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  • Civil Society and the “Art of Association”
  • William A. Galston (bio)

The past two decades have witnessed an explosion of interest in “civil society” on the part of both scholars and political activists. There are four principal reasons for this development. In the first place, events in the former Soviet-bloc nations of Central Europe dramatized the ways in which civil associations—labor unions, networks of dissident intellectuals, and churches, among others—could serve as effective sources of resistance to oppressive governments.

Second, “nongovernmental organizations” emerged throughout the world as fora for previously unheard voices addressing issues of transnational significance such as the environment, population, the status of women, human rights, and even disarmament. (Witness the Rio, Cairo, and Beijing conferences, the influence of Amnesty International, and the anti-land mine treaty.)

Third, the concept of civil society—a realm of nonprivatized collective action that is voluntary rather than compulsory and persuasive rather than coercive—provided a basis for criticizing the excesses of both the state and the market. The Left, sobered by the limits of centralized governmental action, began looking to voluntary associations as an alternative way of fostering civic engagement and promoting public purposes. Conservatives, troubled by the amorality of the market and by its corrosive effects on social institutions, turned to voluntary associations as sources of stability and virtue. (Remarkably, the leading contenders for the Democratic and Republican presidential [End Page 64] nominations in the United States in the year 2000 have both called for an expanded role for voluntary associations—including faith-based institutions—as partners with government.)

Finally, the concept of civil society responded to the anxiety throughout the advanced industrialized world (and especially in the United States) that the traditional sources of socialization, solidarity, and active citizenship were becoming dangerously weak. Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” published in these pages five years ago, 1 touched precisely this nerve of concern, sparking a conceptual, empirical, and political debate that rages unabated today. 2

Not surprisingly, this upsurge of interest in voluntary associations has coincided with renewed attention to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, who is seen (not without reason) as the locus classicus for this subject. After all, it was Tocqueville who declared that “in democratic countries the science of association is the mother of all science. . . . If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve among them in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased” (II, 110).

Although no noncontemporary writer is more frequently cited by American academics and politicians, Tocqueville is more often quoted than understood. I will try here to place Tocqueville’s discussion of voluntary associations in Democracy in America in what I believe to be its proper context and to examine its relevance for contemporary politics.

Political Associations

Tocqueville begins his discussion of voluntary organizations in democracies with politics rather than civil society (I, ch. xii). His analysis of political association is less well-known than that of civil association but, as we shall see, it is no less important. Tocqueville distinguishes three types (or phases) of free political association—aggregations of shared belief arising from free public speech, especially through organs of mass communication such as newspapers; freedom of assembly; and most significantly, formal conventions organized around political parties or burning national issues. Free political associations serve as counterweights both to directly coercive concentrations of political power and to the more subtle (but no less significant) threat to democratic liberty that he famously labels the “tyranny of the majority.”

Perhaps most surprising to contemporary readers is Tocqueville’s emphasis on the threat posed by freedom of political association, or by its abuse. At one point he declares that “unlimited freedom of association cannot be entirely assimilated to the liberty of the press. The one is at the same time less necessary and more dangerous than [End Page 65] the other. A nation may confine it within certain limits without forfeiting any part of its self-directing power; and it may sometimes be obliged to do so in order to maintain its own authority” (I, 193).

Our surprise abates when we appreciate the context of...