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9 Civil Society and Democratic Politics Contemporary American thinking about civil society is thor­ oughly dominated by categories drawn from Tocqueville. Individual theo­ rists may differ about where the family belongs or whether the Enlighten­ ment has run its course, but almost all agree that a healthy democracy requires many voluntary associations and much local activity. At first glance, this seems to make eminent sense. Greater engagement, deeper commit­ ment, more participation, and heightened solidarity seem desirable in any social order—particularly one plagued by cheapened politics and civic decline . But a closer look might reveal why neo-Tocquevillean orthodoxy has become so attractive in a conservative period—and why some reservations might be in order. Contemporary thought is characterized by a pervasive skepticism of the state and of the possibilities afforded by broad political ac­ tion. Now it is civil society that is supposed to revive communities, train ef­ fective citizens, build habits of respect and cooperation, provide a moral al­ ternative to self-interest, limit intrusive bureaucracies, and reinvigorate the public sphere—all this in an environment of small government and local politics.1 Indeed, a narrowed sense of public purpose and political possibil­ ity is central to contemporary public life and thought. For Colin Powell, who headed the President’s Summit for America’s Future, “a civil society is one whose members care about each other and about the well-being of the community as a whole.” Tolerance, respect, and civility can be built by vol­ untary community service, for “we are helping the next generation of Amer­ icans to grow up to be good citizens, and we are reacquainting the present generation of Americans with the need to break down the barriers of race, class, and politics that divide us—which will help make us a more united and caring nation.”2 Good feelings, volunteerism, nostalgia, and commu­ nity constitute civil society in an antipolitical period. 233 234 | Civil Society and Democratic Politics Superficial boosterism notwithstanding, Tocqueville’s popularity is tied to the general pessimism of a conservative and unstable age. Three decades of deindustrialization and political reaction have come together in relentless attacks on the welfare state, static or declining standards of living for tens of millions of families, heightened levels of stress at work and home, unprece­ dented levels of cynicism about political institutions, and widespread contempt for public figures. Despite apparent economic prosperity and politi­ cal tranquility, Americans are in a decidedly sour and uncivil frame of mind. Intellectual and political elites earnestly promote local commitments and good manners, and it is easy to agree that life would be better if more of us worked in soup kitchens and fewer of us wanted a gun after being cut off on the highway. But moralizing clichés and less television will not be enough to reverse the civic disengagement of contemporary life or convince a withdrawn citizenry that public affairs can be conducted without numbing lev­ els of hypocrisy and vulgarity. Tocqueville is not particularly helpful in these conditions. Categories derived from the face-to-face democracy of early nineteenth-century New England towns cannot furnish a credible model for public life in a highly commodified mass society marked by unprecedented levels of economic inequality . As important as they are, local voluntary activity and informal civic norms are too narrow to provide the broad and general orientation that the current environment urgently requires. But Tocqueville serves im­ portant purposes anyway, for his notion of civil society performs a normal­ izing function by making it difficult to see the economic roots of contem­ porary problems and blinding us to the political avenues for their resolu­ tion. He is not the only available thinker, after all. Civil society is a very old idea, and Tocqueville’s is only one way of conceptualizing it. The two other strands of thought we have been charting—the premodern sense that civil society was the politically organized commonwealth and the second modern view that it is the sphere of necessity, production, class, property, and com­ petition—can shed important light on an idea that has considerably more to offer than the restricted terms of current discourse make possible. Part of the problem is that civil society is an unavoidably nebulous and elastic conception that does not easily lend itself to a great deal of precision. It is not enough to describe it as a mediating sphere of voluntary association supported by communitarian norms, for many organizations are destructive of civility...


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