State of the Debate: Defining Democracy Down

In a democracy, we are supposed to treat each other as equals and with mutual respect. Does that mean that the Catholic Church must admit women as priests? Must families with children or pets be allowed to live in every homeowners' association? Should the Ku Klux Klan have to include black nationalists as members, or the NAACP white racists? How far down into our associational life should democratic values and processes extend? Constitutional freedoms of speech, religion, and association provide some protection from state efforts to make every private group look and act like America. But should we cultivate in our political culture even more freedom for illiberal groups than the Constitution requires?

Too large and socially diverse to be a single civic community, the United States has long been thought especially dependent upon private voluntary associations—religious sects, social clubs, labor unions, political parties, charitable and professional associations—to mediate between the individual and the state. Tocqueville regarded these organizations as filling a void left by the absence in this country of monarchy, aristocracy, guilds, and fixed hierarchies of status. Madison suggested that competition among them would help control factionalism and prevent the concentration of power that leads to tyranny. Modern pluralists viewed them as diffuse centers of power creating a kind of plural sovereignty.

Today, these sorts of intermediate organizations provoke roughly three schools of thought. For public choice theorists, groups simply amplify and reflect individual preferences. On this view, politics as well as markets are fueled ultimately by individual self-interest. Voluntary groups may be useful to express individual tastes or desires but play little role in the formation of such preferences in the first place. Why would anyone bother to join a group, if this were true? Again, out of self-interest. As players in politics, groups may have influence disproportionate to their numbers—for example, a small but intense single-issue lobby may be able to defeat a diffuse majority in which each member holds a low stake.

For civic republicans, who see democratic debate as reasoned deliberation upon the public good, and more recently for social capital theorists, who see political stability as dependent upon habits of mutual trust, intermediate associations have more to do with the formation of values than the reflection of interests. By allowing greater participation, fellow feeling, and common commitment than is possible in our hopelessly oversized state and national governments, voluntary associations can serve as training grounds for citizenship. They are antidotes to apathy and selfishness. They incubate the public virtues of community and dialogue. They teach in microcosm the democratic values of mutual regard, reciprocity, and public responsibility. By this logic, there is a loss not only to social life but to democracy if we are bowling or singing alone.

For multiculturalists, the focus on voluntary associations is misplaced altogether. Far more salient than the groups we join are those we are cast into by virtue of race, ethnicity, language, or culture. Involuntary group membership, on this view, shapes individual histories, experiences, attributes, and perspectives. Group differences are not unfortunate remnants of past social inequality that politics ought eradicate; rather, they are to be affirmed and recognized in political life. Group identity is ascriptive, not voluntary. Voluntary associations might be formed to advance group interests so conceived. And members of a racial or cultural group might self-consciously identify themselves with the group and take affirmative steps to express that identification. But identity, for the multiculturalist, precedes and transcends association.

Nancy Rosenblum, in her shrewd, subtle, and refreshingly original new book, rejects all three of these contemporary accounts of group membership. She also rejects prominent recent claims that voluntary groups are in remission or decline. To those who lament lost bowling leagues, she replies that associational pluralism is in fact alive and well in the United States, thank you very much. One in four Americans belongs to a private homeowners' association. Four in ten Americans belong to support, self-help, or recovery groups. And the United States is perhaps the world's leading producer of original religions. In a nation with such a kaleidoscopic array of private associations, she argues, rumors of the death of civil society are absurdly premature.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Group Psychology

What today's political theories of groups are missing, Rosenblum suggests, is a "moral psychology" of group membership—an account of the experience that individuals have in joining, belonging to, and leaving groups "in actual social contexts." In a series of chapters rich with empirical data and case studies about membership in religious organizations, homeowners' associations, fraternal lodges, political committees, and militia movements, Rosenblum aims to bring a dose of realism to idealized conceptions of groups.

Her conclusion is that group membership cannot be reduced to any simple instrumental or romantically noble account. Rather, there are at best thin commonalities among the experiences of group membership. It relieves individuals of isolation and anomie, providing them a "defense against the rash of snubs, painful exclusions, restrictions, and inequalities that are a part of social life in our pluralist society." It necessitates cooperation among members. And by providing members some basis for self-respect, it may help contain vices, including impulses to violence, that could be destabilizing if left unorganized.

But beyond that, Rosenblum insists, groups do not serve any systematically democratic function such as those specified in the three leading contemporary accounts. Rather than merely reflecting and amplifying individual preferences, groups create new voices that are more than the mere sum of their parts. They are crucibles for the formation of values and dispositions, not mere conveyor belts for preexisting interests. Rather than socializing members for democracy, groups are likely to be exclusionary, snobbish, and competitive vis-à-vis others. The internal cooperation they foster in no way guarantees that they will be either civic, virtuous, or deliberative in relation to the larger polity. The very point of joining an association, after all, is to differentiate oneself from others, and often that depends on regarding others with contempt. And rather than providing or reinforcing in members any deep and embedded sense of identity, groups are likely to be the fleeting loci of "shifting involvements." From support groups to militia movements, groups are easily joined and easily exited.

For Rosenblum, this is all to the good. She does not think the job of democracy is to reproduce citizens, or that democracy depends upon communities of encumbered selves. Her conception of democratic life is that it is only a portion of life and a thin portion at that. In our public, democratic culture, "citizens have or should have equal public standing." But in private life, the realm of pluralist groups and associations, "inequality and social exclusion are everyday occurrences." Groups thus serve some functions for individuals that are simply irrelevant to democracy: reinforcement of self-respect, compensation for social injury, filling of emotional voids.

Just as this account begins to sound self-indulgent—as if the question is not what your group can do for your country but what your group can do for you—Rosenblum finally suggests one thing that group membership can do for democracy: the ceaseless process of association and disassociation can help train people for the "ordinary interactions" that she says make up the "democracy of everyday life," which she defines as "treating people identically and with easy spontaneity" and "speaking out against ordinary injustice." Democracy, in this understanding of it, means simply treating people as equals, disregarding social standing, avoiding attitudes of either deference or superiority, making allowances for others' weaknesses, and resisting the temptation to respond to perceived slights. It also means protesting everyday instances of arbitrariness and unfairness—from the rudeness of the bakery clerk to the sexism of the car dealer or the racism of those who vandalize the home of the first black neighbors on the block.

Rosenblum's modest claims for groups and for democracy are mutually reinforcing: "Precisely because they are not minicommunities and involve only weak ties, small groups may be a training ground for ordinary interactions" among "people who are initially strangers." Democratic interactions, as she sees them, do not entail any full or sustained consideration or regard for others. Having upbraided the bigoted store clerk or yielded one's place in line, one may retreat to one's homophobic prayer group or racist chat line without fear of cognitive dissonance. Rosenblum rejects the notion that moral dispositions displayed in any one sphere will necessarily spill over into any other. In a democracy, as she sees it, we must act as if everyone else is entitled to equal respect but need not actually feel or believe as much.

Rosenblum has staked out an alluringly contrarian middle ground between individualism on the one hand and collectivism and social constructionism on the other. Unlike those who see all group life as a mere extension of individual rent-seeking, Rosenblum acknowledges that personalities and values are forged in social interaction and that voluntary associations have a formative, not just reflective, function. But unlike those who conceive democracy as reasoned deliberation upon a single common good, and groups as incubators of civic-mindedness, she sees groups as intractably fractional and differentiated. If Tocqueville once described voluntary associations as "partial publics," Rosenblum's emphasis is decidedly on the "partial," in both senses of the word. And unlike those who see identity as enculturated by racial, ethnic, or linguistic inheritance, she sees identity as forged and remade through endless and shifting voluntary self-affiliations. She is skeptical about community while sanguine about groups.

Trusting Democracy

The political question raised by this account of associational life, as Rosenblum rightly ack nowledges, is how far groups with these characteristics may be allowed to act autonomously before they pose a danger to the democratic state. Her answer is, very far indeed. The central constitutional prescription in Membership and Morals is that groups be allowed considerable freedom from state imposition of democratic regulatory norms. In her view, the social institutions of a democracy need not themselves be democratic all the way down. Rather, churches should be able to repress heretics without due process, all-male Jaycees chapters should be allowed to exclude women members, political parties ought not be compelled into open primaries, and homeowners' associations should be able to assign voting rights on the basis of equity shares rather than one person/one vote.

In other words, the state ought to do little to oversee the power that groups exercise over their individual members. While citizens enjoy robust rights against the state, groups ought not be conceived as miniature governments and members ought not be conceived as rightholders vis-à-vis their groups. Rather, groups should enjoy, either as a matter of constitutional right or legislative self-restraint, wide-ranging powers of self-definition. A liberal democracy, Rosenblum argues, should tolerate a thick layer of illiberal private groups. Controversially, she would include in this category even militia movements premised on ideologies of hate—at least up until the point when they pose clear and present danger of armed violence against other citizens or the state.

Rosenblum's defense of such tolerance is to some extent pragmatic. Even illiberal groups, she suggests, can cultivate moral dispositions useful to democracy. When homeowners' associations enforce seemingly unreasonable regulations against garish paint colors or noisy house pets, they channel personal conflict in a way that promotes mutual security of expectations. When unemployed drug addicts join religious cults that might appear to exploit their labor, at least they learn to follow rules, assume responsibility, and contribute to a community. When hair-trigger loners with a grudge against the government join a citizens' militia, they pose less threat of terroristic violence than if left to their own devices. The more antiworldly such organizations are, the more usefully they "circumscribe vices" or "give them relatively harmless expression."

But Rosenblum argues for allowing illiberal groups broad autonomy to define their membership and set their rules of self-governance for a deeper reason as well: these constitutive aspects of group life are inextricably bound up with the group's expression, which in turn is intrinsically valuable to the group's members and instrumentally valuable to the advancement of public debate. Rosenblum criticizes the Supreme Court for allowing the application of state antidiscrimination law to forcibly integrate the Jaycees by gender. The Court reasoned that the Jaycees—unlike, say, a hypothetical Male Supremacist Society—did not appear to have a peculiarly all-male point of view, and thus ought not enjoy any associational right to exclude women. Rosenblum argues that the Court got it backward by conditioning associational liberty upon advancement of a particular message: "voluntary association typically precedes expression," and thus interfering with an association's membership practices will inevitably alter its voice.

Her preferred approach would presumably be the one the Court took when it held that the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council had a First Amendment right to exclude an avowedly gay contingent of Irish-American marchers from its privately sponsored Boston St. Patrick's Day parade—even if it is hardly clear what particular message a St. Patrick's Day Parade expresses. Likewise, she would presumably support the right of the organizers of a gay pride parade to exclude a float filled with self-proclaimed Christian converts from homosexuality. She would not allow the state to rate such intrusions for objective offensiveness or contradiction to the group's central mission. Instead she would allow the group broad latitude to make its own subjective judgments of such matters, just as the Court has allowed churches to interpret their exemption from religious antidiscrimination laws broadly so as to require observant janitors as well as priests.

Public Norms, Private Deviation

For all its force, there remain several problems with Rosenblum's argument. First, the group libertarianism she favors would seem to demand some very strong background political preconditions. Because individuals can only make use of pluralism in Rosenblum's sense if they are free to leave the groups they join, it would seem that the state must have some role in guaranteeing individuals rights of exit. At times, she insists on this point: "It is the responsibility of liberal democracy to insure the background conditions that make exit possible, and the conditions that facilitate the ceaseless formation of new associations."

For example, she approves of Supreme Court decisions allowing government to impose Social Security taxes on Old Order Amish employers and minimum-wage laws on the secular businesses of a religious sect—despite the apparent intrusion on those groups' autonomy to care for their own elderly or extract labor as an expression of faith—because she ingeniously interprets these decisions as preventing religious communities from having coercive leverage over members that might discourage them from leaving. And while she gives a remarkably benign account of paramilitary hate organizations, she concedes that they are at their most dangerous when their separatist and conspiracist ideologies isolate their members from competing involvements in family, workplace, or other ordinary associational life.

But once Rosenblum insists upon a free-exit requirement on groups, she imposes the very sort of congruence between groups and democratic values that she criticizes. It hardly seems consistent with a strong view of groups' autonomy in self-definition to rule out at the threshold extreme cults and societies that command round-the-clock ad herence.

A further political precondition implicitly required by Rosenblum's argument is a state strong enough to protect the potential victims of group hostility from private violence. For example, it is one thing to allow neo-Nazis to march in the Jewish neighborhoods of Skokie, Illinois, at a time when government protection against actual anti-Semitic violence is well established and secure; it is quite another to allow an order of Orange loyalists to carry on a triumphalist march through the Catholic neighborhoods of Portadown when the ability of the nascent Northern Irish power-sharing arrangement to contain sectarian violence is fragile and uncertain. One could hardly imagine Britain taking the same tolerant approach on such occasions as American courts did in Skokie. Nor are hate groups likely to be as containable without public intervention in contemporary Israel or South Africa as in the United States.

Rosenblum occasionally surfaces this point. She notes, for example, that the exclusionary aspects of group life are unworrisome so long as "the public culture and institutions of liberal democracy are sufficiently strong that exclusion cannot translate into withholding legal rights and publicly available goods." But she does not acknowledge quite clearly enough how contingent her thesis is on the relative dominance of public norms over private deviation—that is, upon private groups having marginal status, or limited market power, within the broader society.

A second problem with Rosenblum's argument is that it tends to undervalue the relative inequality in power among groups. To be sure, she concedes that public intervention on behalf of individuals may be warranted when a group wields public power—as did the southern state parties that held white-only primaries—or runs a public accommodation such as an inn, a lunch counter, a store. She does not propose any contraction in the antidiscrimination laws now applied to private businesses. But because she focuses primarily on the dynamic of shifting individual involvements, she rejects, perhaps too readily, concern for other relative power differentials among private groups at any given moment.

For example, in arguing that the Jaycees should not have been forced to admit women, she emphasizes that women should not perceive exclusion as a form of second-class citizenship: private exclusionary practices, she says, are "not a public harm" and are "not officially corrigible." But antidiscrimination laws aim at more than dignitary harms; they aim at freeing up material opportunities that have been denied by entrenched practices of favoritism or prejudice. At stake in the Jaycees case were not just women's feelings but their access to the commanding heights of the business lunch table.

Rosenblum's counsel to those who feel injured by exclusion from private groups is generally to snap out of it and found their own groups. But when it might well take decades before the new girls' network catches up to the old boys', there may be a good case for jumpstarting gender equality by force of law. Of course, this approach may lead to uncomfortable asymmetries: Should the Women's Business Roundtable now have to admit men? Rosenblum argues that it would be preferable not to start down the road of compelled association in the first place, and surmises that, left to their own pluralist devices, many Jaycees chapters would have admitted women on their own while "unreconstructed male Jaycees" were marginalized. But this is an empirical question that might well be thought at least plausible for the state to have called the other way.

A parallel question is posed by California's Leonard Law, which provides that private universities, although not directly subject to First Amendment constraints, may not restrict student speech to a greater extent than the free speech clause would allow government to restrict speech outside the university. When Stanford adopted disciplinary sanctions for "harassment by vilification" on the basis of race, gender, and the like, a student successfully sued the university for violating the Leonard Law by discriminating impermissibly against disfavored viewpoints.

Would Rosenblum's argument suggest that the Leonard Law violated Stanford's associational autonomy? Stanford President Gerhard Casper certainly thought so, though he declined to press an appeal. The argument might well be made that an association's expressive autonomy depends in part on its ability to edit or censor the speech of its own members, and that to impose First Amendment orthodoxy on the internal life of all associations would paradoxically inhibit overall diversity of expression. But even assuming this is so, the Stanford hate speech controversy required some pragmatic assessment of whose associational and expressive rights were more vulnerable: Stanford's, or those of the spewers of socially marginal viewpoints. Here, state protection of individual speech rights against the university might well have produced a more pluralist result than would constitutional protection of the university against the state.

That said, Rosenblum's book makes an important and powerful case for normative pluralism and against liberal imperialism, pointing out, against the tide of current commentary, the dangers of conceiving all private associations in the image of the democratic state. In her view, group life can never be fully constitutionalized, nor groups successfully colonized as private outposts of democratic virtue, for they are messy, varied, fractionated, and irreducibly partial. Unlike others in the pluralist tradition, she does not celebrate voluntary groups as checks on the awesome power of the state, nurturing the deviance and dissent that lay the groundwork for public values in future generations. Rather, she observes the ways in which voluntary groups enable individuals to navigate the inevitable inequalities of private life. And that, she says, is itself an important function in a democracy.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

, after login or registration your account will be connected.