Associations and America’s Civil Society

Associations and America’s Civil Society | MCI United States | EN

January, 13 2021

The events of the past week have shown us many things about American democracy and our institutions, and they will surely be discussed for months if not years to come. Many will try to show the images of what happened at the Capitol in comparison to other violent uprisings in less-developed democracies. Taken out of context, these comparisons might be right, but they are missing the key ingredient that separates American democracy from others that have fallen before it:

The strength of our civil society.

This civil society spirit was first documented in 19th-century French diplomat and writer Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America, in which Tocqueville witnessed the young nation’s spirit of volunteerism. Political scientists subsequently have noted that democracy depends not just on the act of voting but on additional factors such as a strong civic culture to help people organize and work toward collective action. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam described these voluntary associations as “places where social and civic skills are learned – ‘schools for democracy.’”

Therefore, as an association professional, I am prouder and more honored to serve associations today than I was before Jan. 6. Like many, I was glued to the TV that day, watching all that was happening on Capitol Hill with bated breath, fury, and bewilderment. Yet I knew without a doubt our civil society would hold — that despite what happened or how horrible the day’s events became (and now we are learning could have been a lot worse), the vast majority of our civic organizations and citizenry would never accept anything but a peaceful transfer of power.

Our civic society includes professional civil services, strong democratic traditions, and also modern-day associations and nonprofits — the “schools for democracy” that Robert Putnam described. These associations and organizations are out there every day advocating, organizing, and engaging our citizenry in ways that were unimaginable in the time of Tocqueville. They gather people to improve society without using violence. Proof of this came within hours when associations and societies started flooding their email lists with condemnation of the insurrection on Capitol Hill.

This, for me, is the greatest “value-add” in joining an association and the greatest “why” for which I choose to be involved.

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Jonathan Gilad



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