Walking the civic talk after Sept. 11

By

A litmus test for our country is whether we can seize the opportunity to restore our civic connections.

For the past 40 years, our social muscle has steadily atrophied. By virtually any measure, our relationships of reciprocity corroded: We voted less, joined less, cooperated less, gave less, trusted less, and spent less time with friends, neighbors, and even family.

Then the tragedy of 9/11 dramatically led us to rediscover friends, neighbors, public institutions, and a shared fate. In 2000, Robert D. Putnam wrote in "Bowling Alone" that restoring civic engagement "would be eased by a palpable national crisis, like war, or depression or natural disaster, but for better and for worse, America at the dawn of the new century faces no such galvanizing crisis."

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Now we do.

To gauge how much Sept. 11 has transformed our values and civic habits, in October and November 2001, we re-surveyed some of the 30,000 Americans whose civic habits we observed in 2000. Our survey, funded by the Rapoport Foundation and the Hauser Center at Harvard, encompassed the anthrax crisis and the start of the Afghan war.

The 750 Americans surveyed reported a significant drop in cynicism, large gains in trust of government, and more moderate gains in trust of police, neighbors, co-workers, shop clerks, people with whom they worship, and even strangers. A net 8 percent of Americans were more likely to trust community leaders and 6 percent were more likely to have worked on community projects. We are more interested in politics, and our collective health improved, since fewer Americans now lack someone to turn to in a personal crisis. Moreover, these improvements in civic attitudes were accompanied generally by a rise in tolerance and interethnic relations, with the possible exception of Arab-Americans.

Nevertheless, our attitudes are outrunning our actions. Americans did not report joining more community organizations or attending more organizational meetings. We found no uptick in religiosity or church attendance, and much smaller increases in donating blood or money than some anecdotal reports indicate. If the upsurges in religiosity and total philanthropy reported immediately after Sept. 11 were true, our survey exposed an ebb tide only one to two months later. (An article in The American Prospect, "Bowling Together," also by Mr. Putnam, from which this article was adapted, contains a fuller accounting of our findings.)

In sum, September's tragedy opened a historic window of opportunity for civic renewal. Americans are more united, readier for shared sacrifice, and more public-spirited than in recent memory. Indeed, most American adults are experiencing their broadest-ever sense of "we." The World Trade Center disaster generated compelling cross-class images and cross-ethnic solidarity, linking the fates of Latino dishwashers, Irish firemen, and Jewish financiers.

Civic leaders have reinforced our civic attitudes through images (of the attacks themselves, or the Advertising Council's "I am an American" campaign that effectively celebrates multiculturalism) and symbols (like President Bush's visit to a mosque). These images matter: Consider the potential consequences had FDR visited a Shinto shrine in 1942.

But images, without institutional change, can't create civic watersheds. Civic impulses regularly appear after national crises, and just as regularly, except for World War II, dissipate if the moving images aren't translated into civic action. World War II, however, enduringly molded the "Greatest Generation" who all their lives voted more, joined more, and gave more. These habits were forged through great national policies and institutions (such as the GI Bill) and community-minded personal practices (such as scrap drives).

What institutional changes ought we make today? President Bush's plan to seek $1 billion for the USA Freedom Corps is a bold first step. He hopes to galvanize Americans willing to serve through an expanded AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Peace Corps as well as a newly established Citizens Corps to help local communities prepare for threats of terrorism.

More could be done. We should exhort Americans toward energy independence, ending our need to prop up unpopular mid-East regimes. Given young Americans' greater receptivity to political participation than they have shown in years, educational and political leaders should seize this moment to encourage youths' engagement in political and social movements. The grass-roots movement to restore the Pledge of Allegiance in American classrooms advocates fine symbolism; but the time is right to introduce a new, more activist civics education in our schools as well.

Americans today, our surveys suggest, are more open than ever to making people of all backgrounds full members of our national community. Progressives should work to translate that national mood into concrete policy initiatives that bridge the ethnic and class cleavages in our increasingly multicultural society.

Finally, community activists should recognize that wartime mobilization can also spark social justice and racial integration, much as the 1950s civil rights movement partly emerged from World War II experiences.

• Thomas H. Sander is executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Robert D. Putnam is Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and author of 'Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.'

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...