Democracy and Associations

The Atlantic has an article in this next month’s issue, “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore,” that hits on some points on the degeneration or degregadation of democratic habits in the United States. This article states:

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. […] 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.

The article goes on to state that is the lack of involvement of the current generations of Americans in these sort of institutions, to the habit of democrating (as it were) in our own day-to-day lives, that is contributing to the challenges currently facing the republic.

While the article is interesting, the thought that came to me immediately was, “I wonder if the decline in fraternal orders plays a role in this?” As people reading this may, or may not, be aware, at least a quarter of the male population of the United States was a member of a fraternal order during their height, which went up to the Great Depression and World War II. People commonly will think of the Freemasons in this light but there were massive numbers of other orders, not all of which were male only. The Odd Fellows, Woodsmen, Grange, and so forth come to mind. Part of the reason for involvement by people was to be, well, fraternal, and to associate with others in their free time. This is the era before television and, largely, before radio came to dominate as a form of mass media. The other common reason is that many fraternal orders provided insurance and sick pay to their members. I remember discovering an old Odd Fellows chalkboard in the basement of the hall, still covered in tallies of a particular week or month and who was getting sick pay. Back before sick days, health insurance, and life insurance were paid for by employers or associated with your work, many people were out of luck if they were sick and couldn’t earn. The fraternal orders helped fill that gap until the New Deal and things like social security stepped in.

The thing about almost all fraternal orders is that they are run democratically, as the quote from The Atlantic mentions. A local lodge forms from like-minded individuals, they receive a charter from the order to form a lodge, and then they rent space and elect officers from their membership. These officers have assigned roles and, in turn, send a representative to a regional or even state/province level body. In many instances, those bodies then send an elected representative to a national and, occasionally, international body. It is elections up and down and lodges are normally run following “Robert’s Rules of Order” or similar parliamentary procedures. As preparation for civic life by adults, I think it was probably quite helpful and definitely reinforced the idea of democratic institutions, voting in general, and the election of peers. Another thing that it taught, and I know this from experience having been a junior officer in several fraternal orders during my life, is that the role and its responsibilities are core, not the person in the role. Any officer role in a lodge or grand lodge, regardless of whether elected or appointed (as elected officers often appoint junior assistants or people like secretaries), has its duties. If a person is elected to the role, they have to fulfill the duties to the best of their ability. Sometimes (often?) people are put in roles for which they have little prepatory experience or, perhaps, natural affinity or ability. They still have to do the role and they either step up to the challenges or just muddle along, depending on the person. While people may quietly campaign for a role (though that is often disallowed explicitly), people are expected to work through a series of roles in a fraternal order during the course of their involvement. You may wind up with a mousy introvert as the head of your lodge. So be it!

I think about that kind of experience, going on over generations, and how I expect it impacted the outlook of people in other civic associations or institutions, whether it is your local neighborhood association, a labor union, or the parent teacher association.

Lodges went into decline in the period of prosperity and expansion following the second world war, for a variety of reasons on which people have written entire books (see “Bowling Alone” cited in the article for one, well known, example). The article in The Atlantic makes me think that we may have lost more than we understood at the time with their decline, along with a general raising of the isolation and alienation in society over the last few decades. Many friends of mine, especially when I was involved in the order, lamented their decline or the fact that many, if not most, members were senior citizens (and much of this was 20 years ago). The loss that they focused on was the loss for the orders and the fear that they would just continue to whither and eventually disappear, to be a footnote in a history book of the “weird shit people used to do in centuries past.” The Atlantic article’s argument is that the impact is much higher than that. That these orders (and all of the other associations) were much of the glue that held our society together. (This is not to fail to acknowledge the problematic place some orders have had with gender or minority membership during their heyday. It was not all rosy.)

While I do wish that there was a resurgence in various voluntary associations as formal entities (and not just fraternal orders), I also don’t see that happening without some new visions, popularily embraced, of them and their role in society.