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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Whatever Happened to Civil Society Conservatism?

Much of the electorate’s current, deep frustration can be attributed to their sense of powerlessness. In recent years, much has changed in the economy and society and, unfortunately, at the same time power has been funneled to faraway institutions.


Arguments based on conservative principles have, sadly, been in short supply during the general election campaign. You’d be hard-pressed to find appeals to free markets, longstanding institutions, or limited government during the first Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate.

Though civil society complements the other branches of conservatism, it is distinct.But even during the GOP primary season, there was remarkably little discussion of the “civil society” branch of conservatism. Though it complements the other branches of conservatism, it is distinct. It holds that, among other things, often collective decisions can best be made and collective action can best be taken, not through government action, but through voluntary non-state associations.

Such small-scale “mediating institutions” exist between individuals and large institutions. Though they have lots of benefits, these civil society organizations (e.g. volunteer groups, social clubs, fraternal associations, local unions) enable citizens to act together without being acted upon. They help us answer the question: How do we respect individuals’ and communities’ right to live as they choose while facilitating community collaboration on issues of social significance?

In recent years, much has changed in the economy and society and, unfortunately, at the same time, power has been funneled to far away institutions.

I’ve found myself over the last year returning to the work of writers who’ve studied and advocated for civil society activity, including some of the early giants like Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, and more recent writers like Robert Putnam and Yuval Levin. I’m of the mind that much of the electorate’s current, deep frustration can be attributed to their sense of powerlessness. In recent years, much has changed in the economy and society and, unfortunately, at the same time power has been funneled to faraway institutions. Too many of our fellow citizens feel too little control over important parts of their lives. Reinvigorating local mediating institutions and restoring our understanding of their importance could go a long way.

Excerpted from AEIdeas.


  • Andrew R. (Andy) Smarick is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on education and related domestic and social policy issues. Concurrently, he serves as president of the Maryland State Board of Education and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.