Uncivil Civil Society

Revisiting ‘Bad Civil Society’

Editors’ Note: Simone Chambers and Jeffrey S. Kopstein kick off HistPhil‘s online forum on “Uncivil Civil Society,” revisiting an important article they wrote on the topic two decades ago. The “Uncivil Civil Society” forum will examine challenges to the neo-Tocquevillian strain of thinking that poses strong links between civil society and civil, liberal, and democratic values and practices. The forum will instead focus on how civil society can harbor and sustain deeply uncivil, illiberal & anti-democratic elements. It will also explore the idea of “civility” itself, looking at how it has shaped assumptions about legitimate and illegitimate associational life.

Twenty years ago, we wrote an essay warning that contemporary political theory did not take the threat of associational groups that promoted hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia seriously enough. The context we pushed against was the broad neo-Tocquevillian enthusiasm at the time for the promise of civil society and associational life to improve the quality of democracy. We argued that generalizing in this way was hazardous. The internal “goods” of civil society—belonging, cooperation, and trust—did not necessarily translate into the external goods of democratic citizenship. One needed, we maintained, to consider the ideological content and substantive values of the groups themselves.

We agreed that civic life is important for a healthy democracy, but we worried about what we termed badcivil society. We summed up our concerns as follows: “we believe that the [democratic value of civic organizations] cannot be assessed without taking up the ideological content and substantive messages that members receive. Knowing that a church-based women’s reading group is an essentially bonding experience does not tell you whether they are reading The Turner Diaries or The Color Purple.”

Given what appears to be an upsurge in bad civil society coming to a visible head in the January 6th assault on the Capitol, it seems appropriate to revisit our arguments and ask how well they fit our present moment. Our essay offered a broad comparative analysis of civil society theory focusing on anti-democratic elements of civic associations but did not focus explicitly on right-wing groups. Looking now at the American associational landscape, where right-wing groups appear to be playing an outsized role in undermining democracy, has helped us see more clearly what we got right, what seems outdated, what we got wrong, and what we did not anticipate, in our earlier essay.

What We Got Right

First, our primary thesis has held up well and indeed it might now seem obvious that civil society is not always a good thing, as the neo-Tocquevillian argument does not have the same resonance it did at the end of the 20th century. Associational life is not always the school of democratic citizenship. Few would argue that an expanding sphere of Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, America Firsters, and QAnon-devotés—violent and exclusionary groups in which members find connections and warmth—would improve the quality of democracy. The proliferation of such groups over the past decade has become a depressing benchmark for the current crisis. Our main point then, that a vibrant and active civil society is not always good for democracy, still stands.

Second, enthusiasts for civil society saw in it the potential to mitigate the problem of political apathy. We appreciated the point but worried about a possibly more dangerous pathology, the proliferation of anti-democratic groups and the attack on democracy itself. A common scholarly approach in the US at the time, we argued, failed to take the threat of these groups seriously because of what seemed to us to be a myopic American exceptionalism. This sense of exceptionalism led to the following flawed logic: illiberal forces are small, marginalized, and contained within a strong rights tradition; it is inconceivable, given our strong constitutional tradition, that the liberal state should fall to such forces; thus, we do not need to learn any lessons from nations where the state does appear to be jeopardized, or where there are no strong liberal traditions. This view, we argued, dulled our sensitivity to warning signs of bad civil society’s growth. Short of democratic breakdown or a coup d’état, such groups, even when small or marginal, are the “ideological nurseries” that infect the political mainstream and diminish the reservoir of goodwill between citizens that is essential to any healthy democracy. This, too, we got right. If anything, we underestimated the blind confidence in American exceptionalism and the potential for spillover from the fringe into the mainstream. The events of January 6, 2021 seem to have confirmed the fragility of our rights tradition, the comparability of the US experience with other countries, and the vulnerability of our order to bad associational life.

What We Got Wrong

Why do people join groups? When we composed the essay, we were responding to the “civil society” argument that seemed to us, as it did to others, to ignore the underlying motivations for, and impediments to, joining associations in general. At times, scholars making such arguments seemed to find the causes for joining in serendipity: an affection for bowling, the appreciation for birds (for bird watching clubs), decks built in the front rather than in back of houses so that one might meet ones’ neighbors. Missing in all of this was any systematic consideration of joining and this we considered to be a problem for understanding why people join hate groups.

We argued that the cause of people joining these groups is disaffection and a feeling that the system has failed them. That we stick by. But we focused very narrowly on that dissatisfaction as a function of straightforward socioeconomic injustice. At the time, scholars were just starting to talk about growing inequality in the United States and focused on such phenomena as “edge cities” and the “precariat” as the fertile recruiting grounds for fringe associations. This seemed to be a sensible hypothesis.

The story, however, is more complicated and we ignored two features of bad civil society that now seem to us crucial: status and race. The implication of our analysis is that those at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy would be the ones most likely to populate anti-democratic groups. This is not entirely correct (even if there is evidence, for example, that a great many of those who participated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol faced financial difficulties). Even so, what we missed was the sense among those who join these groups that they are looking to “retake their country” from the “elites.” Of course, these elites may be socioeconomic, but this category as an object of grievance is much broader than we had appreciated. It is important to recall that when Tocqueville first discussed America, he was impressed by how economic differences did not mean difference in status. But this has changed and what made America unique may no longer be true: America has increasingly become a status society. Those joining anti-democratic groups want their country back. They want it back from those they perceive as economic, cultural, and educational elites.

Just as centrally, however, they want their country back from perceived racial and ethnic challengers to their ownership of the state. Race and ethnicity were almost completely absent from our analysis and this is a significant omission. Perhaps if we had focused more on toxic right-wing movements in the US we would have taken up the growing literature, even more visible today,  on the role of white supremacy in civil society. Of course, race and socio-economic stratification overlap, and that in part may account for why we did not pay it closer attention. Survey research, however, has consistently shown the powerful and independent effect of white racial resentment on support for hate groups and extremist politicians. Whatever the truth behind the “forgotten man” thesis that inspired books such as Hillbilly Elegy and a great deal of analysis of white working-class insecurity and downward mobility, we should have devoted more energy to understanding the “grievances” driven by race or at least tried to understand better the complicated relationship between these two sources of social support for bad civil society. Any analysis of those who flew to Washington, DC or drove in fine-looking pickups and then stayed in expensive hotels before attacking the Capitol on January 6, 2021, should focus at least as much on racial and ethnic resentment reflected in the Confederate flags, the Camp Auschwitz t-shirts, QAnon hoodies, and the language of the insurrectionists as on their credit scores.   

A further omission in our analysis is also important. In 2001 we did not anticipate the role of social media in the growth of bad civil society. The digital revolution began to radically transform the public sphere somewhere between 2008 and 2012. It seems incredible to think that so much has changed in a short 10 or 12 years.

The research on the relation between bad civil society and the internet is still ongoing. On the one hand, the internet as a linking, mobilizing, and organizing tool has changed the life of all civil society, both good and bad. The #NeverAgain, #MeToo  and BLM movements could not have taken shape without the viral videos, connecting like-minded justice warriors, and coordinating collective action. On the other hand, the internet appears to create spaces where people who know their views are unpopular or thought dangerous can lurk, build networks, and organize, away from public view. Even so, linking bad civil society and the internet to the events of January 6 is made more complicated by the outsized role of Donald Trump in apparently emboldening some groups.

We are not convinced that algorithms drawing people to ever more sensational and emotionally engaging material are the primary force in the growing power, visibility, and political salience of bad civil society. Instead, our main concern is one we articulated in the original paper where we argued that alongside than growing numbers of recruits to far-right and hate groups, we should also be worried about the spillover effect into the mainstream of some of the language, ideas, and sentiments. In that 2001 article, we noted how talk radio, tuned into by millions of Americans who were not members of hate groups, communicated and normalized ideas and views that are nurtured in hate groups. Most Americans believe that the assault on the Capitol was a dangerous and unjustified attack by extremists. But a sizable minority, meaning millions of people not members of bad civil society groups, believe that it was justified in protest against a “stolen election” and that the individuals who participated (many of whom were associated with groups we would put squarely in the bad civil society camp) were patriots. Thus, not membership in bad groups but disinformation that leads to bad judgments about bad civil society is the danger brought by the digital revolution that we think puts democracy at risk.

The news is not all bad regarding digitally spread misinformation. Studies show that although the media landscape has dramatically changed in the digital age, the mainstream media ecosystem is still governed by traditional norms of truth telling, fact-checking, professional journalism, and minimum levels of civility. But there is a significant portion of the population that lives in a right-wing media ecosystem that, as one recent assessment describes it, “exhibits all the characteristics of an echo chamber that radicalizes its inhabitants, destabilizes their ability to tell truth from fiction, and undermines their confidence in institutions.” We fear a toxic feedback loop between bad civil society and this broader media ecosystem facilitated by digital technologies. The internet gives problematic groups communicative access to the public in unprecedented ways. We suspect that our new digital landscape makes it easier for non-members of these groups to be what might be called fellow travelers primarily by being fed disinformation.

The march in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 brought bad civil society into focus for many Americans and the assault on the Capitol confirmed that the threat of these groups is real. The Department of Justice in the new Biden administration has committed to fighting domestic terrorism and investigating hate groups. These events have also sparked a reinvigorated academic research agenda into why these groups grow, who they recruit, and how we can push back on them within our commitment to civil liberty and an open society. Thus, to the extent that bad civil society is on the agenda, this is what we hoped our paper would encourage. We are not happy that it is on the agenda because democracy seems to be increasingly under threat. Going forward we are concerned with and intend to focus our attentions on the relationship of bad civil society and the public sphere. We remain worried about the information and communication coming out of these groups infecting the information feeds of the conservative leaning public sphere. This is how marginalized small associational movements can become national political movements.

-Simone Chambers and Jeffrey S. Kopstein

Simone Chambers is Professor of Political Science at the University of California Irvine. She has written and published on such topics as deliberative democracy, referendums, constitutional politics, the public sphere, secularism, rhetoric, civility, and the work of Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. She is working on two book projects, The State of Contemporary Democratic Theory, a critical survey of new developments in democratic theory, and a book of collected essays, Deliberation and the Future of Democracy: A realistic but not realist political theory.

Jeffrey S. Kopstein is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. In his research, Professor Kopstein focuses on interethnic violence, voting patterns of minority groups, and anti-liberal tendencies in civil society, paying special attention to cases within European and Russian Jewish history. These interests are central topics in his latest book, Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2018).

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