The 1998 report of the Council on Civil Society sounds as if it could have been written yesterday:As we become an increasingly fragmented and polarized society, too many of our fellow citizens are being left behind, not participating in the benefits of economic growth and free society. And as our social morality deteriorates, life becomes harsher and less civil for everyone, social problems multiply, and we lose the confidence that we as Americans are united by shared values. These two closely related conditions endanger the very possibility of continuing self-governance.The report decries the erosion of social morality and civic life in an increasingly divided country. Signed by intellectual leaders on the left and right (such as James Q. Wilson, Robert George, and William Galston), it forcefully posits the importance of self-governance, moral realism, and civil society to democratic life. Yet at the same time, the council's call to ground political decision-making in this understanding of the centrality of the civic sphere sounds utterly anachronistic. And the fact that its signatories also included politicians of both parties (like then-senators Joe Lieberman and Dan Coats) places it plainly in another era altogether.
Something strange has happened in the intervening two decades: Academics have learned a lot more about the importance of civil society and social capital, yet politicians have come to talk about it a lot less. In the 1990s, policy reforms rooted in an awareness of the power of local civil society proliferated, and academic research on social capital was only beginning in earnest and struggling to catch up. In retrospect, it seems the council was lamenting the attenuation of civic bonds at a time when interest in them among policymakers was at its peak.