Civil Society Transcends Right-Left Gap

Article excerpt

How will current US social and political trends - amid the rise of the right - affect the world in the decades ahead? Surprisingly, some sociologists say that they augur for curbing the excesses of national power and capitalist markets while strengthening the UN and other forms of global governance.

Though it sounds counterintuitive in an age of corporate globalization and US unilateralism, there is evidence of powerful social forces stirring that could do just that.

These are the forces of civil society - community groups, trade associations, labor unions, churches, and other voluntary associations in the nonprofit sector. Some sociologists who study them say they will broaden social consensus at home, and global governance abroad. The argument goes something like this:

Civil society carries the core values on which America was founded and on which civic-minded liberals and conservatives agree: democracy, honesty, fairness, transparency, safeguarding public health and security, etc.

When these values conflict with the bottom line or maintenance of power, corporations and government may jettison them. This leaves a values-vacuum that generates polarized, often futile politics along pro- vs. anti-corporate and pro- vs. anti-nationalism fault lines, leaving people feeling stymied and cynical.

But into the breach leap the forces of civil society, by which citizens reengage with issues. They bridge left-right impasses, appealing directly to core values, to doing the right thing regardless of profitability, political power, or ideological stereotypes.

Not only liberals embrace environmentalism or alternative energy - witness conservatives from Western states who oppose coal-bed methane or conservative columnists who support a gas tax. Not only conservatives want more jobs, fundamental tax reform, and smaller government - witness bipartisan support for cutting payroll taxes.

Many burning domestic and global issues are not "left-right" but "right-wrong" issues transcending party lines. Civil society, not politics or business, is increasingly where citizens engage them. With the unprecedented expansion and wealth transfer in the US and globally, civil society increasingly impacts markets and policymaking, evolving voluntary and transnational systems of governance that may someday alter our ideas of trade and national sovereignty themselves.

In fact, alterations are already under way. Big corporations support voluntary standards such as the CERES environmental principles. …