Why Civil Society? Why Now?

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

September 1, 1997

“Civil Society” sounds so nice that few people can believe something serious lies behind the debate the idea has provoked.

Sometimes, the word “civil” is given pride of place and the phrase is taken to mean a society where people treat each other with kindness and respect, avoiding the nastiness we have come to associate with 30-second political ads and a certain kind of televised brawl.

More formally, civil society refers to an array of fine institutions that nobody can possibly be against: churches that run great teen pregnancy and after-school programs, neighborhood crime watch groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Little Leagues, book clubs, veterans groups, Shriners and Elks. What’s to fight about? Aside from bashing overly zealous parent-fans, how many people are prepared to take the negative side of The Little League Argument?

And the phrase is further blessed by its association with the brave people in Eastern Europe who used it in their struggle against Communism. They discovered that while they lived under dictatorships, even the most efficient police states could not stamp out all vestiges of independent social life that survived in churches and cafes and workplaces and families. The Eastern European rebels used these enclaves of “civil society” to incubate free societies which ultimately triumphed.

Not only does the civil society idea meet with skepticism because of its almost impossibly wholesome associations, it also arouses sensible suspicion because every side wants to use it for its own purposes. “Some ideas fail because they never make the light of day,” Alan Wolfe argues in these pages. “The idea of civil society, many critics charged, failed because it became too popular.”

Wolfe rightly finds this an insufficient indictment of the idea, but it’s worth asking nevertheless: why is the civil society concept so popular? Why are so many scholars counting up how many organizations we belong to? Why do Little Leagues and churches seem to matter so much now to people whose concerns, to put it gently, ran elsewhere a decade ago? Why is so much passion invested in arguments over whether or not civil society is on the decline–whether, in Professor Robert Putnam’s now famous phrase, more of us are “bowling alone”? Why is so much hope being invested in the voluntary sector?

The Purpose of This Issue

The essays that follow try to answer these and other questions. Those by Wolfe and Jean Bethke Elshtain, two pioneers in this argument, discuss civil society s importance directly. The debate between Theda Skocpol and William Schambra shows how two people devoted to voluntary civil and civic action can disagree sharply about the roots of such engagement. They disagree in particular on the role of national institutions and government in promoting a vibrant independent sector. Their essays suggest that declaring how important civil society is does not end the debate. On the contrary, it marks the beginning of a new debate. David Kuo, meanwhile, offers the reflections of a conservative activist who, through a civil society prism, has come to appreciate some of the contributions of liberalism. He suggests how liberals might, in turn, learn a thing or two from conservatives. The tone of his essay points to the possibility that the civil society discussion itself might make the broader political debate a bit more civil.

William Galston and Peter Levine perform a large service by sifting through piles of data and an often acerbic academic argument to give a highly nuanced view of whether or not civil society is on the decline in the United States. Their conclusion, at once sensible and provocative, is that while association-building is far from dead, the associations now being built appear less likely than those of the past to foster civic involvement and political participation. “Not all associations promote democratic health in the same way or to the same extent,” they note. A corollary finding is that it is a mistake to see the decline in political participation as translating automatically into a decline in social activism and volunteering. In an important contribution to the empirical argument, they suggest that social activism may be increasing as political activism declines.

John DiIulio points to signs of hope in the inner city by throwing light on the immense social capacity of local churches and the successes of faith-based programs that solve problems one person, one soul at a time. DiIulio asks those concerned about inner-city poverty to consider the huge burden that would be thrown on government if churches, synagogues, and mosques suddenly stopped their good work. Replacing their efforts “would cost literally tens of millions to provide at public expense.”

Bruce Katz tries to solve a puzzle: how is it that although the capacity and competence of community development organizations, local churches, and neighborhood groups has manifestly expanded–exactly as DiIulio says–the social and economic situation of so many inner-city areas has deteriorated? Katz points to a sharp rise in concentrated poverty as the answer, showing how the problems faced by such neighborhoods have multiplied even faster than the capacity to solve them.

The DiIulio and Katz essays taken together point to a highly promising dialogue about both the profound importance of voluntary action rooted in religious and local commitment and the structural limits that the new concentrated poverty may place on such efforts. One might conclude that the activities DiIulio describes are indispensable and worthy of much more support, but that such support will necessarily involve changes in the way metropolitan economies work and in government policies that hurt both inner cities and near suburbs. DiIulio, citing former Secretary of Education William Bennett, also offers a useful warning: it’s an illusion to pretend that if government retreats from problem-solving, civil society will be miraculously reborn. The requirement, as DiIulio argues, is not retreat, but a more fruitful collaboration between the institutions of government and those of civil society.

With verve and common sense, Jane Eisner underscores the extent to which the voluntary sector needs support–and organization. In all the discussions of the power of volunteerism, few confront such practical issues as: you can t paint a house without paintbrushes. Lurking behind that point is a large and important question: are we tossing huge responsibilities over to the voluntary sector without thinking first about how to equip volunteers and their organizations with the tools that make for success? Pam Solo, of the Institute for Civil Society, partners with Brookings in our explorations, shows success is certainly possible by describing several organizations doing the practical work of civil society. Colin Powell, in his Considered Opinion, calls for greater commitment from both individuals and the corporate sector to such endeavors, especially helping disadvantaged young Americans.

Civil Society as Self-Criticism

The civil society debate is not a flash in the pan or a trendy effort to inject the appearance of life into a national debate that is failing to engage the country. The civil society idea is popular because it responds to problems inherent in other ideas. Its rise reflects three developments with deep roots.

The first is a move among thinkers on both left and right to reflect on the failures of their respective sides and face evidence that may be inconvenient to their own arguments. The second is a widespread sense that changes in the economy and in the organization of work, family, and neighborhood have outpaced–if, one can hope, only temporarily–the capacity of older forms of civic and associational life to help individuals and communities cope with the change. The third is the impact of an antigovernment mood that has been part of American life since the 1970s. The interest in civil society reflects both a reaction against government and a desire to reconstruct energetic government on stronger ground.

The precursor to today’s civil society debate was the discussion engendered by an important essay called “To Empower People,” written by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus and published in 1977 by the American Enterprise Institute. Berger and Neuhaus made the case for “mediating structures”–structures that “mediated” between “the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.” The mediating structures they had in mind were church, family, neighborhood, and voluntary associations. Their point was that, at a minimum, government should not undercut mediating structures and, better yet, where possible should try to strengthen and support them. They explicitly criticized liberals for a tendency “to be blind to the political (as distinct from private) functions of mediating structures.” Liberalism’s “main feature,” they asserted, was “a commitment to government action toward greater social justice within the existing system,” which, in turn, translated into a reluctance to consider how an agenda for social justice might be more effectively pursued through associations independent of government.

The Berger-Neuhaus thesis gave conservatives a powerful framework for their criticisms of the welfare state. Politically, it could be seen as the manifesto of the “Reagan Democrat” who still felt the tug of some of the New Deal’s social commitments but warmed to Reagan’s invocations of the value of “family, work, and neighborhood.”

But the mediating structures idea also led to liberal self-criticism which laid the groundwork for the current liberal interest in civil society. Liberals, or at least many of them, came to accept (as Daniel Patrick Moynihan had argued in less receptive times) that the situation of the poor had worsened because of family breakdown, neighborhood violence, and a weakening of traditional local institutions and restraints. Social policies needed to address not only material poverty, but also crime, drug addiction, the rise of the single-parent family, and the issue of how values are generated and passed along to children. For liberals, this did not mean abandoning economic explanations for the situation of the inner city–the flight of jobs to suburbs described by William J. Wilson, for example–but supplementing them. It also meant a search for solutions that involved not only government, but, well, “mediating structures,” including churches and families. If a new focus of social policy was to be how to promote “values” and “personal responsibility,” social institutions outside of government would have to be mobilized.

The civil society argument then took another turn that should be credited in part to Alan Wolfe s argument in his pathbreaking book Whose Keeper? In a sense, Wolfe closed the circle that Berger and Neuhaus began to draw. If liberals were insufficiently attentive to the ways in which government impinged on the institutions of civil society, conservatives were not attentive enough to how the workings of the economic market could disrupt neighborhoods and family life. Civil society, after all, is greatly affected by the workings of both government and the market, but it is the sphere of life not defined either by politics or by market relations. As Wolfe noted, we spend most of our lives not “in government” or “in the market,” but in this third sphere defined by friendships, loyalties, love, and personal values (such as altruism and intimacy) which are not, to say the least, the primary characteristics of market or political relationships. If the state could not be counted on to produce “values,” neither could the market. Both the state and the market depended on civil society to do this work.

As Paul Starobin documented recently in The National Journal, many conservatives have come to agree that capitalism, all by itself, will not produce what they see as ?good values,” and may, at times, promote what most conservatives would call “bad values.” William Bennett’s critique of Hollywood, for example, led him to a broader argument about what the market doesn’t do. “Unbridled capitalism is a problem,” Bennett said at the National Press Club last year. “It may not be a problem for production, but it’s a problem for human beings. It’s a problem for the whole dimension of things we call the realm of values and human relationships.” Starobin specifically ascribed the new questioning of pure capitalism to “conservatives active in what is known as the civil society movement.” He added that such conservatives “are beginning to talk about modern capitalism in much the same terms as they discuss Big Government–as a disruptive, intrusive, morally untethered force that can rend the fabric of community life.”

The argument of these conservatives is not so much anticapitalist as it is a statement about capitalism’s limits. And it is also about the limits of a conservative strategy that sees dismantling government as the way to help the poor. Conservatives such as Senator Dan Coats and (in these essays) David Kuo have argued that if the conservatives hope to reduce the role of government, they will have to find ways to strengthen other sectors that are public but not governmental. Thus civil society.

Seen as a vehicle for self-criticism by both liberals and conservatives, the civil society idea might be summarized as an assertion about the limits of both government and the market: we will not be “saved” by either. If that minimum level of agreement is reached, where does the argument go from there?

Social Reconstruction

As both Alan Wolfe and Jean Bethke Elshtain note in their essays, many critics of the civil society idea see it as a form of nostalgia, a longing for the warm, encompassing (and closed) communities of the pre-modern era. Both rightly reject this criticism, but also note that it leads to a truth about the civil society idea: it is the assertion of a group of people who think that contemporary society is missing something. The “something” that is missed is defined in different ways by different groups. Parents feel they are missing time with their kids by spending too much time at work. Members of an elite class deeply engaged in professional organizations worry that too much of their sociability is organized around what they do. Residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods miss the street corner and doorstep sociability made possible by physical security. People who move several times to get better jobs miss the continuity, familiarity, and sense of loyalty that come from residence in a stable neighborhood. Employees sense less loyalty from their employers after the recent waves of “downsizing” and “right sizing.” Parents worry that they have lost control as values are transmitted to their children by outside forces, especially television.

In all these worries, there is, of course, a hint of nostalgia. We’ve had crime waves before. Americans have always been on the move and in search of new opportunities. One person’s stable neighborhood is another person’s stifling neighborhood (which is another reason Americans move a lot).

But not all of these concerns are nostalgic, and each is in its way rational. As Theda Skocpol argues here, professional associations are not the same as wider forms of association. Professionals “see themselves as specialized experts, not as ?trustees of community’.” Crime can destroy a neighborhood’s capacity to function. Parents are not crazy to disapprove of some, perhaps many, of the values transmitted by mass culture. The new division of work between men and women outside the home has not been matched by efforts to ease the impact of all this working on families and children.

Thus, the quest for new forms of civil society can be seen as a rational response to social change–not so much a rebellion against the modern world as a new attempt to deal with modernity’s discontents and dislocations. The authors gathered here, and the many others urging a concern for civil society, are not claiming that civil society is hopelessly broken and that decline and doom await us all. Many (in these essays especially) see effervescence and creativity in the effort to forge new forms of civil society. But they also assert that we are only at the beginning of this process and more social inventiveness is required.

Civil Society and Political Withdrawl

The antigovernment mood feeds the civil society debate in two ways. It leads to demands to reduce government’s role and to turn to the nongovernmental sector. But the antigovernment mood also suggests a disconnection between the state and the citizen. Defenders of America’s Progressive and New Deal tradition argue that far from being enemies, a healthy national political culture and a healthy civil society are allies. Decay in either sphere can lead to decay in the other. Strong networks of association lead to a stronger sense of representation, greater political efficacy, an enhanced faith in the possibilities of politics.

In the short run, advocates of civil society might agree that whatever their political differences, democratic systems are in jeopardy if too many citizens feel disconnected not only from this or that political party or politician but also from forms of organizational life that give them an effective voice and a chance to accomplish what Harry Boyte, of the University of Minnesota, has usefully called “public work,” acts of public engagement designed not simply to help someone in need, but also to build up, improve, and solve problems within one’s own community (or nation).

In the long run, there will be much debate (reflected at many points in this issue) over the extent to which civil society and government are allies or adversaries and over the relationship between the workings of the economy and healthy civic life. To go back to the Berger and Neuhaus question: what is government’s role in promoting civil society? What is the responsibility of companies and employers to organize work so that a citizen, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, “will have time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community?” What are realistic expectations for the voluntary sector? How does “do good” volunteering relate to “community building” by those to whom “good” is presumably being done? This issue is offered in the hope of opening such questions rather than closing them.

The civil society argument is rooted in a conviction that this generation has the same capacity for social inventiveness as the Progressives whom Teddy Roosevelt led at the beginning of this century or the Americans whom Alexis de Tocqueville described almost a century earlier. What all the authors in this issue share is a belief that rekindling that spirit of social reconstruction is both essential and a realistic hope.