News From Terre Haute, Indiana


March 31, 2013

THOMAS L. STEIGER: Civil society is strained, but not broken

Last month I participated in a United Campus Ministries series on “Bridging the Political Divide.” As is often my “style” in such a presentation, I initially disagree with the premise of the question or statement put to me. Yes, it seems to be that we are as divided about things as ever, but are we at a historic “wide” in the divide? We aren’t to the place where states are seceding from the union and Washington is sending in troops to preserve the union. Neither are we taking to the streets to protest a war and National Guardsmen firing on college student protesters.

Nor are we seeing political assassinations (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King) and cities burning as part of racial protests. Was Washington working any better then than it is now?

I think the nature of politics is division. Perhaps the division can be too wide or too personal, which seems to be part of the problem in Washington.

I believe that our society can survive the drama (or lack of drama) in Washington. I worry about real social division, which is a precursor to social conflict, in our society that is associated with a loss of trust and confidence in our social institutions.

The “gender gap” seems pronounced in politics. Males and females were almost mirror images of each other in their respective support for Obama or Romney. Fifty-two percent of men supported Romney while 55 percent of women supported Obama. Age made a huge difference in the last election, with the older the voter the more likely they would support Romney. Only 37 percent of 18-29 year olds supported Romney while only 44 percent of those 65-plus supported Obama. Race was starkly divided, with 59 percent of whites supporting Romney while no other race/ethnic group showed more than 39 percent support for Romney. Only 6 percent of African American voters supported Romney.

These kinds of divisions concern me more than divisions over policy questions.

Is the explanation for this divide (and space prohibits me fleshing out the social divide further) actually a result of the divide or its underlying cause? Scholars are not sure. The conventional theory goes that civil society (civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests) needs to be rebuilt, because it is frayed, and rebuilding civil society will improve our political functioning because this is where people “connect” with each other, build trust and shared fate.

Or, perhaps the political divisions are eroding civil society. At this point, I think, they are both undermining each other.

Religion is a major facet of civil society and Americans’ participation in religion is declining. As Americans become more secular, they rely less on religion to solve problems and they turn more and more to the market and to the state. There is a decline in participation in service and fraternal organizations, recreational groups, political and civic groups, job-related organizations, church-related groups, and all other groups and organizations.

It is in civil society that we discover that our fate is shared and that our self-interest is connected to others. From that we develop common identity and a sense of the common or public good. Any decline in civil society, for some scholars, means a threat to our democracy.

Individualistic attitudes are on the rise and research shows those with more collectivist attitudes are more socially responsible.

And since the late 1970s and early 1980s, Americans have been losing confidence in all American institutions, from the military to religion to business.

With confidence in government at an all-time low, the lowest proportion of Americans in history are living in family situations, and with Americans withdrawing from civil society, only the market is left and the market only responds to the ability to pay; with growing income inequality, that does not bode well for our future.

Yet, there remains hope. Despite these trends, one statistic seems to hold up over time without any noticeable change and that is in social trust. While half of Americans say you can’t be too careful with people, that number has not increased in decades.

While it is somewhat disconcerting that half of Americans show distrust of their fellow citizen, that the numbers of the distrusting have not grown, despite the declines in confidence in American political and social institutions, I think, is a hopeful sign. It is something that we could build on to rebuild or transform civil society.

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email:

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