IHS Explores the Decline, the Resurgence, and the Promise of Civil Society in the United States

David Beito

Fraternal societies whose members provided each other with mutual aid reached a pinnacle of popularity in the 1920s. Membership declined in the 1930s due in part to cultural changes and New Deal welfare programs, which appear to have crowded out fraternal societies, eventually reducing many to obsolescence. 

Nor was this, according to historian David Beito, merely a matter of replacing one set of institutions with another. As Supreme Secretary of the Loyal Order of Moose Malcolm Giles noted at the time, impersonal bureaucracy could not replace the warm handclasp of a fellow member, much less “the friendly visitation of fraternalists to a stricken brother.” 

Yet in some ways, civil society today appears poised for a resurgence. According to civil society analyst Richard Cornuelle, we are now beginning to understand how civil society or what he called “the independent sector” works, just as we have come to understand the workings of the for-profit sector. As our understanding of the independent sector improves, Cornuelle argues, “we will find ways to harness these natural resources and multiply the output of independent energy.”

Richard Cornuelle
Daniel Smith
Dan Smith

To the end of better understanding civil society, IHS partnered with Professor Dan Smith, director of the Political Economy Research Institute at Middle Tennessee State University, to convene an interdisciplinary group of 17 graduate students and junior faculty to discuss the history and prospects of civil society and philanthropy in the United States. The group included both political theorists and political economists in an effort to introduce them to each other’s methods and perspectives, allowing them to draw from the best of both worlds in their future research. 

Participants discussed founding observations of civil society, the decline of civil society, the rediscovery of civil society and voluntary governance, and modern inquiries about civil society.

“This program was an absolute joy”, wrote Nathan Goodman, a PhD student in economics at George Mason University. “I learned immensely from the readings and discussions, and came away refreshed and excited to pursue further research on these issues!”

The Foundations of Civil Society Conference gave me a deeper understanding of the need to rethink voluntary associations in political life and the tools with which to begin that process.

-Daniel Keller, PhD student in political science at Baylor University

“This was one of the best IHS events I have attended,” wrote Matthew Young, a PhD student in political theory at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “The readings, discussion leaders, and other participants all contributed to a detailed, challenging, provocative, and generative intellectual environment.”

In the spring of 2022, IHS will partner with Emmett McGroarty, a legal scholar at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology, to convene a second discussion colloquium on civil society. Next year’s colloquium participants will investigate the effects of administrative centralization on the relation between persons and the work of their society.

Interested in our discussion colloquia? We offer a variety of programming and funding opportunities for faculty and graduates. For more information, visit TheIHS.org.

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