In two recent reports, elite opinion is divided over the proper way to reinvigorate civil society

Ever since the term "civil society" entered the public debate in the mid-1990s, even informed observers have been confused over what exactly it means and where it is leading us. Although the concept of civil society has had a rich history in Western thought, it had fallen out of use until very recently.

The boundaries of the term are flexible, but everyone acknowledges that at a minimum they encompass the entire web of voluntary associations that dot our social landscape: families, neighborhoods, civic associations, charitable enterprises, and local networks of a thousand kinds. For some of us, civil society also embraces our national public philosophy and our culture—in other words, all of those intangible values and beliefs upon which democracy rests, as well as those very tangible institutions in which they are cultivated and sustained.

The institutions of civil society are important, not only because they perform innumerable functions in countless locations every day, but also because they generate individual character and democratic habits. Through these institutions and networks, we become socialized as adult citizens, capable of being helpful, trustful, and respectful. Not surprisingly, many political theorists, most notably Alexis de Tocqueville, saw them as the basis of American greatness. If they weakened, he believed, American democracy would be imperiled.

No foreigner deserves more credit for having bequeathed to us the capacity to understand the roots and requirements of our own democracy than Tocqueville. The civil society debate of the 1990s cannot be understood apart from the basic questions and doubts that Tocqueville injected into our collective consciousness during the mid-19th century. Tocqueville was amazed by the power and vitality of American democracy, but was equally convinced that it contained seeds of its own corruption. Indeed, if there is any single concern that most animates today’s civil society movement, it is the fear that American democracy is now in trouble.

But this discussion of civil society has its skeptics, who suspect the idea is vague and evasive, glossing over deeper and important ideological differences—perhaps intentionally. The Left has seen it as code for reaction, nostalgia, and conformity. Some on the Right have seen it as perhaps too unaffirming of free markets and of the hard work of dismantling the welfare state and re-moralizing the culture. Some critics complain that the entire civil society debate appears superficial and sentimental, offering inspiring themes but no concrete program for policymakers.

Perhaps the moment has arrived for a fresh evaluation. Two major national study groups have been laboring quietly over the past two years to address these issues of civil society and civic renewal. They have been meeting, debating, sifting through research and polling data, and trying to make sense of all of the issues that the civil society debate has brought to the forefront: the loss of trust, the decline of civic participation, the weakening of core social institutions, and the erosion of public morality.

These two commissions are led by heavyweights and loaded with ideologically diverse scholars and public advocates of civic revival. One is the Pew-funded National Commission on Civic Renewal, co-chaired by former U.S. education secretary William Bennett and former U.S. senator Sam Nunn and directed by William Galston, a former policy advisor to President Clinton and arguably the nation’s leading civil-society intellectual. The other is the Council on Civil Society, sponsored jointly by the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Institute for American Values, and co-chaired by Jean Elshtain, the prolific author and commentator, and David Blankenhorn, who is quickly emerging as one of the nation’s most creative and formidable cultural reformers.

Both commissions have just released reports, which are now circulating around the country and filling the nation’s airwaves with debate. In many ways, the commissions are similar and address overlapping concerns. Each takes as its starting point what I call the Paradox of American Progress: the dismaying fact that the United States is the world’s undisputed military, economic, and technological leader, yet also leads the world in many categories of social pathology.

The United States is the world’s
undisputed military, economic, and
technological leader, yet also leads
the world in many categories
of social pathology.

Each report confronts the myth that economic progress assures widespread social progress. Each emphasizes the importance of renewing the family, especially curbing divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing. Each strongly decries the state of America’s media and entertainment culture. Each laments a possible decline in the civic spirit and its attendant virtues of civic trust and cooperation. Each speaks to the erosion of common moral norms and the rise of a corrupted form of individualism. And each offers a panoply of proposals for cleaning up the culture, fixing our institutions, and reinvigorating our public life.

Although there are many similarities in the reports, they reflect two diverging streams of argument in the civil society debate with significantly different priorities. One wing seems mostly concerned about the civic life of the nation, the other mostly about the nation’s culture and moral underpinnings.

The first wing was drawn into the debate through the provocative work of Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, especially his famous essay "Bowling Alone," in which he questioned whether Americans are still civic joiners. Putnam offered evidence—since widely challenged—that Americans were withdrawing from many mainstream civic associations and were essentially becoming isolated. Although the National Commission on Civic Renewal report addressed a wide range of moral and cultural topics as well as civic ones, its title, "A Nation of Spectators: How Civic Disengagement Weakens America and What We Can Do About It," places it squarely in the Putnam camp.

This wing of the civil society movement, which I call civic revivalists, appears to be interested mostly in promoting public work by individuals. This usually means civic work in furtherance of fairly conventional ideological objectives. Putnam’s original research, which focused on regional governments in Italy, found that public support for government was far stronger when surrounded by strong civic communities. In other words, this group wants civic recovery, among other things, to temper the public’s recent repudiation of government activism by splicing in an emphasis on civic localism. The overriding objective, in any event, is promoting civic works, not inspiring a moral or cultural renewal.

One senses in this group a significant amount of discomfort with talk of morality, especially religion. Deliberations at the National Commission on Civic Renewal polarized repeatedly over the question of whether our society’s deficits are mostly civic or mostly moral. Interestingly, although the final report was very balanced and nuanced, both William Bennett and Sam Nunn were decidedly in the cultural camp. A significant contingent of the civic restorationists responded with indignation over the possibility that the new civic conversation in America might include talk of moral values. Several indicated they would be laughed out of town if they returned home and reported being part of such a gathering.

The overriding goal of the
"civic revivalists" is promoting
civic works, not inspiring a moral
or cultural renewal.

Civil society intellectuals of this school frequently go overboard in attempting to narrow the boundaries of debate around civic issues. I recently shared a platform with Benjamin Barber, a noted scholar from this camp, who stated emphatically, "What we don’t need is moral character, but civic character. Our aim is democratic citizens; not the moral man." Barber added, "A society does not need moral truths; we need to live together."

Notice that he sought to equate moral truths with an implied threat of intolerance or moral majoritarianism. Barber’s remarks are something of a bellwether of the philosophical impoverishment that still guides this debate in many quarters. His side allows that religion deserves a stronger voice in the public square, because to insist otherwise is to marginalize it, but it resists the notion that our democratic experiment is grounded in moral truth or transcendence of even the thinnest kind. What is sufficient for a democracy, they say, is civic character, or, in other words, a quickness to join. This is essentially civic secularism, and it largely misses the point.

If the public today has any preference for the basis of a re-evaluation of American society, it points decidedly in the direction of moral values. According to Daniel Yankelovich, "Public distress about the state of our social morality has reached nearly universal proportions: 87 percent of the public fear that something is fundamentally wrong with America’s moral condition." Sixty-seven percent of Americans believe their country is in a long-term moral decline. By a margin of 59 percent to 27 percent, Americans believe that "lack of morality" is a greater problem in the United States than "lack of economic opportunity." At no point has a national poll identified deep public worries over a phenomenon one might term "civic disengagement."

The civic character argument is not unimportant: It represents a new point of potential convergence in our nation’s public life. For example, politicians of both parties show a growing interest in empowering community-based charities. This is constructive as far as it goes, but it offers thin gruel for a nation hungry for deeper transformation. How, one must ask, do gentle appeals to civic-mindedness help curb teen pregnancy, confront the crack epidemic, stop playground shootings, slow the vulgarization of American culture, or reverse the complete de-moralization of our schools?

The public is quite clear on this. If some civic renewal advocates are dismayed by the discussion of moral reformation, many see the preaching against civic disengagement as inadequate and misplaced. The editors of my hometown newspaper scoffed at the Bennett-Nunn commission’s suggestion that there’s a failure of civic spirit, a response probably typical of many other small towns. Local folks in my central Pennsylvanian town, who like me are steeped in the gentle communitarianism of the Anabaptists or "plain people" of the area, simply don’t understand what the fuss about civic decline is all about.

The habit of being "our brother’s keeper" is deeply ingrained where I come from. An early morning fire recently destroyed the bedroom of a local farmhouse, leaving smoke damage throughout the entire dwelling. By sundown, 50 or so local volunteers—neighbors and relatives who showed up spontaneously, without prompting or moral admonishments by outsiders—had rid the house of every trace of smoke damage.

These folks would hoot at the thought that we Americans lack civic commitment. What really leaves them speechless is the sense of powerlessness they feel as they watch the bottom fall out of the nation’s moral life. As inconceivable as it is for these folks to not show up when the tragedy of fire or flood strikes, so, too, is the idea that our society would tolerate the loss of innocence in an increasingly barbaric culture, wink at the problem of family collapse, and watch diffidently as unmarried mothers give birth to more than one third of American children. How, they ask, can national leaders think that the civic spirit can be recaptured when we refuse to cultivate conscience among the young, who commit remorseless violence in growing numbers. Most importantly, they wonder how a nation’s leadership can expect a nation to survive all of this by placing its faith in prosperity and civic participation alone.

The Council on Civil Society, taking this concern essentially as its starting point, stated its challenge boldly in the report’s title: "A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths." "Our main challenge," it stated, "is to rediscover the existence of transmittable moral truth." Gently chiding those who argue that all we need is to spend more time volunteering, the report spotlighted "a deeper problem." American civic institutions are declining, it said, "because the moral ideas that fueled and formed them are losing their power to shape our behavior and unite us." "This weakening," it continued, "is closely connected to a range of social problems, from listless voting patterns to fragmenting families, from the coarsening of popular culture to expanding economic inequality."

The Council on Civil Society also issued a clarion call for civic renewal, but it concluded that America’s civic crisis is primarily philosophical and moral. "Why would anyone want to participate in civic life in the first place? Why work to relieve suffering or achieve justice? Why tolerate dissent, why seek to persuade rather than overpower and rule? Even the most elementary civic act, such as voting, cannot be explained merely in terms of rational self-interest." The report argued that "the qualities necessary for self-governance are the results of certain moral ideas about the human person and the nature of the good life," and when the moral grounds of our existence is ignored, "all that is left is power."

A national consensus is beginning to emerge on certain key public concerns such as family disintegration and out-of-wedlock childbearing. Moreover, notwithstanding the reservations of some, religion is likely to have a stronger voice in the public square, both as a legitimate wellspring of personal values and as perhaps the richest source of renewed social capital in communities. It means that civil society is going to be a powerful place for people to gather and work, in many cases transcending politics and ideology.

The people long for relationships
that last, human exchange that is
trustworthy, institutions that
function, and civic communities
that rely on life-enhancing values.

Most will rejoice to know that a vast majority of Americans now acknowledge that government, and especially the central government, may never again be embraced as the engine that drives American progress. In the arena of civil society, a far more dynamic form of citizenship is being reborn, not one that concerns itself exclusively with casting a vote so that action can be taken in some distant legislature, but one which concerns itself with the improvement of living conditions in our neighborhoods.

In political terms, this means that a public philosophy is emerging that attempts to summon Americans toward greater and higher purposes than are usually invoked by simple appeals to self-interest and the economic bottom line. The values of citizenship, sacrifice, service to others, and the ethic of cooperation will once more gain strength.

The emergence of civil society as a framework for progress means that simplistic reliance on either the state or the market as mechanisms for social improvement will give way to deepening interest in creative ways to expand the social sector. The people long for relationships that last, human exchange that is trustworthy, institutions that function, and civic communities that rely firmly on life-enhancing values.

The stage is set for a far more promising and perhaps unexpected debate. That debate will center on the moral versus civic requirements of American citizenship. Was our constitution written for a moral and religious people, or was that merely a quaint sentiment which dominated during less enlightened times when we had fewer social protections against the risk of bad behavior? Will the recovery of civic character get us through the social storm, or will the renewal of our democratic experiment require more? This, it seems, is the question.

overlay image