America’s civic health has never been better. America’s civic health has never been worse. Both conclusions could be drawn from a selective reading of two new reports on the so-called “civil society” or “civic renewal” movement. A Call to Civil Society is a product of the Council on Civil Society, and sponsored by the Institute for American Values and the University of Chicago Divinity School. A Nation of Spectators comes from the National Commission on Civic Renewal, a group co-chaired by Bill Bennett and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Both reports offer a thoughtful, serious discussion of what gives a society a strong civic pulse, with the former being more philosophical and general, the latter more detailed, analytical, and prescriptive.
Both reports have important implications not just for philanthropy, but for how we live and interact with our neighbors, communities, and government. They both place a strong emphasis on the primacy of the family, the unique traditions of voluntary association and civic activism in the U.S., and the critical importance of religion and faith-based action as a counterweight to the strains of modern “culture.”
The Call and Spectators reports each dramatize the importance of voluntary civic-minded initiative, whether inspired by faith, common interests, or a sense of mutual obligation grounded in morality. Both make similar policy recommendations: boosting community development corporations (community-based nonprofits geared to enhancing local development and services, such as improving area housing); broadening utilization of existing laws which allow religious organizations to contract with the government for delivery of social services; and general encouragement for civic activism (Spectators calls on “every citizen to become an active member of at least one association dealing with matters of local neighborhood, church, school, or community concern”).
Yet on crucial issues, the two reports diverge sharply. While both decry the modern decline in both personal and public morality and argue that our level of civic engagement and voluntary association has dwindled, Spectators places more emphasis on this latter point. In fact, the key finding of Spectators is that America has experienced a troubling decline in civic involvement and public-spiritedness (a Boston Globe story discussing Spectators is headlined, “U.S. Suffering from a Bad Case of Civic Blues”). But Call warns that overemphasis on civic involvement per se tends to understate the critical roles of family, work, and business: “Civic participation . . . is ultimately a means, not an end in itself . . . . Absent a guiding set of shared moral truths, voluntary civic associations can be just as harmful to human flourishing as any big government bureaucracy or big business bureaucracy.”
The division is further emphasized when Call says that “to suppose that a free society can derive its public morality from a strictly civic realm—is to fall precisely into that unitary view of society in which everything is ultimately political, decided by the state.” Contrast this strong statement with language in Spectators that “There is no simple or direct relationship between the reach of government and the vitality of civil society. There is no reason to believe that reducing the size of government would automatically increase the scope of voluntary activities.” While these statements are not directly in conflict, Call clearly recognizes a natural tension between the state and the rest of civil society—a tension that Spectators seems to miss.
Is this distinction really that important? Well, yes. After all, if the goal is to strengthen the role of non-government social institutions, we must distinguish those institutions from the instruments of self-government that we employ to accomplish “public purposes” through the political system. What’s more, if we believe civil society is in decline (albeit amid glimmers of hope for the future), we must seriously consider the root causes of that decline. While both reports trot out the familiar culprits (government scandals, mass media, the weakening of social and legal norms that support the traditional family, etc.), it cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that the alleged “civic decline” has coincided with the rapid growth of government power, particularly in domestic policy—welfare, family planning, affirmative action, workplace regulation, retirement security, and much more. In recent years serious scholars (such as Marvin Olasky and Gertrude Himmelfarb) have assembled a mountain of evidence showing that the best kind of voluntary action—local, personal, emphasizing moral codes and personal responsibility—fell into decline as the government’s intrusion into social welfare policy grew.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to the commonsense observation that has been made by commentators since Tocqueville: the unique American history of voluntary association and civic activism is a natural complement to a government of limited powers and a tradition of individual liberty. In this sense, the tension between government and private, voluntary action is both inevitable and, if anything, a sign of civic health, not weakness. Unfortunately, because both reports sidestep the “government action vs. private action” issue, their public policy recommendations are inadequate to help us determine the proper relationship between government and the rest of civil society.
Both reports make recommendations regarding government, ranging from tax preferences to voting participation to arts education. In general, if there is a common theme, it’s “help us out, but stay out of our way.” That is, support civil society with your tax, spending, and regulatory policies, but don’t turn us into agents of the government.
This is obviously a difficult line to defend. As mentioned above, both reports ask for expanded government contracting with faith-based organizations for social welfare services, while insisting that the religious beliefs and autonomy of those organizations be preserved. Call also endorses a special tax credit for donations to private groups that help the needy, without explaining how that can be done without greater government scrutiny of those groups. Spectators asks for a public-private partnership to provide mentors for young people, without outlining the respective roles of government and private associations. Most sweeping of all, Call urges a “civil society model” for evaluating all public policy actions based on their putative impact on civil society and potential for enhancing “social capital.” While intended to enhance the prominence of non-government social institutions, this last proposal could give far-reaching new powers to government officials.
In fairness, both reports go to great pains to stress their recommendations for voluntary action at the personal, group, and corporate level. Their public policy recommendations are secondary. Nevertheless, taken as a whole those recommendations betray a kind of “it doesn’t matter who does what” mentality that undermines the very notion of carving out a special niche, and a high priority, for the “mediating institutions” that constitute one of the bulwarks of our liberties.
For example, Spectators (in a section on schools) enthuses over how “well-designed community work carefully linked to classroom reflection can enhance the civic education of students. . . . ” Spectators is also excited about “the positive civic consequences of programs that bring students into direct contact with government at every level. . . .” The authors expressly decline to endorse mandatory community service programs (those that are required for graduation), but only just barely, and neither report manages to say anything about AmeriCorps (in which the federal government pays young people to “volunteer,” often for federal agencies). Many school- and government-run service programs, in fact, tend to place large numbers of students in government programs. Is that voluntarism? Is it civic action? If so, then everyone on the government payroll is a “civic activist” (not entirely far-fetched, since this is one defense Vice President Gore made when confronted with news of his parsimonious contributions to charity).
Finally, both reports do an excellent job of making the case for strengthening the institutions of civil society, particularly marriage, the family, and religious organizations. Each also comments extensively (and critically) about the role of the media in setting (and lowering) the standards of civil discourse (a pet project of the Pew Charitable Trusts). Both reports are highly critical of contemporary culture and sexual license, but strangely, neither mentions the prominent role of the National Endowment for the Arts in debates over cultural decline.
If both reports have flaws, they no doubt stem in part from the effort to bring together a diverse group of scholars and prominent individuals and get them to agree on a common analytical framework, not to mention specific “action” recommendations. Even so, both are eminently worth reading. Spectators in particular has been somewhat misportrayed (as by the Boston Globe) as painting a bleak picture of civic decline. In part that is because Spectators appears to rely too heavily on Robert Putnam’s famous 1995 essay, Bowling Alone, which argued that patterns of voting participation and civic activity were at a secular low point. The statistics used in Bowling Alone have been widely criticized and probably are not very accurate. But one sympathizes with those who, like Putnam and the authors of Spectators, try to quantify civic activity at a time when changes in government, the workforce, demographics, and family life (e.g., homeschooling) make it very difficult to establish a meaningful, consistent frame of reference. At the same time, for that very reason we should treat these efforts at quantification (like the Index of Civic Health created by the authors of Spectators) with a certain degree of caution.
So both reports deserve an “A” for effort, but lower grades for their analytical approaches and policy recommendations. But they make an honorable and useful contribution to the ongoing debate over the role of voluntary institutions vis-a-vis the state, as we continue to search for the firm philosophical underpinnings that are needed to make “Civic Renewal” a true movement rather than just a series of essays, conferences, and papers.
George Pieler is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.