The Creative Power of American Civil Society

We face a turning point as a nation that is quite challenging. Yet, it is also an opportunity; a rare moment in history that calls us to clarify our purpose and correct the manner of thinking that brought us to this place. It will require that we keep our minds open and remain objective as we address some tough questions. The effort may not be comfortable, but it is essential if we are to regain our balance and rebuild our resolve.

In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson has provided us with a compelling review of what has come to pass. He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and social stability in the United States has had devastating consequences. These are, to use my own words, 1) the role of responsibility in the structure of the social order, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the fundamental role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Looking back, Dr. Ferguson reminds us of the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America: “I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted? I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.” (2013)

He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from the first volume of his famous commentary, Democracy in America, which was published in 1840:

“America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.

“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it…. In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion. There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Dr. Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy. But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him”:

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”

What happened to the creative power of American civil society? And, what is the consequence of this loss? As Tocqueville reports so well, Americans succeeded in overcoming constraints on their freedom through their own initiative and sense of community.

Unfortunately, action has been replaced by inaction. A once spirited culture of engagement, based on committed interpersonal relationships, has been replaced by a self-centered attitude, the loss of community, and the isolating influences of the automobile, television, and the digital age.

Surely it is time to restore what we once did so well, and then, with renewed strength, to address the great challenges ahead.