While levels of political participation may be rising, much of that activism occurs outside conventional groups, raising questions about whether it has the power to change the existing order.
A vibrant civil society in which citizens actively engage in social movements is widely seen as vital to a healthy democracy. Not only do social movements advocate for important issues and causes such as women’s rights, protecting the environment, and improving education and health care, they are by their nature addressing social problems that governments or markets are unable or unwilling to act upon. And, because of the crucial role these groups play, there was widespread concern after the publication of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s highly influential 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which he lamented the decline of these groups and civil society more generally. Putnam drew a link between our retreat from the social and communal groups of the early to mid-20th century (hence his metaphor of the decline in bowling leagues) and the decline in civic trust, social capital and connectedness in modern society. He calls attention to the fraying of the bonds and bridges built by social groups, connections he deemed essential to a healthy civil society and a strong democracy.
Putnam’s work is very compelling. It does, however, have its critics and has resulted in ongoing attempts to measure the strength of modern social engagement and civil society. My recent book, Patterns of Protest, looks at the individuals who participate in social movements and examines why and how they come to engage in these groups over the course of their lives. Contrary to the concerns raised by Putnam, I found that activism has been on the rise since the 1960s. In fact, my research shows that approximately 65 percent of us have engaged in a social movement organization or participated in a “contentious political activity,” such as traditional protesting and demonstrating. What we see is not just the visible tip of activism, such as the Occupy Movement’s prominence in the media and town squares around the world. Modern activism includes activities and tactics beyond simply taking to the streets. Social movements now rely on Facebook pages, tweeting about events and online petitions to reach a larger swath of people and connect individuals to social causes. In addition to these new techniques of engagement, my research found evidence that we are witnessing a greater range of social movement causes than ever before, a finding that should lead us to feel cautiously optimistic about the health of civil society.
Most of what we know about engagement in social movements and about what keeps people active over time is based on earlier cohorts of activists. My book is based on data following individuals who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s and who participated in activism from that period on. It is clear that these individuals engaged in different ways, and to differing degrees, than the youth of today. The rise of the Internet alone means that we live in a very different social and political context than we did in the 1960s, or even in the 1990s when Putnam was building his theory of the decline in social capital. And this raises intriguing questions for those of us who study civic engagement. What is the effect of the changing character and frequency of protest over time on what we know about individual engagement in activism and civil society? How will those who graduate from high school this year engage in activism compared with previous generations?
I believe we can expect four main trends. There will be more activism. It will be more diverse in nature. It will be characterized by moving in and out of engagement over time. And it will be centred outside traditional social movement organizations.
…one-off causes that dazzle us for a while before fading to the next hot thing…
The cultural stereotype of the 1960s and 1970s as a time of very high levels of protest is misleading. While the protest events during that period might have been more dramatic than in previous times, protest levels in Canada, the United States and other modern industrial democracies are considerably higher today. In addition to the higher levels of protest today than ever before, protest has also changed in nature. The protesters of the 1960s and 1970s were not the mainstream. They were the outsiders. But activism no longer carries the stigma that it did for that generation of protesters branded as radical antiwar activists, feminists and hippies. Protest is now a common expression of dissent, and other forms of activism such as volunteerism are becoming institutionalized. Many high schools, for example, demand a measured level of community activism and volunteerism from students as part of their graduation credentials (raising the question, of course, of whether that constitutes a truly voluntary act). And the ways in which we can engage in activism today, such as by texting a donation for Haitian earthquake relief, are by nature more casual and require less commitment to a cause.
There are also more causes to choose from. The number of issues and campaigns has boomed, and the Internet makes it easier for all of us to become aware of them or seek them out. We can go online to learn about protests to challenge rising tuition fees, see well-designed videos on YouTube that tell of the victims of Joseph Kony and see images of birds covered in oil from a spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And activism is not limited to the political left. The religious right and other conservative groups now engage in traditional street protests to challenge access to abortion, gay marriage and immigration policy, or are at the vanguard of promoting religious freedom in North Korea.
Third, the activism of today’s youth is characterized by moving in and out of engagement and from cause to cause. The growth and diversification of issues, tactics and groups create new opportunities for a variety of people to engage in contentious politics, but they may also be less likely to make a life of it. The civil rights movement was a multigenerational struggle. Kony 2012 has a more ephemeral feel for the millions who saw the YouTube video, though it also does have a core of activists who have been engaged in the issue of child soldiers for several years. With the variety of causes and types of groups, many people are attracted to activism and to different issues over time. Consequently, not only should we expect to see more people participating in causes but, once involved, these activists are likely to follow a pathway of transferring from group to group, or in and out of engagement. Permanent disengagement seems less likely for the current generation of activists given that the number of opportunities for involvement is growing, while the costs and risks of engaging are relatively low.
Finally, today’s youth are more likely to participate in activism focused outside traditional organizations. Earlier cohorts, such as the sample from the 1960s and 1970s examined in my study, were engaged in a civil society that emphasized the importance of working within formal organizations and participation within its hierarchy. It was organized protest that pushed for — and won — civil rights for language minorities, gay and transgendered people, immigrants and women. Paradoxically, engagement in organized political activity may be declining at the same time as participation in protest is rising. Since 1982, the older cohort from my study saw declining involvement in groups, from a high of 28.3 percent in 1982 to only 9.2 percent in 1997. In contrast, engagement in protest activity has increased slowly and steadily throughout the period from 1965 (15.2 percent) to 1997 (21.7 percent) and has climbed even higher since then (to 23 percent in 2008). These changes are consistent with Putnam’s claim that civil society groups might be declining. However, this decline in organizational memberships does not necessarily translate into less political and social engagement for society as a whole.
Engagement in civil society is not declining; it is simply evolving. Young people today are engaging more, but in activities that do not require group membership. Their activism is more likely to be committed through technology, carried out in a campaign on Facebook or re-tweeting a political message (or a link to a political parody video). Yet while it is heartening to be able to refute the notion that we are retreating from civil society, it remains to be seen whether these new forms of activism can foster the social trust seen as a necessary condition for social change. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out last year in his critique of social media evangelists, signing an online petition is a lowcost commitment. The civil rights movement, on the other hand, was a highly organized, hierarchical group of people with a deeply shared cause and who had more at stake in the fight in part because they knew each other personally and felt a deep sense of responsibility to one another. Organizations, with leaders and structure, may still be essential to building the long-term commitment and strategies required to take on the vested interests opposed to social change.
So while the higher levels of activism are encouraging, it is still too early to set Putnam’s fears aside. He worried that these lone bowlers, knocking down pins on their own instead of in leagues, were no longer capable of fostering the communal trust and “social capital” of participatory politics. Just as Putnam lamented that we were bowling alone, today we are protesting alone, at home, through computers, for one-off causes that are often highly salient for a period before fading away. It remains to be seen if those solo acts, even when multiplied by a great number of individuals, can provide the social glue to keep our democracy healthy.