Civic Associations

Civic associations are freely formed organizations sharing common goals or interests that are not primarily political. The myriad causes for which they are formed include the business and industry advancement, education and character development, religion and public service, cultural and leisure activities, as well as fraternal and selfhelp support. They are distinct from political associations, notably political parties that are concerned with nominating and supporting candidates campaigning for elected public office. Nevertheless, civic associations are widely regarded as important in sustaining America's democratic and social vibrancy, and they are dependent upon the ability of people to organize politically. The boundary between civic and political associations can become blurred when civic associations form interest groups dedicated to influencing the public policy process, and those interest groups form political organizations that raise or spend money for candidates' campaigns.


Tocqueville described political and civic associations as mutually sustaining, yet distinct. Political associations influence laws, policies, or elections; civic associations draw people together for nonpolitical purposes. Political associations serve to articulate ideas or causes around which others may rally or be influenced, organize like-minded individuals supportive of a political cause, and ensure representatives are elected who are committed to the political association's interest. Political parties are the most prominent example of political associations in the United States. Civic associations are cooperative ventures for virtually any other social purpose. In the twenty-first century, organizations such as the National Rifle Association, environmental groups engaged in political activism, or labor unions promoting the election of candidates sympathetic to their interests are commonly referred to as interest groups and are examples of what Tocqueville considered political associations. Examples of modern civic associations include church-based charitable groups, youth groups such as the Girl Scouts, Rotary chapters, chambers of commerce, or self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Although primarily nonpolitical, civic associations may help to further the goals of good government by advancing the common good or mobilizing forces to check the government if it violates individual rights.

Tocqueville emphasized the dependence of civic associations upon political associations and government. For Tocqueville, civic associations thrive within a culture that promotes or is tolerant of political activism. He reasoned that individuals are more likely to become involved in political matters than civic concerns because government has the ability to affect private interests, and political activism often arises for the purpose of protecting self-interest. Moreover, it costs little to become involved in political activity. Yet once involved in political associations, people learn valuable skills and are socialized to work effectively with others, and they will be more inclined to use these skills in nonpolitical pursuits. Tocqueville noted that governments are often very favorably disposed to civic associations and encourage them. Although governments are often less receptive to political associations, as these can impinge upon vested political power, Tocqueville warned that if governments do not tolerate political associations, civic associations are apt to be few because people will tend to lack the desire and capacity to join them. For this reason, the health of civil society is partially contingent upon the government's acceptance of political associations.


Tocqueville also argued that civic associations contribute to the strength of America by fostering individual development, communal well-being, and democratic sustainability. He believed that without civic associations, democratic peoples turn inward, are lulled into a false sense of self-sufficiency, and become indifferent to all but those within their chosen circle. Moreover, if they do not readily participate in organizations in which they are required to work cooperatively with others, they are more isolated socially, do not develop practical skills in interacting effectively with others, and do not learn how their own interests are dependent upon or conflict with other's interests. Communities suffer from the lack of fellow feeling, which promotes cultural inertia and stagnation. Moreover, Tocqueville warned that negative political consequences could result from social isolation and apathy. In particular, he believed that social passivity renders people ripe for despotic governance, which thrives in separating individuals so that they are incapable of effective self-help or political action.

Since Tocqueville's time, it has been generally accepted that civic associations serve to inoculate individuals, communities, and the political order against these potential dangers, and to cultivate other tangible and intangible goods, which in contemporary terminology are called the goods of social capital. In his influential book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes social capital as “connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” ( 2000, 19 ). Social capital builds fraternity, connectedness, and understanding of others. It may also have very tangible individual and communal benefits. Citizens living in states with high social-capital indexes tend to enjoy better academic outcomes on standardized tests, less violent crime, greater economic opportunities, better health, and longer life spans.

Putnam also offers evidence that communities with high social-capital indexes tend to be more egalitarian overall in terms of income distribution and civic engagement. Theda Skocpol in Diminished Democracy observes further that voluntary participatory civic associations can have political value in lessening the political dominance of those with more education and wealth. Conversely, a culture without robust civic associations tends disproportionately to disadvantage members of America's middle and lower social classes, who are denied opportunities to organize and have their interests represented.


Most civic associations fulfill both bonding and bridging functions, creating bonds of fellowship and solidarity through controlling membership, while advancing social causes or purposes. For instance, civic organizations such as the Kiwanis or Elks require new members to be sponsored by existing members, thereby limiting eligibility, yet they undertake a variety of civic and or charitable projects that build goodwill within the community. The extent to which an organization serves bonding and bridging functions depends in part upon the degree of membership inclusivity, on the one hand, and the constituents served by the organization, on the other. Groups with more exclusive membership criteria and groups that exist for self-help are more apt to serve bonding functions. Groups with more open membership requirements or that serve primarily those who are not members are more apt to serve bridging functions.

In the twenty-first century, organizations limiting membership according to criteria such as race or gender will likely run afoul of federal and state civil rights legislation. In Roberts v. Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 ( 1984 ), the Supreme Court identified only two types of associations that may claim a constitutional right to exclude membership based upon gender: 1) intimate associations, or highly personal relationships, and 2) expressive associations that cannot fulfill their expressive functions if members of the opposite sex are allowed. Most civic associations fall into neither of these categories, especially if they perform charitable or civic functions, uniting in common endeavors persons who might otherwise be strangers.


Theda Skocpol in Diminished Democracy traced how the history of civic associations in the United States is tied to the history of political movements and social activism. She found that history was filled with large nationwide membership-based organizations with federated structures of national, state, and local levels. The oldest example in America, dating to 1733, is the Ancient and Accepted Freemasons, a fraternal organization that originated in Europe. Its members became a significant political force by the late eighteenth century, energized by the ideals of the Enlightenment and America's struggle for independence. The Masons, along with other early organizations, played a crucial role in recruiting members and organizing activities in America's first political movement—the independence movement. Among these organizations were the Sons of Liberty, the Sons of St. Tammany, and the Daughters of Liberty, all of which resisted British taxes through boycotts and other protests, and ultimately supported the American Revolution. Patriotic societies formed during the Revolution continued to meet during the early days of the republic, but remained scattered. During the War of 1812, a number of these organizations again joined forces to form in 1813 the Society of Red Men, the country's first fraternal society founded in the United States. It was subsequently renamed the Improved Order of Red Men in 1834. Hence the oldest sizeable civic associations in the United States were primarily fraternal organizations that were supportive of the principles of the Revolution and the new republic.

A collection of the names of prominent civic associations in the United States.

A collection of the names of prominent civic associations in the United States.


Skocpol notes that American wars have historically marshaled civic associations. This was particularly true of the Civil War ( 1861–65 ), which motivated members of fraternal organizations to fight for patriotic reasons, and the conclusion of the war led to a plethora of new civic associations. For example, the federal government played a role in the creation of The Grange in 1867 as President Andrew Johnson ( 1808–1875 ), concerned about the plight of farmers after the war, commissioned Oliver Hudson Kelley ( 1826–1913 ), a clerk for the US Bureau of Agriculture, to collect data for the purpose of improving agriculture. As a Freemason, Kelley built connections nationally that ultimately bore fruit with the creation of what is today the oldest farmers association in America. The Civil War was also a formative experience for Clara Barton ( 1821–1912 ), founder of the American Red Cross ( 1881 ). The Red Cross later fulfilled both humanitarian and patriotic roles in tending to sick and injured soldiers in the Spanish-American War ( 1898 ), World War I ( 1914–18 ), and World War II ( 1939–45 ). However, not all civic associations created in the aftermath of the Civil War viewed patriotic service in the same light. The first Klu Klux Klan, organized in 1865 by Confederate veterans, evolved into a repressive paramilitary organization to deny African Americans their political rights. The federal government sought to squelch its activities and was largely successful in so doing, for a time, with the passage of the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871.

The Industrial Revolution and the Progressive Era likewise stimulated the creation of civil associations, including labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor, women's associations such as the National Congress of Mothers (later renamed the Parent-Teacher Association) in 1897, and professional organizations such as the American Bar Association in 1878. The Rotary Club, founded in 1905, was initially conceived as a fraternal organization for businessmen and professionals, but soon adopted a broader humanitarian purpose, which rendered it highly attractive nationally and internationally. The advent of the automobile gave birth to the American Automobile Association in 1902, an organization through which motorists advocated for better roads. The Sierra Club, incorporated in 1892, brought together scientists and naturalists concerned with gathering information and preserving the environment of the Sierra Nevada. In the Progressive Era, the end of promoting fellowship was coupled increasingly with the advancement of very specific interests and causes, which often spilled into the realm of political advocacy. The National Short Ballot Organization was one example, founded with the aim of simplifying politics by reducing the number of elected state and local executives who were dependent on political party bosses for their existence.

World War I heightened the significance of patriotic civic associations, while it substantially weakened those perceived as pacifistic or antiwar. As Skocpol notes: “In the end the federations that worked most closely with national agencies during World War I—including the Red Cross, the YMCA, the Knights of Columbus, the Elks, and the PTA—were the ones most likely to attract members right after the conflict” ( 2003, 64 ). Conversely, civic associations composed of Irish or Germans or socialists who opposed the war fared poorly. Not surprisingly, after the war, veterans organizations such as the American Legion, founded in 1919, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), founded in 1913, grew in significance.


The Great Depression was devastating to many civic associations as membership rates declined even among such longstanding groups as the Masons, the Elks, and the PTA, due to the enormous economic strain experienced by its members. However, civic associations that served children, such as the Boy Scouts ( founded in 1910 ), and the 4H Club, ( nationalized by the Smith-Lever Act in 1914

World War II, which tapped into the patriotic spirit of a people required to make enormous sacrifices, reinvigorated many longstanding fraternal associations. Its victorious conclusion heralded a golden age of civicmindedness and national economic growth and prosperity that manifested itself in swelling membership rolls among most civic associations. Writing near the war's end, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. ( 1888–1965 ) famously wrote that America is “a nation of joiners” ( 1944 ). The next fifteen years fit this description. With the baby boom, membership in civic organizations such as the PTA, the American Medical Association, and the Boy Scouts grew between 1945 and 1960. So too did membership in veterans groups, such as the American Legion, which had championed the G.I. Bill of 1944. Moreover, the American Association of Retired Persons was created in 1958 for the purpose of providing group health insurance and other benefits to older Americans, as well as helping them remain active. Still, other longstanding civic associations, such as the Grange and the General Federation of Women's Clubs, declined. On the whole, the 1950s was a remarkable decade for civic associations.


The political transitions of the 1960s, especially the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Baby Boomers coming of age, brought numerous changes to civic associations. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) experienced a rebirth. By the end of the decade, rival associations, such as the Nation of Islam and Black Panthers, gained momentum. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 to advance women's rights. The number of environmental groups grew dramatically, with existing groups, such as the National Audubon Society, swelling its membership rolls. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded in 1962 and spread across university campuses among youth concerned with social inequality. Since that time, human rights, social injustice, and environmental concerns have remained crucial causes among civic associations, which since the 1970s, proliferated into numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). So too, organizations opposed to many of the changes of the 1970s have also grown. Among these is the National Right to Life Committee as well as faith-based initiatives involved in political causes, such as the Christian Coalition. However, membership in traditional voluntary fraternal associations has declined overall since the 1960s.

Since the 1970s, there has been a steady increase in participation in self-help, small support groups, and environmental organizations. Membership in Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), founded in 1935, and other self-help groups has grown overall. Weight Watchers, which began as a self-help group among friends in the early 1960s, has grown into a corporate entity. Small support groups for people with common ailments or life experiences have proliferated. Moreover, although church attendance has declined overall, those who attend church regularly remain avid participants in voluntary associations, with those in mainline Protestant denominations tending to be particularly interested in bridging to serve communities outside their churches.


Since the social transformations of the 1960s, concern has grown that the health of America's traditional voluntary associations is suffering. Although membership has grown in advocacy groups such as environmental or human rights organizations and in small self-help groups, fewer Americans join fraternal organizations or veterans groups. In addition, as Skocpol observed, the organizations that Americans join in the early twenty-first century, more often than not, are staffed by professionals who seek money from wealthy donors and foundations, but offer few opportunities for middle class volunteers to acquire the civic skills previously learned by members who served as organizational leaders. For many Americans, participation in civic associations is limited to writing an annual membership check without actual participation with others in running organizations that might build social capital. Voluntary civic organizations are increasingly displaced by NGOs which have become career paths for well-educated, cause-driven individuals. Being more narrowly instrumental, they tend to align more closely with a specific political party, thereby reducing the prospects for broadly defined, unifying projects. Fewer individuals within the ranks of the middle or lower-middle classes either belong to or have their interests represented by these organizations. Those within the middle and lower-middle classes are hurt the most by the loss of social capital generated by membership-driven leadership in civic associations.

Although some lament these changes, others believe that there may be new opportunities for a rebirth of civic participation, although not within traditional fraternal associations, which some criticize as unduly discriminatory and prone to uncritical indoctrination. Churches remain potent in tapping into civic concerns that mobilize people across social classes. Skocpol argues that political reforms encouraging individuals to become involved in elections and politics could reinvigorate civic engagement. Social media offer new opportunities to communicate and mobilize likeminded individuals. And more Millennials are using social media to organize advocacy campaigns and community service projects. The potential for mass mobilization for political reasons remains a latent force in America. Hence, civic associations may yet prove to be an enduring facet of America's culture, just as they have been an important part of nation's history and traditions.

SEE ALSO Apathy ; Bowling Alone ; Civic Engagement ; Civic Participation ; Interest Groups ; Millennial Generation ; Nonprofit Organizations ; Political Party ; Social Movements ; Tocqueville, Alexis de ; Voluntarism .


Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. “Biography of a Nation of Joiners.” American Historical Review 50, no. 1 (October 1944): 1–25.

Skocpol, Theda. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

Skocpol, Theda, and Morris P. Fiorina. Civic Engagement in American Democracy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America (1835 and 1840.) Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Seana Sugrue
Ave Maria University