Saturday, April 29, 2023

Can Growing Associational Membership Be a Bad Thing for Liberal Democracy?

Antifa, a violent network of left-wing agitators, is back at it again.

On Sunday April 24th, a small cadre of antifa members physically assaulted peaceful anti-drag time story hour protestors outside a pizza joint in Fort Worth, Texas. 

In a surveillance video recording, Samuel Fowlkes, a member of the domestic terrorist organization, is seen pepper spraying the peaceful protestors. Other antifa activists brandished firearms. 

Ultimately, Fowlkes and two other antifa militants were detained and subsequently arrested by Fort Worth police. 

This got me thinking: Antifa, though obviously deranged, is still an example of civic associationism, no?

These young and troubled people are engaged in group activity. And antifa and other fringe political organizations form their own activist communities, wherein they socialize, communicate with one another, and establish norms of trust and reciprocity. 

And while I and other self-proclaimed Tocquevilleans extol the virtues of civic engagement and associationism, it is evident that not all forms of group activity are good for the broader society. In fact, groups like antifa emit, what some might call, negative externalities. That is to say, these groups, though maybe trusting amongst their members internally, are distrusting and even hostile towards outsiders and people whom they deem to be a threat to their group. 

 Francis Fukuyama wrote about negative externalities and strong group ties in his 2001 essay for Third World Quarterly titled, Social capital, civil society and development:

A society made up of the Ku Klux Klan, the Nation of Islam, the Michigan Militia, and various self-regarding ethnic and racial organisations may score high in terms of average group size, numbers of groups, and cohesiveness, yet overall it would be hard to say that such a society had a large stock of social capital. Group affiliation can therefore produce negative externality which we can think of as the radius of distrust. The larger the radius of distrust, the greater the liability that group represents to the surrounding society...

While antifa is not an ethnic or racial group (though they tend to be overwhelmingly white), they are, undoubtedly, clannish and pose a significant threat to their surrounding communities. 

Aside from Fukuyama, whom I quote invertetely, others too have questioned whether Tocquevilleans are correct in asserting that robust civic society is always a sign of a healthy and liberal democracy.

I was recently reading an incredibly thought-provoking essay by Columbia University professor Sheri Berman, wherein she makes the daring assertion that the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany was facilitated, not by a dearth in civil society, but rather by an abundance of it. At first glance, her thesis seemed preposterous to me. How, I wondered, could a vibrant civil society possibly lead to something so evil? After thoroughly reading the essay multiple times, however, I began to find some serious merit in her argument. 

Burgeoning civic associations during the era of the Weimar Republic were, in large part, a response to the citizenry's deep-seated distrust of the new democratic government, which they thought was unresponsive to their needs. Instead of looking to the government to solve their problems, Germans in the 1920s formed voluntary associations, sometimes referred to as intermediate associations, to effectuate change. These groups, Berman asserts, did not contribute to the robustness or health of liberal democracy, but rather undermined it. So, these groups, which harbored utter disdain towards the Weimar government, ultimately received Hitler and the Nazi Party well. 

Context, however, matters a great deal here. This obviously was not the case for America. The America of the early 20th century, for instance, already had an established groundwork of democratic institutions. Therefore, there was never any danger of a rogue civil society giving rise to a Nazi-esc government. Berman notes this in her essay:

A striking implication of this analysis is that a flourishing civil society does not necessarily bode well for the prospects of liberal democracy. For civil society to have the beneficial effects neo-Tocquevilleans posit, the political context has to be right: absent strong and responsive political institutions, an increasingly active civil society may serve to undermine, rather than strengthen, a political regime.

In essence, the pure Tocquevillean thesis that civic associationism leads to a more vibrant democracy falls a tad short. A seasoned democratic institutional foundation is an absolute prerequisite. Communitarian-types would be well served to include this caveat. 

So while antifa and other groups may emit terrible negative externalities, they ultimately will not give rise to an American Third Reich... 




  1. The inner cities, scattered across our great country, offer kids very little by way of positive civic association.. Crime, gangs, and a breakdown in
    community become self perpetuating. This viscous cycle needs to be broken once and for all. Where are the solutions?

  2. Antifa is an indication that there is distrust in political institutions, a national history, and any semblance of nationality. Although they are at least not the "third reich," they have a history of aiding and abetting the Nazis' rise to power to topple the Weimar Republic. The community of this anarchist group is festering in crevices all over the country, including cafes, libraries, and public schools, so I'd be careful not to dismiss them just because it isn't obvious that they aren't Nazis.

    1. Trust is the key ingredient, wouldn't you say?