Robert Putnam opened the eyes of political scientists when he explained how civil society organizations were essential to the perpetuation of democratic governance. It wasn’t entirely a new idea. The social capital theorists all give credit to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Yet Putnam made a dramatic leap when he made the case that the decline of bowling leagues was related to the general decline in political engagement. His basic idea was political engagement begins with social engagement.

The professionalization of society has crowded out the role for civic engagement. No longer do people pursue hobbies. Rather everyone strives to convert their passion into a career. The volunteer has become a problem for many organizations. I have heard of a group of volunteers at a soup kitchen who were told not to return. The atmosphere was too chaotic. The professionals did not need their time. They just needed money.

This is natural because the professional will have more experience and possibly greater skill. Yet the volunteer does not accept compensation for their labor. Rather they often become committed donors who continue to contribute their own income to the organization. In exchange, they expect some influence and respect. Professionals trade influence for an income so they become the employee of amateurs.

Many organizations isolate themselves into Washington, D.C. They raise funds through email campaigns, large events and grants. This is no longer civil society to me. They do not engage the community. Instead, they respect the privacy of their members so there is a vertical relationship to the professional management team, but they fail to establish horizontal relationships with other members.

There has been a backlash against civil society organizations around the world. Quality organizations who champion freedom have been labeled as foreign agents. Some have been forced to shut down. Nations like Russia impose these restrictions because their goal is to silence dissent. Hungary has done the same. Viktor Orbán has campaigned against the philanthropy of George Soros who has established a respected graduate university, many organizations and worked to contribute to the freedom of the Hungarian people. Orbán was the recipient of a Soros foundation scholarship for his own university education.

It is difficult to interpret this backlash as anything but an effort to silence liberal democratic reform. Yet these civil society organizations do not represent an organic civil society. They are financed from American and European donors. Many criticize the American political system for the role money has played in our elections. So, it should not surprise anyone how efforts from American donors to shape foreign politics is frowned upon. This does not mean the organizations have sinister motives. Many of these organizations strive to protect human rights or democracy. I support these efforts.

The professionalization of civil society is a natural evolution. Churches professionalized the clergy long ago. Yet priests work hard to engage in the community, so they understand their parishioners. Because the professionalization of civil society has the potential to alienate the professionals. They can spend their time focused on their work, their cause, with other like-minded professionals. This centralizes ideas into a coherent message. But it lacks the heterogeneity and organic energy of the good old fashioned local clubs.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.edu

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