Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

American exceptionalism has traditionally implied that the United States is unique among nations. The concept stems from a belief that America’s democratic ideals and personal freedoms, paired with its resources and entrepreneurial spirit, make it a nation to look up to—or at the very least, first among equals.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings in the first half of the 19th century popularized the notion that American exceptionalism extended to its communities, specifically their burgeoning private activism and organization. As other contributors to this essay series have noted, his observations include, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens,” and “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations.”

Tocqueville observed Americans meeting and organizing to solve problems and elect local leaders. He was impressed by their willingness to forge a path of their own accord. These characteristics remain today, as Americans continue to volunteer in large numbers and across demographics, but Tocqueville would nevertheless have to adjust his beliefs if he returned anew. While modern American civil society may still be unique, what makes it exceptional is not people’s willingness to volunteer or organize—indeed, I have witnessed countless citizens from Japan to Colombia step up in times of need. Rather, what makes it unique is the political independence it has historically enjoyed. That independence fosters greater accountability, transparency, and governance by forcing civil society groups to answer to a wider array of individuals and constituencies.  

It’s no secret, however, that civil society’s political independence is under tremendous threat from the divisive culture wracking the nation. We must fight back to preserve it.

What it means to be politically independent

Over the years, I’ve sat on boards of directors, allocation boards, and advisory boards. We’ve debated policy, funding decisions, and the best direction for each organization and the community it serves. And while there are sometimes special interests in nonprofit boardrooms, a hallmark of these panels has been that members put aside their differences to work together. They leave their political interests, or social views, at the door, and the community’s interests come first.

This dynamic mirrors the civil society organizations that developed out of Tocqueville’s era, which prospered because of their independence from political or social interference. As the nation turned from the 19th to the 20th century, Americans developed confidence that the state or agents of corruption did not control civil society organizations. They were increasingly seen as a critical third leg of society, reliably filling a service gap between government and business—and working with the two when necessary.

As a result, individuals and families realized they were putting their community first when they donated to, or volunteered for, a nonprofit group. Similarly, they were confident that an individual’s politics or social views would not determine outcomes. Laws and norms meant that civil society groups would be transparent and accountable.

US civil society’s global reputation

Certainly, some of these organizations have gone awry over the course of American history. But US civil society, supported by the nation’s scale and reach during the 20th century, became a model for the rest of the world. This is still the case today in many areas.

Take Latin America, where NGOs often lack public trust and many people view government as the main provider of services. Our organization, United Way Worldwide, has managed to win trust and support—and ultimately make progress on issues such as early education—in this context by bringing together local groups, businesses, and government to solve social problems. As a well-established, accountable organization that works across sectors, we have gained both public trust and the trust of businesses like Procter & Gamble, 3M, and Dow, which are now partnering with us to improve youth education.

In India, there are many gaps in government’s support of social and economic development, and historically, civil society organizations have had a reputation for corruption. United Way and other civil society groups are addressing this perception by raising awareness of community issues, focusing on governance as our differentiator, and partnering with corporate donors to drive greater social impact. We’re also involving state governments in the development process. Today, the government is involving civil society groups in policymaking and strengthening reforms, and the nation’s 2013 law that requires large corporations to give two percent of their profits to charities is driving more attention to the sector.

Another organization building civil society capacity and independence is the Non-Profit Incubator (NPI), founded in China in 2006. NPI has set up “Innovation Parks” in many Chinese cities, and its staff aims to nurture and train social enterprise start-ups until they are self-sufficient. With the cooperation of local governments, NPI offers entrepreneurs free or nearly free office space and supplies, as well as IT support, training, and access to its network of officials, donors, volunteers, and other NGOs. The organizations it helps to create—now more than 500—focus on challenges in the enterprises’ respective communities. 

Every country in the world has its own relationship with civil society; some regions display greater levels of independence and trust than others. A March 2017 Freedom House report highlighted how far certain regions have yet to go. Yet what helps well-meaning civil society groups across the board improve people’s lives and opportunities consistently goes back to their reputation for political independence, accountability, and good governance.

That’s why it’s shameful we’re putting it at great risk.

Political interference in civil society

Today, America is a nation divided. As Dan Cardinali noted in his introductory column to this essay series: “Whether it is growing income and wealth inequality, changing conceptions of community, or the deep political and cultural polarization of American society, the very idea of ‘private actions in service of public good’ is taking on new meaning and manifestations.”

In this environment, the reputation and uniqueness of American civil society groups are weakening. Wealthy individuals are setting up foundations to advance political agendas and take advantage of tax laws. Some groups hide behind shell nonprofits to promote messages that drag Americans to the extremes, while others advocate for the weakening of the Johnson Amendment meant to separate nonprofits from electoral politics. The recent discussion over the charitable tax deduction—a vital way for Americans to easily support their communities—even became partisan. And citizens are struggling to divest politics from every conversation and issue.

As Americans’ distrust of institutions and nonprofits grows, it’s hurting our communities and what’s made US civil society unique. An individual’s first response to a civil society group shouldn’t be, “What’s their true agenda?” but “They’re here to help us.” If we continue to build a more politically and socially divisive culture—one where we live in an “I” culture, rather than a “we” culture—we’ll let that American exceptionalism slip further and further from our grasp.

We can’t take that political independence for granted any longer. Whether we are civil society leaders, donors, or concerned community members, let’s stand up for transparency and honesty, and hold groups accountable for their actions. Let’s make sure that outside influences stay out of the board room. And let’s keep our decision-making and society’s focus on what’s best for all of us. We had it before, and we can find it again.

America and the world need strong, non-political civil societies. We need a renewed civic order based on the principles and promise that created the vibrant civil society Alexis de Tocqueville identified in the United States. If we accomplish that, we’ll once again recognize the unique model that the United States exported around the world for the betterment of all people everywhere.