Civil Community

Civil community is a concept developed by the political scientist Daniel J. Elazar in his seminal study The Cities of the Prairie ( 1970 ). This multigenerational, multicommunity study, which continued for forty years ( 1960–2000 ), sought to trace, compare, and contrast political, social, and economic developments in ten medium-size midwestern civil communities. The study focused on medium-size civil communities because, at the time of the study, they most closely reflected Americans' preferences regarding where to live.


Civil communities are created to serve a limited or specific political purpose or function. From this perspective, the purpose or interest that motivates local governmental institutions is not, as many economists argue, guaranteeing the economic prosperity of the community, though its economic well-being is often a major consideration. Rather, governmental institutions act in the community's interest by providing the services necessary to maintain or create the quality of life determined by local standards and values. The civil community is the basic unit through which local political control is exercised. Thus it also serves as a useful basic unit of analysis for any investigation of local politics.

Components of Civil Community. Elazar identified the basic elements shared by all civil communities ( 1970, 6 ):

  1. Formal government entities, including multipurpose and single-purpose units.
  2. Agencies of the state and federal governments that operate locally, providing services to the local community.
  3. Nonprofit organizations, especially those that serve public purposes.
  4. Political parties that organize political activities and structure political activity across the region.
  5. Interest groups that represent the various local interests and aim at shaping public policy.
  6. Local political culture, which shapes expectations regarding the role and scope of government.
  7. Codified and informal political traditions that provide the framework within which legitimate political action can occur.

Civil communities do not exist in a vacuum. They are located within and must interact with larger political systems. In the United States these political systems are the state and nation, with their respective governments. Within this framework, civil communities serve to protect individual rights if the federal government exercises excessive power without respect to local customs, norms, or standards. In this sense, the pressures exerted on civil communities, namely, complying with federal and state mandates while protecting local concerns, are at times in opposition. The performance of these functions varies in every community according to its local values and standards. Urban researchers who assume that cities are autonomous units have often overlooked this concept. Such researchers have relied on policy outputs (usually public expenditures) to reach their conclusions. At the other end of the spectrum, some researchers overemphasize the limits imposed on cities and portray these units as powerless, unable to influence their fate. Both approaches fail in properly locating civil communities in the federal system.

Civil Community and Civil Society. Civil community is distinct from the concept of civil society. Among the many definitions of civil society, the most common is the public space that includes organizations that are not part of the government or market system. Free of government control, civil society organizations may act as a countervailing power and check on government, or they may assist government in fulfilling its basic functions. Examples are churches, service organizations, and nonprofits. These voluntary organizations exist outside of the control of government or business influence. However, they often attempt to influence governmental policy through advocacy and also help to carry out policy objectives by implementing governmental programs.

Civil community is composed of the broad range of governments, civic and political organizations, and businesses that collaborate to achieve desired outcomes. In this sense civil society, representing civic organizations, is a part of civil community. Others see the difference between civil society and civil community as a matter of scale, not composition. From this perspective, the civil community is a local part of a national civil society. This discussion relies on the former view.


The United States has had a long tradition of democracy rooted in local governments. Early traditions of local government focused on communal responses to problems based on the local culture and morals. Citizens would debate issues, reach a decision on a solution, and then carry it out within the confines of a relatively small civil community where everyone knew each other.

Local Governments and the Absence of Civil Community. Not every local government is a civil community. Certain conditions and relationships are necessary for the development of a fully functioning civil community. Elazar's research determined that the ideal civil communities are medium-size cities of no less than 40,000 people. Cities of this scale are large enough to provide adequate public services, contain a varied amount of nongovernmental and business interests, and develop their own talent base to work in these institutions in the future. At the same time, the cities are small enough that personal relationships develop across the institutional components of the civil community. In essence a civil community of this size is large enough to meet the needs of its citizens while still providing citizens with a feeling that their government is small enough to be responsive to their personal needs.

Several factors inhibit the development of a strong civil community. Population size creates a problem for some cities. Large cities often are composed of too many neighborhoods and conflicting interests to provide a meaningful sense of common purpose for the community. Smaller governments often foster a close-knit community but lack the capacity to provide the services necessary to address local problems.

A second factor inhibiting civil community is the inability of a city's leaders and institutions to pull together to create a vision for the area. This can occur when individuals do not come forward to provide leadership, when the only interests in an area have consistently different objectives, or when there is a lack of communication among governments, businesses, and organizations to produce a common front to address problems.

Finally, civil community suffers when citizens are not involved in the decision-making process. Ideally, citizens are active in the local organizations and political life that forges a common vision for the future. In some instances, however, citizens merely make demands on government for services that they would like instead of becoming actively involved. People then become consumers rather than citizens, and the civil community cannot operate optimally.


There are six general variables through which local political behavior can be analyzed. Although each variable is distinctive in its own right, these variables often overlap, providing a different perspective to the examination of the same phenomena. These variables can be further divided between those characteristics that are internal to the civil community and those that are created by larger, external forces.

Internal Factors. Two primary internal factors help to understand political behavior within a civil community: the characteristics of government design, and political culture.

Government design is affected by three factors. The first factor is constitutionalism, which entails the formal aspects that give the governing structures their form and legitimacy and provides an understanding of the governmental process. The second factor is republicanism, which refers to the representative nature of the community's political institutions. It entails examining the distribution of power and identifying the pertinent groups and individuals that influence these institutions. The third factor, democracy, describes the participation of the people, as individuals or groups, in the political process. This variable contains an analysis of the community's power structure and considers the role of forming and maintaining governing coalitions and the tacit veto power that such coalitions may exercise.

Political culture is the way community views the role of government in society. Elazar formulated one of the most elaborate and comprehensive models of American political culture and its subcultures in American Federalism: A View from the States ( 1966 ). According to his theory, American political culture is a synthesis between the two contrasting notions of political order that were introduced during the nation's settlement period. The first notion is that political order is a marketplace in which politics can best be described as “who gets what” and assumes that all parties act in their self-interest at all times. The second notion is the commonwealth, in which citizens act to establish governmental institutions and policies to promote shared moral principles.

The national political culture is expressed in three subcultures: the individualistic, moralistic, and traditionalistic subcultures. The individualistic subculture most closely mirrors the marketplace notion of politics, while the moralistic subculture is aligned with the commonwealth concept. The traditionalistic subculture also reflects the commonwealth notion, but has an elitist orientation and limits the role of government to preserving existing power and economic structures. The political subcultures originally developed along the East Coast— the moralistic in New England, the individualistic in the mid-Atlantic, and the traditionalistic in the South—and spread westward along internal migration patterns.

External Factors. The conditions in which a civil community finds itself at any given point in time are largely determined by its geohistorical position. That is to say, every community is created to serve a specific function and as such is located not only spatially but temporally. A number of factors influence where a city will be located. These four external variables are federalism, sectionalism, migration, and the frontier. Each factor in its own way determines the environment and the types of responses available to the community. Any change in any of these external variables will produce some type of response by local communities. This response may run the gamut from acceptance and accommodation to outright resistance. It is important, then, to examine not only the changes that have occurred in the external variables but also in the types of responses available to local communities. Each of these factors in turn interacts with one another and influences the manner in which each is manifest.

Federalism encompasses not only the position of the local community within the larger state and national framework, but also includes relations between the subnational governmental units found in a civil community. This variable recognizes that decisions and policies that affect the local community are not always of local origin. The influence of other planes of government must be identified and examined. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the orientation of government in America has moved toward one of greater centralization within a hierarchical framework. The aim of these efforts invariably has been to transform government into a more businesslike organization.

Sectionalism deals with the relationship between the civil community and the larger geographic region of which it is a part. Changing economic, political, and demographic conditions often have a great impact on entire regions. A civil community's physical location inexorably ties it to the fate of its region. This locational variable links communities to the distinct and differing geographic areas into which the United States has historically been divided. Each section shares long-term interests that have been shaped by common historical patterns.

Migration takes into account population movement internally and externally. The time at which a community was founded and the circumstances surrounding that event invariably provide a base from which subsequent development occurs. The migrational streams that flow through a community are one of the most important characteristics that influence this base. Historically, internal migration patterns started in the east and moved westward. In more recent American history, there has been a significant movement of people from the Northeast, or the Frostbelt, to the South and West, the Sunbelt.

Immigration has influenced the migrational streams. Since the 1970s, levels of immigration, mostly from Asia and Latin America, have accelerated at a faster rate than at any time since World War I ( 1914–1918 ). The majority of all immigrants head to large cities. Asians and Latinos often come from countries with authoritarian political cultures where participation is usually not encouraged and often not tolerated. These new immigrant groups have not been especially active politically, and only in the twenty-first century began to enjoy limited electoral influence.

The frontier, which helps to explain a community's position within the nation's larger socioeconomic framework, can be understood by examining its response to the challenges and demands presented by major changes in the economic base. The frontier thesis of American politics was originally postulated by Frederick Jackson Turner in The Frontier in American History ( 1920 ). Essentially, Turner maintained that the abundance of free land provided an economic opportunity that fostered a uniquely American experience and culture. This culture emerged from the synthesis of those who first explored and mapped out the land, those who followed and made the first social uses of the land, and finally those who would permanently settle it, including both producers and entrepreneurs. In many ways the existence of the frontier contributed to the American notion of continually expanding economy and limitless growth. It is this notion, too, that is the cause of social unrest when the frontier and its opportunities close or shift from one type of frontier to another.

There are four periods of civil community that correlate primarily with the frontier development of the United States. The rural-land frontier or the original land frontier described by Turner lasted from the first settlement until approximately World War I. Cities were founded during this period to serve the role of marketplaces where agricultural and other products extracted from the land could be processed and exported, and where manufactured goods could be produced and purchased. The majority of Americans lived on farms during this period.

The urban-industrial frontier, which first opened after the War of 1812 along the Atlantic seaboard, lasted until the 1950s. During this period, cities became the major form of organized land use and soon developed into independent producers of wealth, no longer dependent on their rural hinterlands. The development of cities as centers of manufacturing was due in large part to advances in technology, especially in transportation, with the invention of the locomotive steam engine and trolleys. Urbanization soon became the dominant settlement pattern as Americans began to leave the farm and immigration into the United States increased.

The metropolitan-technical frontier grew out of the wealth and technological advances produced by industrialization, which provided the basis for suburbanization. This process began to emerge in the 1920s but was interrupted by the Depression and World War II ( 1939–1945 ). The areas of growth within this frontier emerged in the suburbs that surround the cities established in the urban frontier.

Finally, the citybelt-cybernetic frontier, which began in the 1980s, was shaped by two fundamental elements of the frontier thesis. First, the economic base shifted from mass industrial production to high technology manufacturing and information processing. Second was the demographic diffusion of population on a massive scale across metropolitan regions. This has resulted from the new American preference for lower-density locations that offer good climates and ample amenities. The large-scale migration in the United States, from city to suburb to exurb to beyond, and from Northeast to Midwest to Southwest, has been made possible by technological developments that have transformed many remote regions into accessible and habitable places.


Fully functioning civil communities are necessary for the health of American democracy. As different frontiers emerge, the components of civil communities are called on to develop different responses to new challenges. Civil communities best address these problems when they elicit participation, communication, and cooperation among governments, businesses, voluntary organizations, and citizens.

Civil communities face a number of difficulties in the early twenty-first century. The first results from the changes that have emerged during the cybernetic frontier. Technology and globalization allow people to be connected as never before. However, they are not bonded by a sense of geographical place that helps to build the common bond of civil community. Second, the focus on individualism, with people concentrating on their own needs rather than developing a common sense of purpose, hurts community self-determination. Finally, people increasingly view themselves as consumers of government services. In this market-oriented model of government, government is the provider of solutions to the problems of passive residents. However, civil community requires that citizens actively engage in problem solving to ensure collective decisions based on local preferences. Civil communities have adapted to adversity in previous eras of American history. It remains to be seen how they will meet these new challenges.

SEE ALSO Civil Society ; Federalism in American History ; Local Government ; Political Culture ; Regionalization ; Sectionalism ; Suburbanization .


Elazar, Daniel J. Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

Elazar, Daniel J. “Suburbanization: Reviving the Town on the Metropolitan Frontier.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 5, no. 1 (1975): 53–79.

Elazar, Daniel J. American Federalism: A View from the States. (1966.) 3rd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Elazar, Daniel J., Joseph R. Marbach, Stephen L. Schechter, et al. Cities of the Prairie: Opening Cybernetic Frontiers. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2004.

Elazar, Daniel J., Rozann Rothman, Stephen L. Schechter, et al. Cities of the Prairie Revisited: The Closing of the Metropolitan Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Kincaid, John. “Federalism and Community in the American Context.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 20, no. 2 (1990): 69–87.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt, 1920.

J. Wesley Leckrone
Widener University

Joseph R. Marbach
Georgian Court University