"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Fraternalism and Civics

Several weeks back, Alice and I made our monthly stop at the local bookstore (remember those things?), and I was taken in by the headline on the cover of the October edition of Atlantic Monthly: 'Is Democracy Dying?'

The magazine is freighted too heavily with politically partisan sniping for my tastes. and too many of the writers want to use their own visceral biases to twist their theses. But if you can you get past that, the issue explores a basic societal problem we currently face in America. Mainly, Americans don't know — or care to know — how their own communities, states and nation are supposed to work anymore. We've lost the keys to the Republic, and there it sits in the driveway, up on blocks, rusting away, while the neighborhood kids bust out the windows and steal the tires.

If you think I exaggerate, go to the website of what passes for your local newspaper these days and try to find a daily or even weekly summary of actions at your statehouse or city council meeting. Such news used to be a staple of basic local reporting, but no more.

In particular, take note of the article, Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore by Yoni Applebaum. The author makes the strong connection between the Golden Age of Fraternalism and the greatest level of civic engagement in American history. Whether we all knew it or not, the Freemasons, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd fellows - we were all teaching Americans how to govern the Republic. And we're now living out what happens when democratic people all decide "I'm not much of a joiner."

Or as Ben Franklin told the lady who asked him what the Continental Congress had given America in 1787, a republic or a monarchy, "A republic, if you can keep it."

I don't want to paste the whole article here, but let me put a major excerpt up just in case Atlantic's website vanishes in the night:
Like most habits, democratic behavior develops slowly over time, through constant repetition. For two centuries, the United States was distinguished by its mania for democracy: From early childhood, Americans learned to be citizens by creating, joining, and participating in democratic organizations. But in recent decades, Americans have fallen out of practice, or even failed to acquire the habit of democracy in the first place. The results have been catastrophic. As the procedures that once conferred legitimacy on organizations have grown alien to many Americans, contempt for democratic institutions has risen...

in the early years of the United States, Europeans made pilgrimages to the young republic to study its success. How could such a diverse and sprawling nation flourish under a system of government that originated in small, homogeneous city-states?

One after another, they seized upon the most unfamiliar aspect of American culture: its obsession with associations. To almost every challenge in their lives, Americans applied a common solution. They voluntarily bound themselves together, adopting written rules, electing officers, and making decisions by majority vote. This way of life started early. “Children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established, and to punish misdemeanors which they have themselves defined,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. “The same spirit pervades every act of social life.”

By the latter half of the 19th century, more and more of these associations mirrored the federal government in form: Local chapters elected representatives to state-level gatherings, which sent delegates to national assemblies. “Associations are created, extended, and worked in the United States more quickly and effectively than in any other country,” marveled the British statesman James Bryce in 1888. These groups had their own systems of checks and balances. Executive officers were accountable to legislative assemblies; independent judiciaries ensured that both complied with the rules. One typical 19th-century legal guide, published by the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order, compiled 2,827 binding precedents for use in its tribunals.

The model proved remarkably adaptable. In business, shareholders elected boards of directors in accordance with corporate charters, while trade associations bound together independent firms. Labor unions chartered locals that elected officers and dispatched delegates to national gatherings. From churches to mutual insurers to fraternities to volunteer fire companies, America’s civic institutions were run not by aristocratic elites who inherited their offices, nor by centrally appointed administrators, but by democratically elected representatives.

Civic participation was thus the norm, not the exception. In 1892, the University of Georgia’s president, Walter B. Hill, reported (with perhaps only slight exaggeration) that he’d made a test case of a small town “and found that every man, woman, and child (above ten years of age) in the place held an office—with the exception of a few scores of flabby, jellyfish characters.” America, he concluded, is “a nation of presidents.”

This nation of presidents—and judges, representatives, and recording secretaries—obsessed over rules and procedures. Offices turned over at the end of fixed terms; new organizations were constantly formed. Ordinary Americans could expect to find themselves suddenly asked to join a committee or chair a meeting...

Democracy had become the shared civic religion of a people who otherwise had little in common. Its rituals conferred legitimacy regardless of ideology; they could as readily be used to monopolize markets or advance the cause of nativism as to aid laborers or defend the rights of minorities. The Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP relied on similar organizational forms.

Time and again, groups excluded from democratic government turned to democratic governance to practice and press for equal citizenship. In the 1790s, a group of New Yorkers locked in debtors’ jail adopted their own version of the new Constitution, governing themselves with dignity despite their imprisonment.


But the United States is no longer a nation of joiners. As the political scientist Robert Putnam famously demonstrated in Bowling Alone, 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. And even that likely understates the real decline, as a slight uptick in passive memberships has masked a steeper fall in attendance and participation. The United States is no longer a nation of presidents, either. In a 2010 census survey, just 11 percent of respondents said that they had served as an officer or been on a committee of any group or organization in the previous year...

Volunteerism, church attendance, and social-media participation are not schools for self-government; they do not inculcate the habits and rituals of democracy. And as young people participate less in democratically run organizations, they show less faith in democracy itself. In 2011, about a quarter of American Millennials said that democracy was a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country, and that it was “unimportant” to choose leaders in free and fair elections. By the time Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, Gallup polling showed that Americans’ faith in most of the nation’s major institutions—the criminal-justice system, the press, public schools, all three branches of government—was below the historical average...

Read the entire article HERE. 


  1. Not all of Bob Putnam's arguments about the decline of associationism and volunteerism have held up From the start there have been debates. See, almost twenty years ago http://www.paulrich.net/papers/isa99/morris.htm

    1. Sure. Anybody who throws out such a broad study and attempts to make generalizations with it, combined with the lapse of time that undercuts any prognosticator, is bound have been found wrong. But his overall alarm was spot-on: as American volunteerism and active participation in associative groups has fallen, society has lost the ability to self-regulate and operate its democratic institutions in an intelligent manner. We are currently living though Putnam's scenario because we are one generation beyond him. The children of the adults in the 1990s are now starting to be in charge, and they are even less qualified to understand and operate a democratic republic today.

      Then play it out in another 20 years...

    2. Chris, you nail it with the "...lost the ability to self-regulate..." comment. Of course, one might actually argue that the problem is a tendency toward "excessive democracy"--a sort of "techno-mob rule" with the minutia of our every word & action being instantly subjected to the reaction of mass and social media: often by those without the perspective (call it "moral compass") to really be taken seriously.

      I suggest that Brother Edmund Burke said it as well as it can probably be said: "Men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,—in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety and understanding is above their vanity and presumption — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."

    3. By the way, the link above to Brother Paul Rich's paper is missing an all important character. The proper link address is:


      The paper makes compelling criticisms of Putnam, and is worth reading as a counterpoint. The conclusion is that while the voluntary associations in Bowling Alone have certainly diminished, numerous others not on Putnam's radar have flourished and grown. Give it a read.

  2. Yes, good point, although it is significant that Bob has been doing work in many other areas and not returned to the topic in any big way. I gave him some bowling ties but suspect he doesn't wear them. You are completely right that the decline in fraternities is linked to the problems in democracy. The orders like the Pythians and Orange that i joined have evaporated. An Orange website says:

    My own lodge has only 7 members an we meet every month from May to September and then we meet every other month during the Winter so we hold meetings in November January and March we would be delight to see some young protestant men coming and joining us

    The Orange retirement home was sold years ago ,partly for lack of old folk. Of course that is the USA.

  3. James Burnham's "circulation of elites" has stagnated. Our best and brightest have no sense of noblesse oblige towards their fellow countrymen. Christopher Lasch was on to something with his Culture of Narcissism book. Also, digital technology has carved a hole in social relations. Neal Postman was hip to this years ago and Tristan Harris has revealed just how addictive modern tech has become: https://medium.com/thrive-global/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3. Finally, in an economy where the prime directive has become "maximize shareholder value", it is no wonder that social capital has fallen. Folks like Steve Bannon have noticed this: https://youtu.be/TM_zAQjVgVA. We are in trouble.


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