Uncivil Civil Society

Thoughts on Uncivil Civil Society 2021: Imperiling, and Defending, Democracy in the United States

Editors’ Note: Nancy Rosenblum continues HistPhil’s forum on “Uncivil Civil Society.”

‘Civil society’: the phrase comes with built-in praise and promise. The crowded sphere of voluntary associations standing between public political life and private affairs is defined as sociable and civil. What civic education in public schools is for children, civil society is for promoting democratic values over the course of adult life, and the norms and practices of membership groups spill over into democratic politics. Yet freedom of association gives rise to hierarchical groups, authoritarian groups, exclusionary groups and groups that not only fail to realize democratic norms in their own practices but threaten political stability through commitment to political violence. Groups organized and armed, with violent purposes, are a special threat to the civil character of society. I focus on them to underscore the radically incongruent elements of civil society, and the challenge of containing or extirpating them. Several constructive responses, I argue, come from the the voluntary associations of “good” civil society, but only if conditions allow for entering and exiting groups and for the personal experience of pluralism.

Political violence is a historical constant in the United States. It is often the work of people joined together in membership groups: self-styled militia, white supremacists, the aptly named “sovereign citizens,” coercive cults, left-wing extremists, and more. Along with physical violence these groups harass and intimidate, revile and discriminate in full public view, spreading fear. The associational life of militia and hate groups revolves around preparation for self-defense against what they see as tyranny and threats to “our way of life.” Self-designated “posses” and “militia,” they claim special authority to defend liberty. Their violence is premeditated and ranges from shootings and bombings to demonstrations primed for confrontations and clashes. Some associations, like the KKK and the Oath Keepers, form nationwide networks.

Although emerging from within it, these groups are antithetical to a civil society. Spewing threats and hate, they go beyond incivility, courting violence. These militant groups do not take up arms in defense of civil rights; on the contrary, they challenge basic civic norms of equality and respect more virulently than the ordinary vices of elitism and prejudice, which are common enough in American society. They assault civic norms more overtly than entrenched institutional racism, which often goes unacknowledged. Their paramilitary ethos is anti-civilian. Self-appointed arbiters of national political life, they are antidemocratic.

Yet these groups are not anomalous; they are the beneficiaries of already existing uncivil currents of conspiracism, racial animus, and rage at government – condemning everything from taxes (“involuntary servitude”), schools (“conscription”), the national debt, and traffic warrants to white racial “replacement”, every dimension of diversity, a perfidious “deep state,” and “stolen elections.” Violent groups create but also exploit a social climate that is as much an American patrimony as is Tocquevillian association. A militiaman, Michael Kelly noted, “is a stranger of a strange land, warped not against his culture but by it, and the curve of his warp follows the curve of the culture; it is only steeper and continues farther, off the edge of the graph.” The assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 revealed an increasingly precipitous curve.  

The Dangers Now

Again, as at key moments in the past, violent groups have taken center stage in American political life. Again, credible threats and violence against public officials and private individuals are daily fare. Three elements of their eruption into public arenas and disruption of democratic politics today stand out. Together, they underscore “the paradox of democracy:” freedom of association for groups with the intent and the capacity to disturb or destroy democracy.

The sine qua non is guns – hundreds of millions of guns and stashes of military armaments in the hands of ordinary citizens today, and widespread permission for open carry. The warrant is an absolutist reading of the Second Amendment that casts any regulation as the entering wedge of a government plot to confiscate weapons by force. On this view, guns are required for self-protection against ‘tyranny’, or, as the storming of the Capitol demonstrated, for its overthrow. As the number of armed Americans grows, self-defense, defense of gun ownership, and defense of the nation against internal enemies shade into one another. And guns spawn groups that blur the familiar distinctions between civic association, militia, and paramilitary forces.

2021 also saw the rejection of government authority, propelled not by a coherent ideology but by conspiracism and rage. The day-to-day business of governing is wildly distorted: the term ‘despotism’ is applied to Covid-19 mandated masks (“liberate Michigan!”), immigration, environmental regulations, and much more. This adds up to the wholesale delegitimation of democratic institutions – denying them meaning, value, and authority, and any claim to compliance.

Finally, the mutual and benign interaction attributed to civil society and democratic government has turned malignant. Elected officials encourage dangerous groups, and groups support fellow-traveling officials. Crucially, President Donald Trump created a new, collective identity for already-existing violent associations as his core base, prepared to defeat an ever-growing cast of political enemies by any means. Abetted by a submissive Republican Party, grass-roots groups grew larger and formed networks. Trump gathered unaffiliated loyalists and members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers into what amounts to a private army to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.[1] It can be called up again.

Can good civil society and democracy be defended against this constellation of forces that exploit freedom of association? When dangerous elements of bad civil society multiply and migrate from the margins to the center of public life, prescriptions fall roughly into two groups: one looks to legal intervention and to public policy broadly. The other looks to defenses available every day and right now that leverage good civil society against bad.

Defending Democracy: Public Policy and “Getting at the Roots of the Problem”

Some prescriptions for defending democracy turn from the groups themselves to ‘the roots of the problem,’ advocating policies to address economic insecurity and status anxiety that presumably drive membership in violent associations. Of course, social justice demands social security, but countering political violence is not a principal impetus to progressive legislation. And for these groups, particular grievances, warranted or not, give way to a wholesale charge of government’s illegitimacy – denial of its meaning, value, and authority. Nor are the root causes of violent groups generalizable; extremism plagues generous welfare states and participants in the deadly assault on the Capitol were predominantly middle-aged and middle class.[2] Militia and hate group members profess their reasons for joining: to wage war, for many a race war, against mortal threats to “our way of life.” This is a shape-shifting cultural standard that can point in any direction; no public policy can address the avalanche of grievances and no policy can restore lost supremacy. Moreover, attention to “root causes” fails to take into account the compelling drama that is part of these groups’ appeal. Nothing offers members the illusion of power like arousing fear. No conventional political activity – certainly not the regulated rivalry of democratic politics – delivers the electric participatory jolt of guns, threats, and insurrection.

A more targeted defense against violent groups assigns government a tutelary role in shaping the associations of civil society. Here, the direction of influence often assumed (that the values and practices necessary for democratic stability are inculcated in civil society and spill over into political life) is reversed. In my 1998 book Membership and Morals I called this ‘the logic of congruence.’ It looks to government to apply incentives and regulations that shape the internal organization, authority structure, and purposes of voluntary associations so that they mirror public values and practices. Legally compelled association, for example, requires the all-male Jaycees to admit women as full members, or Bob Jones University to permit interracial dating as a condition of federal funding.[3] But proponents of tutelary government fail to address the entrenched incongruence of violent groups neither amenable to incentives nor compliant with regulations.

There are limits to tutelary policies, for congruence is impossible to achieve without vast government intervention, surveillance and criminalization. With exceptions that include drug cartels, gangs, and organized crime, freedom of association protects incongruent voluntary associations from being banned. Violent actions by group members are punishable, of course, and prosecution may cause groups to splinter. But unlawful conduct does not alter the group’s legal standing. The FBI labelled QAnon a “domestic terrorist threat” justifying surveillance but identification as a Q follower per se is not prohibited. And criminal law’s deterrence value is uncertain. Today, these groups go about their hateful business with considerable impunity. Flagrant defiance of regulations against guns at public events is common, for example, and violent groups operate with near impunity when government agents underestimate their dangerousness or they gain the sympathy of elements of law-enforcement.  It is impossible to enact the “logic of congruence,” of course, if elected representatives themselves are divided in their estimates of the virulence and danger of organized violence.

Defending Democracy: Civil Society and the Experience of Pluralism

Informal defenses consist of everyday responses available right now, beginning with speaking truth about these groups, condemning their members, and warning of the anti-democratic revolt we are witnessing. The most effective voices would be elected representatives who understand members’ grievances while denouncing aggression, full stop. Yet for a variety of often-cynical political reasons, including fear of the slice of voters who elect QAnon followers to state and federal office, the vast majority of Republican officials fail to speak out.

Instead, speaking truth is the day-to-day business of the responsible press and, importantly, a host of countervailing voluntary associations made for this work: advocacy groups and organizations like the Anti-Defamation League that track and record the activities of extremist groups and drive home their derangement of civil society. The objective is not to convert group members but to reorient the majority of citizens disoriented by conspiracism and stunned by vicious turmoil, to bolster public understanding of the presence of dangerous groups and encourage resistance. Everyone can speak out personally and individually, and should, but countervailing voluntary associations are dedicated to and organized for this work.

A current example is #Black Lives Matter, which operates nation-wide and draws in a large, social and racial cross-section of citizens, including people who have been alienated from political life. It has measurable success in increasing public recognition of the dangers of racial discrimination and violence. And, importantly,  BLM leaders understand that effective movement politics is inseparable from strengthening democracy by mobilizing citizens to vote.

Speaking truth is also the work of ‘witnessing professionals’ and professional associations that bring specialized knowledge to bear on political violence. Psychiatrists organize to explain the dangerousness of the ex-President’s conspiracism and encouragement of violent associations. Public health experts publicize the traumatic effects and collective costs of threats of violence. Civil rights and liberties advocates lead counter-protests against hate groups’ public marches and demonstrations. These associations fulfill civil society’s promise: they enact practices that support liberal democracy.

Finally, the very existence of a dense, dynamic, pluralist civil society can loosen the grip militia and hate groups have on their members, on one condition: that men and women have opportunities for the personal experience of pluralism. That requires that associations are not closed, cemented in their segmentation, or mirrors of implacable political polarization. I argued in Membership and Morals that freedom of association is more than an adjunct of First Amendment freedom of speech. Voluntary association has value in itself as an element of personal liberty, and membership groups provide, in ways that other relations do not, fellow-feeling and self-worth, purpose and respect. This is true of illiberal, undemocratic groups. But violent groups and hate groups are what Lewis Coser called “greedy institutions”; they have a particularly powerful hold on members.[4] They inhibit the personal experience of pluralism. The point is, exiting a closed totalist group entails loss of status and purpose, and leaving is more likely if there is compensatory membership in other associations that offer approval, shared goals, and comradery. This is especially true for religious and community groups that reach out to potential members. The decision to leave a cult, militia, or conspiracist society turns on personal circumstances, as those who break away testify, and one enabling condition is the possibility of shifting involvements. When civil society is dynamic and marked by forming, joining, schism and disassociation, the grip of totalizing membership can be loosened.

Uniquely, Covid-19 has inhibited this antidote, but as vaccines allow society to open, shifting involvements may expand the experience of pluralism individual by individual, group by group. The constraints of social distancing have made the personal and social costs of immersion in a closed world clear – whether in terms of isolation, or unanticipated strains of family life, or absorption in an on-line social network, or the strong hold of groups that defy public health cautions, gather menacingly in public, spread fear and disease, and destabilize political life. Open pluralist civil society is a distinctively if not uniquely American addition to other formal defenses against the dangers posed by the baddest of bad civil society.

-Nancy Rosenblum

Nancy L. Rosenblum is Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government emerita at Harvard University. Her most recent book is A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (Princeton 2019), with Russell Muirhead. She is guest editor of Daedalus: Witnessing Climate Change (October 2020).


[1] In what is called “militant democracy,” some countries ban parties or candidates from elections or from holding office if they exploit office to destroy democracy, and one test is their connection to private militia. Nancy L. Rosenblum, On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship (Princeton University Press: 2008), 412-455; Samuel Issacaroff, “Fragile Democracies”, Harvard Law Review, Volume 120, no. 6, April, 2007; Alexander S. Kirshner, A Theory of Militant Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

[2] Kathe Pollitt “The Trumpers Among Us”, The Nation, February 10, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/trump-voters-society/; Robert A. Pape and Keven Ruby, “The Capitol Rioters Aren’t Like Other Extremists”, The Atlantic, February 2, 2021https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/the-capitol-rioters-arent-like-other-extremists/617895/

[3] Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 198

[4] Lewis Coser, Greedy Institutions (New York: Free Press, 1974).

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