Explain how civil society contributes to the maintenance of limited government in a representative democracy or democratic republic such as the United States.

Electoral Democracies (in blue), 2008
Electoral Democracies (in blue), 2008

Focus question: What is civil society and how does it contribute to the maintenance of limited government?

I. Civil society

Civil society refers to "the collective interests of citizens beyond the operation of government" (1) which can include:
  • voluntary associations
  • non-profit organizations
  • social movements
  • trade unions
  • faith-based organizations

Find examples of civil societies here!

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is an example of a large civil society group that is concerned with a wide variety of social justice issues. Explore this bedrock American civil society group by accessing their website

II. Civil society and limited government

"In its role as the ‘public sphere’, civil society becomes the arena for argument and deliberation as well as for association and institutional collaboration, and the extent to which such spaces thrive is crucial to democracy, since if only certain truths are represented, if alternative viewpoints are silenced by exclusion or suppression, or if one set of voices are heard more loudly than those of others, the ‘public’ interest inevitably suffers." (2)

Civil society programs and interests give individual citizens the opportunity to publicize fundamental issues that often become the focus of the political sphere - such as education and health care reforms.
  • Civil society can be thought of as the basis of what influences the government.
  • The collective interests of the people are what keep the government informed.
  • In short, civil society allows important issues to be addressed by the citizenry in a manner which is appropriate for them.
  • The Tenth Amendment protects the right of the citizenry to hold rights not vested by the government. Such is exercised through civil society.

In 2014 the Obama Administration developed an initiative to strengthen civil society groups. This was done out of a belief that: “Through civil society, citizens come together to hold their leaders accountable and address challenges that governments cannot tackle alone. Civil society organizations -- such as community groups, non-governmental organizations, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations -- often drive innovations and develop new ideas and approaches to solve social, economic, and political problems that governments can apply on a larger scale.”

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the full text of the the Presidential Memorandum outlining this effort.