Why Civil Society? Why Now?

By Dionne, E. J., Jr. | Brookings Review, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Why Civil Society? Why Now?


Dionne, E. J., Jr., Brookings Review


"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. …

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