Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2004
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 20A

Democracy & Disobedience

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber

Changes in Civil Society

Major institutions in civil society that care about the health of our democracy should make internal changes so that they do more to cultivate deliberation. This is especially true of the "mailing-list" organizations that have grown since 1970, as fraternal societies have faltered. Many public-interest lobbies are organized democratically, with elected boards, state affiliates, and even referenda. However, members do not communicate horizontally, and most have so little commitment and knowledge that the professional staff dominate. To take just one example, according to John M. Holcomb, the "Center for Science in the Public Interest receives 75 percent of its revenues from over 80,000 members, yet these contributors play no role in directing the affairs of the organization or in determining its goals."

The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam doubts that mailing-list organizations build the interpersonal connections on which democracy depends. "For the vast majority of their members, the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter.... Their ties, in short, are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another."

To be sure, mailing-list organizations may allow ordinary people to influence public policy (albeit indirectly) and to gain political information at a reasonable cost. Their effectiveness has declined, however, as groups on the Right and the Left have fought each other to a stalemate. To regain power and to strengthen their legitimacy in a democratic society, mailing-list groups should consider implementing or emphasizing a chapter structure, borrowing the best models from Amnesty International, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Audubon Society, the National Rifle Association, and the Christian Coalition. To varying degrees, these groups ask local chapters to discuss issues and to initiate action. The chapters then become sites of deliberation and schools of leadership and participation.

Alien Opinion 2004

Although it is difficult to grow rapidly and raise money with a chapter structure, this arrangement has several clear advantages. First, the traditional methods of grassroots lobbying are losing clout. Politicians are no longer impressed by telephone calls from a few voters, because corporate lobbyists and talk-show hosts can generate these calls almost at will, but they might respect chapters that were active in their districts. Second, local bodies offer social benefits (such as friendship and entertainment) that encourage people to join and to stay active. For instance, many people probably belong to the Sierra Club because of its nature walks and to the National Rifle Association because of its firearms classes. Finally, there is a public-interest rationale for establishing a chapter structure. National membership associations should devolve some responsibility to local bodies in an effort to enhance deliberation and strengthen democracy. The nation's largest mailing-list organization, the American Association of Retired Persons, has already taken this lesson to heart and is trying to increase the civic responsibilities and capacities of its volunteers and chapters.

Alien Opinion 2004

These reforms would be easier if the federal deduction for charitable contributions were replaced with a system of vouchers. Each person would receive a voucher of equal size that he or she could donate to any registered nonprofit organization. This would surely cause a major redistribution of philanthropic money from prestigious national and cultural institutions (traditionally patronized by the wealthy) toward local groups that encourage participation and serve less privileged clienteles. All things being equal, it would be a shame if Harvard University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art lost revenue as a result of a tax reform-but all things are not equal. Given limited amounts of state-subsidized philanthropic money, the lion's share should go to non-elite institutions. Moreover, a voucher system would encourage organizations of all types to recruit active, engaged participants, because people who volunteered for a particular group might also give it their vouchers. As Fishkin has argued, a voucher system would alter the market for civic participation by raising the value of-hence the demand for-people without special wealth or ability.


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Last Modified: 08/26/04
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