On paper, conservatives have always valued civil society. After all, as Yuval Levin put it earlier this summer,
The premise of conservatism has always been that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy—and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.
Yet while today’s conservatives agree that the space is important, they are much more interested in the “protecting” part than creating and sustaining. They fiercely man the wall, defending the citadel against all threats, while the city inside decays. They do this because they have a flawed understanding of what civil society is, and what is has to offer the social problems of American society. If they had half an idea, they would be leading the charge to reform “the space between.”
What is civil society?
In recent years I’ve seen two (related) flaws in how conservatives approach civil society.
The first is that, to put it quite bluntly, they don’t seem to understand what civil society is. In most of D.C. think tankery as much as in an after-church conversation in Oklahoma, “civil society” seems to be a euphemism for “religion and family” (example here). There are lots of conversations about those things in conservative circles. There aren’t many about the countless other pieces that make up, or have made up, civil society: philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, social entrepreneurship, fraternal organizations, and the like (a list that is constantly changing with time, contrary to conservative conceptions of civil society as a monolithic thing).
The second is that across this board, caring about civil society usually seems to amount to protecting its existence, rather than shaping how it works. The primary reason for the “space between,” the assumption goes, is to serve as a buffer between the individual and government. Civil society is a naturally occurring collection of “spontaneous orders” (libertarian hero Friedrich Hayek’s words) that need not and should not be shaped or directed intentionally (at least not by the government); as with the free market itself, simply preserving it will allow it to fulfill its purpose. The irony here is that this conception of civil society dates back to Enlightenment liberals—eventually Hegel and Marx would understand civil society as essentially market forces that insulate the individual from the state (and God forbid conservatives should mess with market forces!).
Yet the notion of civil society is much older than Hegel, and much older than the Enlightenment individual-vs.-state conceptual dynamic. It dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Cicero viewed it as one of two ways (along with republican government) in which civilized people worked together to shape their collective existence. In this view, it’s not enough that civil society exists—how it functions, and to what ends, are questions of importance equal to the legislative debates that make national news today. In a healthy view of civil society, arguing that government shouldn’t solve a problem because “civil society can do it” isn’t enough—the conversation must continue into how civil society will solve it, and it must continue in the institutions of civil society itself.
How should civil society solve problems?
The culture war mentality that prevails in much of the conservative mind views “the culture” as a battlefield to be fought over, rather than, as Makoto Fujimura puts it, a resource to be stewarded. Case in point: a few conservatives raised an outcry against the idea of eliminating the charitable tax deduction, but it took that crisis to draw their interest from Important Things. Generally, they seem to think the nonprofit sector will do just fine if left to its own devices—that is, if it continues to be run mainly by liberals.
Meanwhile, self-described liberals generally have an opposite view of civil society from conservatives—much less Hegel and much more Cicero. They don’t use the term “civil society,” but they’re very interested in all the elements of it conservatives ignore (philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, social entrepreneurship, etc.). And they’re less interested in protecting their existence than in figuring out how to make them work better; that is, in using them to better shape our collective existence. On the rare occasion when an argument ends in “civil society can do it,” it’s mostly left-wingers and left-wing foundations and research centers that continue the conversation about how.
Read the prominent blogs and magazines of American philanthropy and NGOs, go to the conferences of the people who are thinking about how to solve social problems through nonprofits, visit academic centers like those at Penn or Stanford, or just hang out with the 20-somethings who say they want to work for a nonprofit—nearly all the prominent voices and new ideas are coming from people who would self-identify as liberal or moderate, or institutions that carry with them a predominantly left-wing philosophy of philanthropy. Having lost the battlefield (in the case of the nonprofit sector, largely unfought), conservatives have, if we accept Cicero’s understanding, withdrawn from civilized society.
This is unhealthy. Conservatives say they want less government, they say they value civil society, but they can’t have less government unless civil society actually does the things it’s supposed to do. The pieces of the puzzle that work together to accomplish those things aren’t the same pieces as a century ago. And while conservatives have been AWOL from the sector as such, it has been shaped by ideas and institutions that are increasingly damaging its ability to function.
While there are many great ideas being experimented with in (and out of) the nonprofit sector these days, the way the sector has been structured (formally and informally) in recent decades has created a growing demand for ideas that don’t come from the technocratic groupthink of yesteryear’s leftism.
Here are three examples of the situation, and what conservatives could offer:
1. The culture of the nonprofit sector has been driven by a dated Progressive mentality that is hurting nonprofits and their efforts to improve society.
Individual donors give 73 percent of the money supporting American nonprofits. Yet the nonprofit sector has been dominated structurally by foundation giving and government grants—potentially big payloads that ask local organizations and even entire cities to rebuild themselves in the image of one program or foundation’s dream. Big Philanthropy, like big government, tends to oversimplify problems in a quest to knock them out in one big blow. It substitutes the theoretical knowledge of “experts” (a very loose term in this sector) for the on-the-ground experience of people who know their communities. And it often makes situations worse rather than better. After years of pressuring nonprofits to do everything their way, technocratic foundations are increasingly admitting their way (most recently, “strategic philanthropy”) has often been ineffective. Yet their solution is to find a new grand silver bullet rather than question their own suffocating influence over civil society (the most recent sexy idea, “effective altruism,” was designed by a man who thinks a cow is more valuable than a human child).
A conservative perspective, one that builds strategies around the 73 percent and its far fatter wallet, and respects and develops the actual relationships and practical knowledge inherent in healthy civil society, would be both effective and welcome. Civil society is about effectively structuring and empowering human relationships, not replacing them. But with a few quiet exceptions, conservatives working in the nonprofit sector have mostly gone along with whatever the Big Philanthropy trend happens to be. The only pushback, from some admittedly excellent organizations, has been a feeble argument for “respecting donor intent,” which we could translate as “let the market work; preserve the space between.”
2. The mentality of the nonprofit sector doesn’t mesh with human nature, and as a result is contributing to the fragmentation of society.
If you’ve ever ignored a beggar and told yourself that your donation to the United Way or your church exempted you from the awkwardness of that situation, you know that the way American charity is currently structured has something terribly wrong with it. There’s a bizarre moral dualism in play when the wannabe Good Samaritan is supposed to ignore his actual neighbor, and give to support The Poor in the abstract. You, like the beggar, are just a piece in the system—you’re supposed to focus on making money so you can donate, and leave things like helping the poor and building community to the professionals.
Yet there’s been a lot of work in recent years on the psychology involved in things like giving, civic involvement, and community. And it has supported a lot of old ideas which today would be considered conservative—like the idea that there’s an inherent value to participation in human-scaled institutions, the idea that things like love and compassion are incarnational (you have to give them to real people, not just the idea of people), and the idea that visible habits and social norms—far from being inherently restrictive and therefore bad—can actually get more people to do the right thing and thereby improve results.
In other words, the professionalization of American civil society (whatever its short-term value), by denying these scientific facts, has contributed to cutting people off from each other, heightening the modern sense of isolation, and actually increasing the problems civil society is supposed to fix. (That’s a big claim—more on that here).
Nonprofits could run very differently. A few are restructuring to reflect these truths about how human nature works. It’s likely (see below) that nonprofits that try will see a dramatic increase in both their effectiveness and their budget size. But there hasn’t been an audible conservative voice making this case.
3. The donors who support the nonprofit sector are becoming more conservative in their giving styles, desires, and expectations—with little to no market for what they want to invest in.
Partly because of the fragmentation of contemporary society, and partly because of the ways the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial generations were raised, the American donor is changing. He’s less and less comfortable with the dynamic described above, where he’s supposed to give his money to the professionals and then get out of the way and mind his own business. He tends to want to see the real, human results of the good deeds he does; and he tends to want to have a hand in those good deeds himself if he possibly can, rather than pay somebody else to do them. He’s more likely to give to organizations with which he has a personal or relational connection, and to keep giving when it’s something he sees his friends doing too. He sees the problems in the world around him every day, and he wants to feel he has some ability to affect that environment. He loves words like “community,” even if he’s never actually seen a good one in real life. In other words, he yearns for civil society.
What if American civil society rose up to meet the challenge this donor offers? What if its communications and fundraising strategies were designed to make involvement a worthwhile experience? What if it were generating new and creative ways for supporters to play a firsthand role in taking ownership of their own neighborhoods and communal problems? What if it were a catalyst for the slow eradication of fragmentation and social isolation, as “places where people sleep in buildings near each other” became real communities? What if it rejected the inhumane bigness, compartmentalization, and professionalization of the contemporary “space between” and rededicated itself to being civil society; the nongovernmental means by which civilized people shape their collective existence?
There is a very real chance such a civil society would accomplish things unheard of in today’s existing charitable arenas. I’ve spoken with people who think the $300 billion Americans give to charity every year could double, if American nonprofits did this. But unless conservatives take ownership of civil society, we may never know.
Brian Brown is a nonprofit strategist and social fundraiser based in Colorado; his company works with nonprofit organizations and political campaigns to develop civil society (and increase revenue!) by building and expanding real-life social network structures. He is the senior editor of Humane Pursuits. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianBrownSF.