March 2011
Publication:
Perspectives on Politics

Member-based civic associations, or citizen groups, have two crucial roles in American democracy. They advocate for members' interests in the public arena, but also operate as Tocquevillian “schools of democracy” linking citizens to politics and equipping them with the skills of democratic citizenship. Yet scant research has examined the interrelationships of these two roles. Does the work that civic associations do in developing democratic participants enhance the work they do advocating for members' interests in the public arena? We bring together two previously disparate strands of research on civic associations by arguing that a key factor affecting the political presence of civic associations is leadership quality. We focus on the relationship of leadership quality to political presence, using data from a unique 2003 study of 226 local entities of the Sierra Club. We show that organizations with more skilled and committed leaders have higher levels of political presence. This contrasts with previous research that has focused primarily on community context and resources as explanatory factors. This study shows that political presence is related to the extent to which leaders develop their skills and demonstrate commitment to the organization.