The question of the “dark side of civil society” is based in a revitalized perspective of the relationship between civic engagement, social trust, and political participation. I want to introduce this background and its revival and where the “dark side” comes from. Theoretically, this is important because it begs the question of what the quality of civic engagement is, not just the quantity. It matters to current civic groups like nonprofits, foundations, and community organizations because these groups are front and center in the question of what makes for a good program, organization, and community.
The sociological tradition of researching civil society, particularly in the U.S., traces its origin to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in which Tocqueville celebrated Americans’ widespread, cross-class participation in mutual-benefit associations, social clubs, and politics. He argued that such participation taught Americans the virtues of democratic participation, social equality, and helping one another out. While this vision of participation never disappeared, it has been revived in sociology largely due to Robert Putnam‘s popular and widely influential Bowling Alone. Putnam picks up on Tocqueville’s argument that participation creates civic virtue and presents wide-reaching empirical evidence that Americans are participating less. The results, he argued, were declines in political participation, trust in others and the government, and increasing social isolation and crime (among many other things).
While the criticisms of Putnam are just as numerous as the graphs in his book, I will focus on one – that participation is virtuous. The locus of research on this issue has been on research looking at the relationships between organizational membership and trust. The traditional idea is that joining organizations, particularly ones with people who are not like you, makes you more trusting and tolerant of different people. The results show that, in some instances, participation does encourage trust while some participation does not. Putnam himself talks about this in his discussion of Bridging and Bonding social capital. In general, this positive relationship between participation and trust is not consistent and the conclusion largely drawn is that the kind and context of participation matters.
The lesson is this: it matters whether you participate in a Parent Teacher Association or the Ku Klux Klan. It also matters whether or not you’re in a humanitarian organization in a totalitarian country versus a democratic country (very generally speaking). What I and others have taken from this is that we need to incorporate an understanding of the quality of civil society, not just the quantity.
Extensive investigations of the “dark side” of civil society have revealed numerous interesting hypotheses about how social terrors such as genocide, authoritarianism, fascism, and violence emerge from participatory democracies. Michael Mann, Jeffrey Kopstein, and Nancy Rosenblum are a few of the researchers who have focused extensively on these issues. While these extreme instances are instructive; another, more ambiguous approach is particularly relevant to anyone interested in how communities should organize.
Good organizations can behave badly. Engaged citizens can go over the edge. ACORN’s crippling scandal is a perfect example with instructive consequences. Understanding the causes and effects of these civic defections will enable community organizers, philanthropists, and policy-makers to understand how to create strong, high-quality civic communities and organizations. To underline this point, one of the few times a foundation has ever been sued by its grantees stemmed from the question of whether the community was capable enough to work together.
Ultimately, we need to understand how civic engagement goes wrong in combination with existing research on how it goes right. In this way, we can inoculate ourselves against civic defections and shape our volunteers, organizers, board members, and employees to promote a higher quality community both within and more broadly.