HomeAbout Think TankAbout Ben WattenbergPrevious ShowsWhere to WatchSpecials


Watch Videos and Listen to Podcasts at ThinkTankTV.com

  « Back to Can Civil Society Be Restored? main page
TranscriptsGuestsRelated ProgramsFeedback

Transcript for:

Can Civil Society Be Restored?

Think Tank Transcripts:Can Civil Society Be Restored?

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide throughbiotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. President Clinton hasdeclared that the era of big government is over. Is it? Willsomething take its place? Many intellectuals from across thepolitical spectrum point to civil society. They say that America muststrengthen its neighborhoods, families, civic clubs, churches, andschools. Some say this is a new job for the government, and as usual,others say the government is the problem.

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus are:William Galston, former deputy assistant to President Clinton fordomestic policy and now a professor at the School of Public Affairsat the University of Maryland; Don Eberly, director of the CivilSociety Project and author of 'Restoring the Good Society: A NewVision for Culture and Politics'; David Boaz, executive vicepresident of the Cato Institute; and Daniel Lazare, author of 'TheFrozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy.'

The topic before this house: Can civil society be restored? Thisweek on 'Think Tank.'

A hundred and fifty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in hisclassic work, 'Democracy in America,' that 'Americans of all ages,all stations of life and all types of disposition are forever formingassociations -- religious, moral, serious, futile, very general, verylimited, immensely large, and very minute.' And it's still truetoday.

More than any other people, Americans are joiners and activists.We join everything from labor unions, parent-teacher associations andchurch groups to bowling leagues. Together these clubs, groups andorganizations make up what social scientists call civil society. Butas noted in a widely publicized article, 'Bowling Alone: America'sDeclining Social Capital,' Harvard's Robert Putnam argues thatparticipation in civic groups has dropped dramatically in recentdecades. Weekly churchgoing, parent-teacher associations, unionmembership, Boy Scout volunteers, women's organizations, all down.

If Americans are dropping out of civil society, why? Women havejoined the work force in ever greater numbers; people are spendingmore time watching television at home alone. But some analysts arguethat civil society withered as big government took over more and moreof the activities that voluntary civic institutions once handled.Bill Galston, is civil society in trouble in America today?

MR. GALSTON: I think the evidence is pretty clear, Ben. Whetheryou look at the smallest platoons of civil society, namely, families,neighborhood associations, civic groups, PTAs, larger organizations,the trend over the past 30 or 40 years has been unmistakably down.And it seems to me we've come to a point where we should stop arguingabout the facts and start arguing about what to do about thissituation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Daniel Lazare, is the civil society introuble?

MR. LAZARE: I agree. I think it's -- the amazing thing aboutAmerican society is how atomized it's become over the last halfcentury. I mean, Americans are increasingly a lonely, isolated breedwho watch politics on TV and, you know, go everywhere in a privatecar and for diversity go to shopping malls.

MR. WATTENBERG: Don Eberly, is civil society in trouble? You'reall getting the same question first.

MR. EBERLY: I think civil society is in trouble. We shouldprobably be very clear about what we're talking about. We're not justtalking about some alternative set of institutions or some privatesector that we put some load off onto from the government. We'rereally talking about, I think to use an alternative concept, thestate of American social capital or human capital, the capacity ofindividuals increasingly to achieve well-being in society, to achievedurable relationships, to negotiate their way along a competitivesociety, to basically make things work, both in the context of theirown families and in the neighborhood. And I would say that that'swhere one would want to be most concerned.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, that's three yes answers to the pessimisticview. David Boaz.

MR. BOAZ: Yes, I agree with that. I would say civil society iseverything in society except the government. It is families,neighborhoods, businesses I think can be included, the market, civicassociations, and as the government's gotten bigger over the last 30years, civil society has been squeezed out. If the government isproviding prenatal care and feeding kids and caring for the elderlyand teaching kids about sex in school, what's left for mediatinginstitutions to do?

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I know, Bill Galston, you said we shouldn'targue about the facts, but let's just argue about the facts verybriefly. For example, consider amateur softball, okay? In the mid1970s, 26 million Americans participated. Today it's almost twicethat amount, 42 million. There were 66,000 teams. There are now202,000 teams. And there are a lot of other examples. I mean, Ithink, for example, this whole computer explosion where you have thisplethora of so-called chat rooms, is that an atomization, as DanLazare says, or is that a virtual community?

MR. GALSTON: I think that the data that Putnam and others havecollected in recent years is pretty clear. In the aggregate, themembership overall in civic organizations has declined, the amount oftime spent by average individuals and families has declined, therehas indeed been a move towards the privatization of our culture. Ipersonally believe, with Putnam and others, that television has a lotto do with that.

MR. BOAZ: It's difficult to say that a big, diverse society likethe United States can be characterized in one way. I think you'reright. I think one of the things that computer networks are showingus that community isn't always geographical. There's a place forgeographical community, but we can also participate in broadercommunities: professional, interest-oriented, fan clubs on theInternet, associations of black Americans across the country, gayAmericans, different people who associate in different ways who mightnot live in a neighborhood with people like that, but can find otherpeople who share their interests on the Internet. There's somethingto that.

On the other hand, it is very different from personal interaction.It's not the same thing as sitting down with a group of people andgetting the kind of signals and the kind of closeness that you get inpersonal situations.

MR. LAZARE: Yeah, there's no question America is physically moreisolated -- Americans are physically more isolated than they were ahalf century ago. I mean, our towns are configured differently. Wedon't live around, you know, town centers. We don't walk, we tend todrive. We tend to shop in shopping malls, as I said before. A lot ofour --

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, what is wrong with shopping malls? I mean,shopping malls are non-virtual communities. People from all thesurrounding suburbs come together and they shop and they schmooze andthey --

MR. LAZARE: Well, a shopping mall is a --

MR. WATTENBERG: -- go to coffee shops and --

MR. LAZARE: A shopping mall is a sort of a one-dimensionaltotalitarian space. I mean, it --

MR. WATTENBERG: Excuse me?

MR. LAZARE: A one-dimensional totalitarian space.

MR. WATTENBERG: The last one I was in was three-dimensional.

MR. LAZARE: Well, it's really one-dimensional in terms of socialdiscourse because the only thing you can do at a shopping mall isshop, essentially. MR. EBERLY: There may be a point that's not beingmade explicitly here, and that is that whether one looks at suburbiaand the architecture there or the mall, which is so popular,especially with kids, what you're doing is reinforcing anonymity andindividual autonomy. Everything is about the self.

And I think what we're dealing with in this whole discussion aboutcivil society is, what do you do in a society in which for decadesnow we have celebrated a form at least of extreme individualism orliberal individualism that celebrates only the individual inisolation making choices, whether it's choices in the marketplace ormoral choices, depending upon where you're coming from. And we havelost an ethos in this country and a public philosophy in this countrythat emphasizes something that we once unashamedly talked about asthe common good or the public space.

And maybe that's what -- I think what people react to today whenyou sense the incivility and harsh and mean edge that you encounterin the malls or at the intersections on our highways or incampgrounds is the sense that you can't go anywhere anymore withoutthe individual self being in a sense the only driving reality, thateverybody has this sense that he or she now is the sovereign and withrights and entitlements and entitled to any amount of space.

MR. WATTENBERG: David Boaz, as a libertarian, you would applaudthat, I assume.

MR. BOAZ: Well, I don't necessarily applaud all aspects of it, butyes, America is the most individualist country in the world, and itwas founded on the notion of individual rights. But individualismdoesn't mean what academics sometimes call atomistic individualism.The most individualist country in the world is the one that deTocqueville wrote about forming more associations than anybody else.So I don't think there has to be this conflict between individualismand liberation of the self and community and civic values. I don'tthat dichotomy holds.

MR. EBERLY: But our individualism today, wouldn't you agree, isvery close to being an atomistic individualism --

MR. BOAZ: Well, but I --

MR. EBERLY: -- and is dangerous to a democratic society?

MR. BOAZ: Yes, I think there is a sense in which that's true, andI think a lot of it is because government has gotten so big thatthere's not very much left between the federal government and theatomistic individual.

MR. LAZARE: I think this tendency to counterpose individualism togovernment is really -- is mistaken. I mean, I think that people, ademocratic people builds individualism collectively. It soundsparadoxical, but I think it's really true. Acting collectively wecreate individual space. The problem with America today is not thatwe have too much individualism, but we have too little individualism.A shopping mall I think truncates individualism by forcing us into anarrow consumerist, commercial mode.

I think the problem with America today is that its politics are ina state of breakdown, and as its politics break down, society breaksdown as well. And the reason for that, I believe, is that we have adrastically outmoded 18th century constitution which is just woefullyunsuited to the problems of a late 20th century society.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you would propose what --

MR. LAZARE: I'd propose to change it.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- in its stead? How?

MR. LAZARE: To radically democratize it. I'm a believer inmajoritarianism, and I propose to substitute majority rule for theelaborate system of checks and balances and separation of powers wehave now.

MR. EBERLY: Ben, this is where I think the whole conversation isreally kind of unfortunate about civil society because I think thepolitical system is broken, it's not about to fix itself, and even ifyou did fix it along the lines being suggested here, it would takeyou maybe 5 or 10 percent of the distance in terms of where we wantto go in renewing community and renewing functional neighborhoods andrestoring some sense of moral consensus in America and rebuildingmoral and social capital in this country. That's the problem.

And one of the reasons that a lot of intelligent Americans arechecking out of politics is because you cannot and will not sense thedegree of efficacy that people are looking for today by connectingwith politics, and especially national politics. I could have it myway, the communitarians could have it their way, the libertarianscould have it their way, and it would not deal with the underlyingsocial crisis that we have in this country.

MR. WATTENBERG: What are you proposing?

MR. EBERLY: And -- I'll get to that in a second.


MR. EBERLY: But what the opinion polls are increasingly revealingis that people now have figured this out. This isn't just about thestate, whether you want it this big or that big or this big orwhatever else. This is about the collapse of things that you mightdefine as communal, familial and spiritual even, according to FrankLuntz's recent polls.

What would I do? I would encourage on a large scale what's alreadyhappening, and I think we're on the verge of very large-scalerenewal, which is -- essentially speaks to the spiritual and moraland communitarian aspects of American life.

My point here is that only that the public aspirations that theyseem to have now for politics will not be satisfied. In fact, it'sdangerous to sustain them and to raise them higher, such as I thinkis --

MR. WATTENBERG: What you are saying is it's not politics, stupid.

MR. EBERLY: It's not politics. It's just simply not politics.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Now, Bill Galston, two of your colleagues onthis panel from I think different perspectives have said thatpolitics is broken. Are politics broken?

MR. GALSTON: Oh, I think that the gridlock in Washington has givena lot of people a justified impression that the political systemisn't working the way they want it to. The question is whether youcan infer from that the conclusion that politics is irreparablybroken and is irrelevant to the question of civil society. And Ithink the answer to that question is no.

I have my own program, but let me just give you one example beforeI get to that as to the relationship between politics and civilsociety. You can't really have public activities unless you havepublic spaces that people are able to go to and walk in and live inand argue in. And one of the things that's happened in this countryin the past 30 years is that more and more people have grown more andmore afraid of the public spaces, and so they have retreated fromthem.

Now, who defends the public spaces against nuisances like, youknow, noise pollution and against threats to public safety? That isgovernment. And because government has failed to discharge one of themost elementary responsibilities of government, namely, themaintenance of public order, civil society has suffered.

So I don't think we should buy into the simple proposition thatthe -- you know, that civil society will wax as government wanes. Therelationship is much more complicated than that.

MR. EBERLY: Well, I think that's a very important point, and whatwe're talking about as far as -- MR. WATTENBERG: That's thegovernment point.

MR. EBERLY: That is the government, and listen, that's notunimportant. I sort of distinguish between prudent policy reformsthat are underway now, the so-called Republican revolution ordevolution that is moving a lot of authority downward and outward.Those are prudent and important reforms, necessary and inevitable, Imight add, reforms. They're coming whether or not you -- whoever youelect this year to the presidency, they're coming. This is the way,the direction history is moving.

The problem is the things that we want to -- if recreate is theterm -- want to recreate in America, they are not the kinds of thingsthat are born or reborn by virtue of what government does or stopsdoing. They originate in something deeper, the seed beds of virtue.The founding fathers were very clear about this. Our liberaldemocratic institutions presupposed the constant supply to oursociety of citizens who were capable of self-governance and actingout of respect for and in affection for their neighbors, their fellowcitizens.

MR. WATTENBERG: And your view is that the federal government hascrowded a lot of that and --

MR. EBERLY: Displacement is a big part of this, and I don't wantto downplay that. It's a very important part of this, and I thinkthat's what we're talking about when we're talking about government--

MR. WATTENBERG: Dan Lazare, you would not agree that?

MR. LAZARE: Well, first of all, on a historical note, let me saythat James Madison may have believed that, but the other foundingfather, the other co-author of 'The Federalist Papers,' AlexanderHamilton, did not believe that. Hamilton was a statist and a believerin sovereign government, and he believed in a very different kind ofgovernment than what we have now.

MR. WATTENBERG: Are you a statist?

MR. LAZARE: Well, I'm not a statist in the sense I'm not amilitarist, even though I believe in a military. But I do believe astate is an essential instrument for organizing a society. I thinkattacking it just as it is is crazy.

MR. WATTENBERG: More so than we now see it?

MR. LAZARE: Oh, yeah, I believe the era of big government is justgetting under way. (Laughter.) And also I might say --

MR. WATTENBERG: Welcome to our civilization here.

MR. LAZARE: Also I think -- I'm also, by the way, a centralist,too. I believe -- or I think this devolution is just know-nothingism.

MR. EBERLY: How do you overcome atomization throughcentralization?

MR. LAZARE: By building society as a whole, creating a coherentsociety as a whole and allowing individuals then to fill in theblanks.

MR. BOAZ: But Dan, we can't all have an intimate relationship witheveryone else in America.

MR. LAZARE: I'm not talking about relationships.

MR. BOAZ: And an intimate relationship with an alien andincreasingly powerful federal government. That's the problem withthis kind of centralization and majoritarianism. All the power goesto one central authority in Washington and then we don't have thepower to solve problems in our local communities, in our states, inthe private sector.

MR. LAZARE: But why is government of the people, by the people andfor the people alien?

MR. BOAZ: I don't know what this 'of the people, by the people' --

MR. LAZARE: Why should it be?

MR. BOAZ: In the first place, you never get --

MR. LAZARE: It's democracy.

MR. BOAZ: -- you never really get majority rule in a country of250 million people. You're always going to have special interests,interest groups. I mean, read 'The Iron Law of Oligarchy' or 'ThePublic Choice Economist.' It just doesn't work that 51 percent of usget together and think, you know, we should have stronger fatherhoodso we're going to pass a national fatherhood law.

MR. EBERLY: That's right.

MR. BOAZ: Fatherhood happens by people in individual communitiestalking about it and understanding responsibility.

(Cross talk.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Bill Galston, what is the difference between thisargument toward devolution to the states that we're hearing so muchabout and civil society? Is there an overlap there or --

MR. GALSTON: I think there is. First of all, devolving to stateand local government is not directly the same thing as strengtheningcivil society, but indirectly, the federal government is the leasttrusted set of public institutions by far in America today, and asyou go down the ladder of federalism, the level of trust increases.And the state of civil society today is in part an effect and in parta cause, I believe, of the enormous escalation of mistrust in thiscountry.

So I would put on the table the proposition that anything that youdo that helps to build public trust will contribute to an atmospherein which the activities, the voluntary activities of civil societyare more likely to take place.

Now let me make a second point. I don't think that the question ofthe relationship between government and civil society admits of asimple yea or nay answer. I gave an example a few minutes ago of afunction --

MR. WATTENBERG: About crime and security.

MR. GALSTON: -- of a function which, if the government fails toperform it adequately, civil society also suffers.

On the other hand, a very, very fine sociologist by the name ofAlan Wolfe, a man to my left on many economic and politicalquestions, wrote a wonderful book a few years ago looking at theUnited States and Scandinavia, and coming to the conclusion that ifthe welfare state grows beyond a certain point, then the displacementof functions that could be better performed by families orneighborhood associations is in fact a real phenomenon. And I thinkwe have to take both halves of that story equally seriously and askourselves what it is that government ought to be doing?

MR. WATTENBERG: What would your vision of a reformed civil societylook like? You don't like shopping malls, so what would you do, burnthem down?

MR. LAZARE: My program? I would legalize drugs.


MR. LAZARE: I would impose a stiff automobile tax, which wouldforce people to -- it would pedestrianize American society,reinvigorate town centers. I'd pour billions into mass transit. I'dtry to strengthen the actual physical infrastructure of urbanAmerica. And I'd try to also have a good, you know, awell-functioning central government which would try to strengthen usin other ways as well, and leaving it to people to fill in the blanksto --

MR. WATTENBERG: And you believe -- well, aren't they filling inthe blanks now?

MR. LAZARE: They are, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: Isn't that what we all do every day, all day long?

MR. LAZARE: But unfortunately, blanks are filling in as our -- arethose of breakdown rather than construction and growth.

MR. EBERLY: This is an awfully interesting conversation and Iunderstand the program is 'Think Tank,' so it's entirely appropriatethat we would be talking mostly about policy. But to the extent thatwe continue to raise the expectations among the American people thatcivil society will be reborn as we create the right policies and theright structural changes, which is to say, after we elect the rightpeople to do the project, to do the job that's being described here,then civil society will be reborn, it will be a long time before wehave civil society in America.

MR. WATTENBERG: I understand, but my question was, how do youenvision --

MR. EBERLY: Well, that's right.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- a proper civil society? What would it looklike? What would it feel like? What would it taste like? How would itbe different from what we have today?

MR. EBERLY: The reason this isn't amorphous to the American peopleis because to them, to most -- increasingly, American people, they'relooking at this problem from the standpoint not just of decliningtrust in public institutions, but declining trust toward each other.What we need in America is mostly locally based movements to renewcommunity, renew character, trust-building measures, calling upon thepeople to do what we've always done in American history, to rebuildcommunity in American society from the bottom up.

MR. WATTENBERG: David Boaz, do you have a vision of a better, morecivil society?

MR. BOAZ: Ben, I think the question as you're pressing it revealsthe fact that you are still a Democrat and you think that we shouldbe able to --

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just check the time. Yeah, as of right now,I'm still a Democrat. That's all right, right.

MR. BOAZ: We should be able to describe what society would looklike after our policies are implemented.

MR. WATTENBERG: I didn't say the word 'policies.'

MR. BOAZ: No, I know.

MR. WATTENBERG: That was brought up by somebody else. I just askedyou for your vision.

MR. BOAZ: And my libertarian vision is that I can't describe whatthings people will invent next year. Unlike Al Gore, I don't think Ican create an information superhighway and know what products will becreated. And I don't think that I know the shape civil society wouldtake.

I will say my program would be, restore that brilliant 18thcentury Constitution that Dan Lazare doesn't like. That meansdevolving powers back to the state, local and, better yet, privatelevel. Privatize the welfare state, giving people more control overtheir own money, giving them more responsibility, telling them weexpect them to take responsibility for their own lives. And havethese conversations on morality and virtue and civil society. MR.WATTENBERG: Okay. Bill Galston, you as an adviser to our -- to thepresident of the United States, surely you must have a vision as towhat this civil society would look like.

MR. GALSTON: Well, whether it's a grand vision, you and theviewers will have to judge, but here are two pieces of it. Numberone, local institutions, including religious institutions, would beempowered to deal with a range of problems now being dealt with bythe state, and we should -- I think we should experiment. SenatorCoats and Bill Bennett have put a very challenging set of proposalson the table as to how government could actually encourage theinvigoration of those local voluntary institutions, and I think weought to look very carefully at those proposals.

Idea number two, I think we -- after we conceptually separategovernment, civil society and the market, we ought to think about newconnections between them. Here's an example for you. In New YorkCity, there are lots of public schools that have turned intocommunity centers. They're open in the morning before school, they'reopen in the afternoon and evening. Community-based groups not onlycome together in that public space, but they take responsibility forkeeping it clean, for keeping it safe. They take responsibility forencouraging other parents to attend parent-teacher conferences andthings of that sort.

I think that there is a vision of people coming together, youknow, in communities, in common spaces and, you know, reforgingsocial networks.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, William Galston, David Boaz,Daniel Lazare, and Don Eberly.

And thank you. Our bumper sticker contest, for or againstPresident Clinton, has inspired hundreds of entries, including:'Don't change stones in mid-avalanche,' and 'Clinton-Gore, more,more, more.'

If you think you can top these, there is still time. Just submityour original bumper sticker suggestions for or against PresidentClinton, along with any other comments and questions you may have,to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. Wecan also be reached by e-mail at thinktv@aol.com or on the World WideWeb at www.thinktank.com.

For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content.

'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, a recipient of thepresidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, unlocking thesecrets of life through cellular and molecular biology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. END

Back to top

Think Tank is made possible by generous support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Dodge Jones Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc.

©Copyright Think Tank. All rights reserved.
BJW, Inc.  New River Media 

Web development by Bean Creative.