The American Context of Civil Society

Published June 14, 2018

Stanford Social Innovation Review

Civil society is a distinctly American preoccupation. That is not, of course, because voluntarism, mediating social institutions, or a robust charitable sector are somehow unique to our country. All of those exist in different forms throughout the world. But in no society are they as intricately tied up with national identity as they are for us.

The reasons for that are more complicated than they seem. We like to believe that we care so much about civil society because it is our great strength. Communitarians of various stripes are fond of quoting Alexis de Tocqueville to each other and reveling in the amazing multiplicity of ways in which Americans work together from the bottom up. I do this myself all the time. And there is good cause to do it: de Tocqueville was deeply perceptive about us, and the scope of our independent sector is astounding.

But that is only one side of the coin. Americans are also distinctly obsessed with civil society because although the civil sector has always had a central place in our national life, its place has also always been contested in ways that cut to the core of our politics, and because the very idea of civil society points to deep tensions in our understanding of what our society is and how it works.

For one thing, it points to the great distance between theory and practice in American life. The dominant social and political theories we have had about ourselves have always been stark, liberal stories: highly individualistic, rooted in rights, inclined to extreme abstraction, and focused on government. The actual practice of American life has not resembled these theories all that much. It has tended, instead, to be very communitarian, rooted in commitments and mutual obligations, pragmatic and practical, and focused on culture. This has often meant that our theories do not explain either our virtues or our vices very well, and that we lack a conceptual vocabulary adequate to how we live.

This chasm between theory and practice does a particularly great disservice to our understanding of the role of civil society, because there is really no way to describe our civic sector in the terms our various political ideologies usually demand. This often leads, in particular, to assorted misimpressions about the relationship between civil society and government in America, with distinctly different valences on different sides of our politics.

In the conservative and libertarian imagination, civil society is often forced into theories of classical-liberal individualism that view the voluntary sector as fundamentally a counterforce to government, and therefore as a means of enabling individual independence and holding off encroachments of federal power. It is in the civic sector that liberal theories of legitimacy—as arising from direct consent, and leaving fully intact the rights and freedoms of the individual—are said to be best put into practice, so that it is in civil society that legitimate social organization is said to really happen. The implicit goals of this approach to civil society involve a transfer of responsibility from government to civil society, especially in welfare, education, and social insurance.

In the progressive imagination, meanwhile, civil society is often understood in the context of intense suspicion of non-democratic power centers, which are implicitly taken to enable prejudice and backwardness that oppress minority groups and undermine the larger society’s commitment to equality. This has led to an inclination to submit the work of civil society to the legitimating mechanisms of democratic politics—and especially national politics. In practice, this means allowing the federal government to set the ends of social action and then seeing civil-society organizations as among the available means to those ends, valued for their practical effectiveness and local flavor, but restrained from oppressing the individual citizen or effectively governing him without his consent. The implicit goals of this approach to civil society involve a transfer of decision-making responsibility from civil society to the government, which can then use the organs of civil society as mere administrators of public programs—especially in welfare, health care, and education.

Both of these visions of civil society express a view of American social life that consists, in essence, of individuals and a national state. The dispute between left and right in this regard is about whether individuals need to be liberated from the grasp of the national state or need be liberated by that state from would-be oppressors among their fellow citizens. Civil society is seen as a tool for doing one or the other. Such visions, in other words, tend to ignore the vast social space between the individual and the national state—which is after all the space in which civil society actually exists.

This is, of course, a highly distorted way to think and fight about the political life of our country, since most of the governing in America is done by states and localities. And it is also a distorted way to think about our social lives, which are mostly lived in the institutions that fill the space between individuals and the federal government.

A politics shaped by such multilayered distortions easily devolves into crude, abstract debates between radical individualism and intense centralization. And these, in turn, devolve into accusations of socialism and social Darwinism, libertinism and puritanism.

But centralization and atomism are not actually opposite ends of the political spectrum. They are closely related tendencies, and they often coexist and reinforce one another—each making the other possible. The centralization and nationalization of social services crowds out mediating institutions; the resulting breakdown of communal wholes into atomized individuals leaves people less capable of helping themselves and one another, which leaves them looking to the national government for help; and the cycle then repeats. It is when we pursue both of these extremes together, as we frequently do in contemporary America, that we most exacerbate the dark sides of our fracturing and dissolution.

There is an alternative to this perilous mix of over-centralization and hyper-individualism. It can be found in the intricate structure of our complex social topography, and in the institutions and relationships that stand between the isolated individual and the national state. By seeing civil society as the core of America’s social life, we can see our way toward a politics that might overcome some of the dysfunctions of our day—a politics that can lower the temperature, focus us on practical problems, remind us of the sources of our freedoms, and replenish social capital. In the context of this American moment, such a politics could hardly be more valuable.

It is a good thing, therefore, that we Americans are distinctly preoccupied with civil society. Although we disagree about its place and function, the fact that we take it to be essential to who we are suggests we know that our theories are inadequate, and that understanding ourselves through the character and work of our civil society could help us better know our country and better live out its ideals.

In this respect, American life offers a rich and constructive context for thinking about civil society, and civil society offers a rich and constructive context for thinking about American life.

Yuval Levin is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs. He is the author, most recently, of The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.

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