Personally, I tend not to be a joiner just because even the groups I am most inclined to support almost always end up advocating something that I vehemently disagree with. This doesn't necessarily make me want to have nothing to do with them, but I'm more comfortable with affiliations of convenience around narrowly targeted issues than with a membership that involves implicit or explicit endorsement of a whole menu of positions.

I suppose someone of a more communitarian bent could attack this as a dangerous modern form of narcissism, but I'm inclined to think that it could be a general phenomenon among educated, politically interested people who have evolved lots of opinions.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Feb 12, 2005 11:48:20 PM

the young and single people who populated the Dean campaign

To me, this phrase indicates pretty clearly that you never got very close to any actual Dean campaigning. I don't think the experience in my area was atypical, and it was all age groups, married, single, straight, gay, and with a wide range of life and political experience.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Feb 13, 2005 1:10:05 PM