Social Capitalist

Former Tucson Mayor Tom Volgy Talks About The Dangers To Democracy.

FORMER TUCSON Mayor Tom Volgy is quite familiar with Robert Putnam's theories on social capital. The UA poli-sci prof has drawn on Putnam's work in shaping his next book, Politics in the Trenches: Citizens, Politicians and the Fate of Democracy, scheduled for publication later this summer.

Volgy, who gave up the mayor's seat in 1991 to make an unsuccessful run for Congress, says he agrees with Putnam's basic assertion about the decline of social capital in the United States.

"We depart in terms of why it's so important today," he says. "We probably have some differences in terms of what's causing it."

Volgy puts much of the blame on the fact that Americans have less and less free time.

"People for over three decades have been working more and more and longer and longer hours, and their ability to participate, not in terms of real time, but in terms of perceived time, has dramatically gone down," he says.

A secondary factor: the amount of time Americans spend watching television. Volgy says the boob tube weakens our social skills, which atrophy with disuse.

"We all start very vulnerable as kids, and we get a lot of reinforcement to hone our social skills, and you have to wade through all of that, and if you weren't forced into it, there would be very few who would be interacting," Volgy says. "Putnam thinks this is incredibly important for politics, because in many ways the citizen role in politics requires social interactions. Even the act of voting is an act of social interaction. Monitoring your environment is an act of social interaction. Watching what your council does and having some empathy or having some empathy about groups that you don't like are social interaction skills. When those plummet, your orientation to politics dramatically changes."

Volgy has seen some of these changes play out here in Tucson, although he says the city has advantages over some communities.

"You can participate more in Tucson than elsewhere because the weather is very forgiving," he says. "In places like the Midwest or the East, where you have cold winters and get shut in some of the time, you're facing additional physical hurdles. Because Tucson is not a very large city, you have a friendlier setting, and people talk about how much friendlier we are. So the social threats of interaction are lower here.

"Yet even here I think you can see it now, there's less PTA participation than there was 25 to 30 years ago. There's this ebb and flow of neighborhood movements, where there are still viable and vital neighborhoods, but usually the core participants are down to a very small number and others don't come to participate unless there's a huge threat going on. And then it will all recede back, and recede back very quickly."

Volgy believes that the unwillingness of battling groups to empathize with each other is a troubling sign.

"It's hard for business groups to understand what the neighborhoods want, and vice versa. It's very hard to put themselves in each other's shoes. Empathy isn't sympathy; it's just the ability to stand in somebody's else's shoes and see the world from their perspective."

In the long term, Volgy warns, "There's some real negative impacts for democracy. Democracy--real stable democracy--is really based on three linkages between the public and its government. The public is either linked to the government by ideology, or it's linked to it by identity, or it's linked to it by experience."

Volgy suggests that American politics tend to be more practical than ideological, unlike European democracies, which are often driven by passionately held political beliefs. "What used to hold us together was identity, and by that I mean most people considered themselves good Democrats or good Republicans, and they sort of treated it like a baseball game," he explains. "They were the fans and they rooted for their side and yelled at the other side. That identity created very strong linkages to government. That has dramatically decreased in the last 30 years."

Americans cut loose from ideology and identity have only a politics of experience left.

"By experience, I mean either direct, good, positive experience with government, or empathy--the ability to see what small groups do with conflicts and how they solve them. And that can only occur through social capital. And as we begin to lose that linkage to government, democracy is imperiled. Because then we don't understand why it is these people are doing this. If we don't have really good social skills and we haven't tried to be engaged in group problem-solving, after a while you begin to see the world in half-hour sitcoms and hour-long dramas, and they resolve everything in 55 minutes. Why does it take years for the government to deal with transportation? They must be too big, too incompetent. Maybe if you get rid of them, the problem will go away."

But local political involvement of the sort that's in decline tends to generate more understanding.

"Now try to get into a PTA and try to look at the range of problems facing education today and try to work at it as a citizen," Volgy continues. "All of a sudden you have a very different appreciation of problem-solving. And you may still think there are very bad and good people in government, but you begin to understand a little bit more what they're trying to do. We know that in our own lives. Half of us don't know how to program a VCR, because it's too complicated. Why would we expect that somebody overnight would resolve the problem in the economy? But we don't think of it in those terms because we are losing social capital."

Volgy says his book focuses on declining party identification and declining social capital, which is worsened by a corresponding rise in the complexity of civic matters. As a result, "There is much less empathy today than ever before between citizens and those who are elected," Volgy says. "And we don't even begin to see what people in office actually do. And as a result, everybody's in a lot of trouble."

There are no easy answers, although Volgy has not completely lost hope.

"I don't think all is bleak," he says, "but the answers to this are really complicated, and a lot of it will do with the economy."

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