Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Civil Society After The Fall

Timothy Sherratt


May 4, 2012

By Timothy Sherratt

Several decades ago, sociologist Robert Nisbet warned that individualism and statism had dominated American politics at the expense of those relationships, both natural and constructed, in which people really live their lives—families, religious bodies, charitable organizations, and local communities.

In a week that has seen a rash of articles predicting that this fall’s elections will reinforce both individualism and statism, Nisbet’s warning is worth considering.

By two measures – the parties’ ideological compositions and favored strategies – polarization is predicted to be more complete than ever after November. Moderate Republicans and Blue-Dog Democrats will become all but extinct. Polarization will further normalize the language of warfare as the substitute for democratic discourse. Those who dare depart from their respective orthodoxies will be guilty of treason.

Under the predicted partisan makeup of Congress, the Democratic Party will defend the progressive vision of government as the principal instrument for securing progress and justice. The Republican Party will defend a vision of government that retreats to pre-New Deal modesty, letting markets and choice govern America. The content of the messages may change just a little, but the tone will be much less compromising. The only traction remaining for moderate voters will be selling out to the highest bidder.

Even before the parties organized, the American political tradition already privileged the state and the individual. The Constitution does not address civil society directly, nor did its framers secure the family against assaults on its liberty. To be fair, individualist language has extended partial protection to business corporations and religious institutions.  But for the most part, the Constitution defines the scope and limits of government in the context of individual rights.

Today’s parties do offer civil society some protection. Republicans offer their strongest support to the institutions most reflective of personal choice, to the market first and foremost. They also favor extending protection to religious institutions when these clash with government, as the recent dispute over conscientious exemptions from the contraception mandate illustrates.

Republicans can take their individualist instincts too far, however. Attacking statism from an individualist perspective diminishes the scope of the public justice that the state may properly do. For example, prudence commends social insurance in the context of economic and life cycles. Social insurance can be effectively orchestrated by the state without creating debilitating dependency on government.

A similar prudential case can be made for mandating the purchase of health insurance on actuarial grounds to spread the risks around and to provide coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions.

But of course, these arguments carry more weight if one sees humans as essentially related to one another in the first place; a strict individualism of the Social Darwinian kind rejects the idea that we owe each other anything at all. Do Republicans really want to embrace that kind of jungle existence?

Democrats value civil society but either privatize it or harness it to their ends, making it, to all intents and purposes, an extension of government. They have traditionally valued religion for the social capital it generates, but view its public presence as illegitimate. So Democrats find no injustice in forcing religious charities providing adoption services to either honor equal protection rules or to stop offering those services. Do Democrats really want to endorse that kind of coercion?

Christian social theory stands in resolute opposition to individualism and to statism, even more so to the forms that are emerging, if the Congress-watchers and election analysts are correct in their predictions.

Long-term patterns of social disintegration in the United States have received fresh attention in the light of Charles Murray’s recent research. No long-term response to those patterns can ignore the plight of civil society, as the parties seemed destined to do.  Pressing the case for a healthy civil society was never more urgent.

—Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”