Arthur Blaustein wants people to volunteer. He is an apostle of volunteerism, spreading the word that volunteering can be a life-altering, “gateway’ experience that leads people to dedicate their lives to making the world a better place. Blaustein’s new book, Democracy is not a Spectator Sport, makes a powerful argument for the personal and societal benefits of greater civic engagement, using personal testimonies to show how volunteering and community service programs “make a difference.” It is a message that few will challenge. The past two decades has seen an explosion in volunteering and community service, as young people join AmeriCorps, VISTA, the Peace Corps, and other programs. The 2008 election campaign also saw unprecedented levels of grassroots volunteer political activism. But if people are volunteering in record numbers, why is the United States becoming more like a plutocracy than a democracy?

Arthur Blaustein’s new book is divided into two parts. The latter half lists organizations offering volunteer opportunities, while the former cites testimonials from those whose views about the world were forever altered by their experience in volunteer and/or community service programs.

Blaustein’s belief that the United States needs more civic engagement, that volunteer activities benefit those helping as well as those helped, and that democracy depends on people’s active participation in community and civic institutions is beyond dispute. But in the course of promoting the virtues of volunteerism, his book also reminds us of its limits.

Treating the Cause, not the Effect

When President George H. W. Bush called upon Americans to create a “thousand points of light” by volunteering in communities, progressives did not see this as a positive. To the contrary, most interpreted it as a Republican effort to justify government avoiding its responsibilities to people and communities in need. Bush’s call seemed simply part of his post-Reagan promise for a “kindler and gentler nation,” which many saw as shifting government duties to volunteers lacking the resources to “make a difference.”

The past two decades of declining public services in the United States have validated such skepticism. And we continue to see many very conservative, Republican voting religious communities promoting major community service and volunteer programs for the poor without it affecting their support for politicians out to increase poverty and destroy the social safety net.

Blaustein understands volunteerism’s limits, and many of the organizations included in the second half of his book are seeking volunteers who want to work for social change. But his enthusiasm for volunteering’s impact may go too far.

For example, Blaustein argues that volunteering “makes a substantial difference in our individual lives because it nourishes the moral intelligence required for critical judgment and mature behavior.” But the rise of community service (abetted by high school students desiring to boost their college applications) over the past two decades has not stopped dramatically increasing social and economic inequality and an increasing disbelief in once universally accepted scientific theories such as evolution.

Not included in the book are testimonials from young people whose volunteer experiences left them critical of government programs and/or the population they have tried to serve. And those from conservative backgrounds may come into these experiences with “critical judgments” about government programs they want reaffirmed, not changed.

Michael Moore’s Capitalism, A Love Story has a scene that perfectly captures the limits of personal volunteerism. Moore shows people bringing food to their neighbors when they are sick, and juxtaposes this with the still prevalent notion in the United States that universal health care is a Communist threat to the American way of life. Moore’s example shows how such volunteer efforts enable Americans to believe that we are a people who “take care of their own,” when in fact the lack of universal health care or housing for all says exactly the opposite.

Today, the nation’s two most pressing problems are unemployment and a lack of government resources for housing, health care, education, public infrastructure, transit, and energy conservation. Unfortunately, while volunteers can help those victimized by the lack of jobs and government resources, it requires political activism and organizing, not community service, to meaningfully address both.

Democracy Requires Public Input

Blaustein correctly insists that democracy is not a spectator sport, and that civic and political engagement is essential to make democracy work. But while it is not the purpose of his book to discuss how grassroots engagement may not actually increase democracy, this could well be a chief lesson of the Obama era.

After millions took to the streets to elect a President committed to Change, their voices were largely ignored after the November 2008 election. Obama dismantled nearly all of his campaign organizing structure, missing an historic opportunity to reenergize the democratic process in between elections. It soon became clear that Obama was not interested in the input of the young volunteers who helped elect him, and that elite interests would govern the Obama Administration.

To use Blaustein’s phrasing, Obama campaign volunteers were transformed from spectators to participants in our democratic system. But when it comes to post-election governance, neither volunteerism nor community service can avoid the widespread feeling that most Americans are left out of national policy decisions.

Randy Shaw discusses the lifelong impact of those who volunteered for the UFW in the 1960’s and 70’s in his book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.