David S. Broder Column (AARP Survey)

Are we really a nation of "civic slugs"?

By DAVID S. BRODER
Washington Post

Every year, dozens and perhaps hundreds of public opinion polls cross my desk, many of them distributed by special interest groups. Amazingly, these surveys almost always show strong grass-roots support for whatever cause that organization is pushing.

The survey that arrived last week from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), and that will be made public within a few days, is in an entirely different category. It is a subtle, sophisticated and significant piece of social research, done by Thomas M. Guterbock and John C. Fries of the Center for Survey Research of the University of Virginia, under the direction of AARP's director of research, Constance Swank.

It is a major contribution to understanding a set of questions increasingly at the center of public policy debate -- the issues of social trust, civic engagement and cynicism about government.

The decline in voter turnouts and in confidence in major institutions, the growing distrust of politicians and public officials, have been the subject of worried commentary for years. The debate on causes and consequences of this "malaise" took an important turn in 1995, when Robert D. Putnam of Harvard published an influential essay called "Bowling Alone," in which he argued that Americans were becoming increasingly disconnected from their communities and from each other, thus depleting the supply of "social capital" on which democratic government depends.

In Putnam's view, lower memberships in bowling leagues -- even while more and more people tried individually for strikes and spares -- was a metaphor for a society that was increasingly atomized and lacking in community spirit.
Other scholars quickly challenged Putnam's data and interpretations. But the AARP survey advances the understanding of the state of our civic life more than any other single study I have read. It will, I believe, become a major resource both for scholars and the many activists who are struggling to overcome what they fear is the growing cynicism of too many of our fellow citizens.

AARP wanted the data because, as the largest organization of senior citizens, it has a huge stake in understanding the attitudes of today's elderly and of the generations behind them.

There is both good news and bad news in the findings, which are far too rich to be summarized in a column like this. On the upbeat side, America turns out to be more of a society of "joiners" than Putnam and many other earlier scholars had calculated. By changing the interview question for the 1,500 people in the survey -- asking for specific organizations rather than broad categories of groups in which they hold memberships -- the AARP study found that the average American adult has four affiliations. Only one in seven has no formal links outside of family or work.

Volunteering numbers are also high, and so is the sense of community. Almost half the adults reported that they had volunteered during the past year and many of them contributed substantial time.

Political activity is low, but that is not an indicator of apathy. When people were asked about their level of interest in and sense of ability to influence policy -- especially at the local level -- the "civic engagement" scores were quite high.

But that does not mean that trust in other people -- or in government -- is correspondingly healthy. A survey question found as many people saying "you can't be too careful" in dealing with others as said "most people can be trusted." That was better than The Washington Post found on an identical survey question late in 1995, but still nothing to cheer about.

AARP found that only 28 percent believe the national government can be trusted to do what is right most or all of the time -- statistically identical to the Post's result -- and confidence in the prospects for the next generation was similarly and appallingly low in both surveys.

This suggests a refinement of Putnam's theory -- one that recognizes the "trust" element of "social capital" is much weaker than the "civic engagement" index.

Older Americans, regular newspaper readers and especially those with active religious affiliations and practices are more civic-minded than the 18-to-25-year-olds, the TV-dependent and the unchurched.

But overall, the study shows "we're not a nation of civic slugs," as Constance Swank told me. "Despite their lack of trust in government, most Americans have not lost their sense of what they can do individually or collectively in their communities."

In a sobering national picture, that is something on which leaders at all levels may be able to build.

This article was taken from the Washington Post archives website.