Civil Society

Civil society is a protean idea that describes the large and diverse realm of human activity outside of the family and the formal institutions of government. Expansively defined, civil society can include for-profit firms, other participants in the market economy, nonprofit organizations, religious bodies, informal associations, and networks. Civil society organizations can be enduring or transient, large or small, formal or informal, and local, national, or global. Despite its status as a realm distinct from formal institutions of governance, civil society plays a number of crucial roles in the American system of governance.

In general, civil society organizations and associations, including interest groups, media, and political parties, mediate between individual citizens and government institutions. Civil society organizations act as bulwarks, protecting individuals from undue intrusion by the state; as conduits, helping individuals develop and refine their preferences and interests and transmit them to government; as training grounds, where people learn the different skills and habits necessary for being democratic citizens; and as sites for expressive association, where individuals affiliate to pursue joint interests and ends. Civil society can also be a partner with, and a stand-in for, government itself, taking on tasks, like the provision of social services, that government contracts out to civil society organizations, undertakes in partnership with such organizations, or neglects to accomplish on its own.

Modern American civil society is immense. The National Center for Charitable Statistics reported in 2014 that there were more than 1.4 million tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations in the United States, including more than 300,000 religious organizations. The United States Census Bureau put the number of for-profit firms at more than 7.7 million as of 2007. Informal organizations with no official legal status, like book clubs or unstructured groups of friends, are of course difficult to count but surely number in the millions.


The historical roots of American government involve a conception of civil society that exists independent of the state. In Two Treatises of Government, first published in 1689, John Locke writes that people are able to create a stable, livable society in the absence of any sort of government, a society with “inconveniences” (ch. 2) but not the hell on earth that the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes describes as the state of nature in his 1651 work Leviathan. According to Locke, government is instituted to remedy these inconveniences, which include the lack of impartial judges and difficulty enforcing contracts. Portraying government as instituted for a specific, limited set of tasks circumscribed the proper role of modern governments, a view that deeply influenced the American Founders and found expression in the Constitution. The Framers of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and those of the state constitutions, included provisions meant to prevent the government from threatening the independence of civil society such as rights to free speech, assembly, and privacy. Many early civil society organizations in the United States, such as charitable hospitals and early universities, grew out of religious organizations, which even before American independence were carefully separated from government in much of the country.

As democratic governance in the United States became more firmly established, however, worries about the potentially dangerous influence of civil society eased, and the nineteenth century was in many ways a golden age for American civil society. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America ( 1835 ), famously celebrated Americans' tendency to solve local problems by creating associations, a characteristic that he saw as a key support of the country's democratic culture. In the late nineteenth century the formal recognition of both for-profit and nonprofit associations, which previously had to be approved individually by state legislatures, was regularized and made significantly easier. Other key developments in the creation of modern American civil society came with the rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of philanthropic business titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and the establishment, in 1913, of the individual income tax. The income tax introduced the possibility of tax advantages for charitable contributions, which today are one of the defining legal features of the American government's support of nonprofit organizations.


Civil society plays an important role in maintaining individual rights, such as freedom of conscience, expression, and association, and serves as a bulwark against potential intrusion by the state. At the same time, civil society depends on a strong system of individual civil and political rights. In the absence of the most basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution, including rights to free speech, assembly, and privacy, nothing recognizably like civil society could possibly exist. Where these rights are abridged, civil society exists in a cramped form but, crucially, is never entirely extinguished. Even when formal associations are entirely banned, as in totalitarian regimes, informal networks among citizens continue to exist, secretly when necessary.

In the United States a robust system of rights overall has coexisted uneasily with broad denials of rights to specific disadvantaged groups, and civil society has been one of the most important ways in which the ongoing conversation over the proper meaning and extent of rights has occurred. For example, civil society organizations have been at the forefront of the movements for woman suffrage ( National American Women Suffrage Association, National Woman's Party ), civil rights for African Americans (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and rights for gay and lesbian Americans ( Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Human Rights Campaign ). Civil society has many times been open to groups of Americans who have been denied participation in formal political institutions. These groups have been some of the primary vehicles for resistance to the denials of rights. Even when disadvantaged groups have been excluded from civil society organizations in addition to the formal political process, they have been able to create their own groups within civil society.

In the twentieth century, civil society groups like Amnesty International and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have opposed curtailments of individual rights. These civil society groups not only oppose intrusive government actions but also work alongside journalists to inform and mobilize public opinion. Here civil society functions as a check on government, permitting and transmitting the expression of ideas that run counter to official government policy. Civil society does not only help protect individual rights; it is in large measure the way in which citizens exercise their rights. The rights to association, speech, and religious liberty are all exercised in the context of formal and informal groups. It is through participation in these groups that people develop their interests and passions and meet others who share them. As a venue for expressive association, a vibrant civil society is thus a crucial part of life in a democratic society.



Tocqueville's Democracy in America is a classic statement of the role of civil society organizations in helping Americans learn to be good democratic citizens. Tocqueville marveled at Americans' habit of solving local problems by forming associations. He saw this as not merely an efficient way of getting things done, one that he contrasted with the sclerotic, top-down approach current in much of still-monarchical Europe, but as a crucial way in which the democratic culture of the United States was preserved and reproduced over time. Associations were also the training ground of democracy. The art of combining, Tocqueville wrote, was the mother of all knowledge in a democratic society. Through institutions like town hall meetings, Americans learned to see themselves as authors of the rules that bound them, and Tocqueville believed that Americans accepted only those rules that could plausibly be understood this way. In the twentieth century these observations about the importance of civil society for democracy were buttressed by comparative studies of democratic systems that succeeded and failed worldwide, such as Larry Jay Diamond's 1999 book, Developing Democracy. A vigorous civil society exists almost everywhere democracy persists over time.

In her work on American civil society, Theda Skocpol ( 2003 ) documents the importance of large nationwide and federated membership organizations from the Free Masons to the American Temperance Society. These organizations contributed to the idea of America as a nation of joiners. Anxiety grew in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries when it was recognized that these huge national membership organizations of a previous era were decreasing in membership if not dying out entirely. In Bowling Alone ( 2000 ) and other work, Robert Putnam popularized the idea of social capital, the value of interpersonal bonds between citizens. Putnam argued that social capital was essential for individual wellbeing and the health of the American democratic system, and that social capital in America was being depleted, potentially putting American democracy at risk.


In addition to the roles that civil society plays in organizing and voicing the inputs of governance—the skills, attitudes, preferences, and interests of all persons—civil society also plays a crucial role in the outputs of American governance. This is particularly true in the provision of social services in American communities, in the states, and nationally. Civil society groups deliver services and at times even participate in the development of administrative rules themselves, an activity often considered the paradigmatic government function. This phenomenon, sometimes described as the hollowing out of the state, derives in part from a commitment to limited government from the earliest days of the republic. That commitment is reinforced by the realities of government's limits in providing social services.

A Red Cross volunteer distributes meals from a disaster relief services van, ca. 1994.

A Red Cross volunteer distributes meals from a disaster relief services van, ca. 1994.


The roles of civil society in American governance are the subject of ongoing debate and tension. Civil society helps protect individual liberties from government intrusion but can also serve to concentrate power in ways that are potentially damaging to democratic equality. Foundations, in particular, are typically run by the wealthy and receive tax advantages and effective legal immortality. Americans rely on civil society to develop and transmit their political preferences, but this in turn means that American democracy is highly vulnerable to changes, sometimes for the worse, in the makeup of civil society, which after all is composed of private organizations with varying degrees of accountability. Civil society's crucial role in educating Americans raises similar concerns.

Civil society in America today is in many ways at a pivotal moment. Many civil society organizations are becoming professionalized, meaning that those running them are more likely to be trained managers than members serving in elected office, and the long-term impact of this trend, particularly on the educative functions of civil society, remains uncertain. New communications technologies are sometimes blamed for sapping the vitality of various aspects of civil society. The Internet threatens print journalism, a traditional keystone of the public sphere; but technology also opens up exciting possibilities for civil society, with people now able to “meet,” discuss, and organize across distances in ways that were not previously possible or even conceivable. The question, however, of what is lost when these interactions take place mediated through technology rather than in person, particularly with reference to civil society's role in educating and socializing Americans into the skills and habits of democratic citizenship, is very much open.

The old debate about whether civil society is a protector of or a threat to democratic equality has been reopened in the 2010s as well. The US Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 ( 2010 ), that independent political expenditures by for-profit corporations and nonprofits, including large labor unions, are speech protected by the First Amendment has sparked new concerns that powerful organizations may become still more powerful. Debates over the concentration of power in civil society, and in the economy by commercial and financial institutions, have been going on since before the Revolution and are continually refreshed.

SEE ALSO Civic Associations ; Civil Community ; Great Society ; Interest Groups ; Locke, John ; Open Society ; Self-Governance ; Social Capital ; Tocqueville, Alexis de ; Voluntarism .


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Brian Coyne
Stanford University

Rob Reich
Stanford University