Symposium | Election 2020: What Comes Next

Rebuilding the Good Society

By Zeenat Rahman

Tagged civil societyCommunityequalityJoe Biden

In his first address to the nation as President-elect, Joe Biden said: “I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify. Who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States.” That may be true, but what is also true is that Americans live in purple states, cities, communities, and neighborhood blocks. On January 21, no matter how they voted, your neighbor will still be your neighbor, and the work at hand will be how to build a common life together. Because we are indeed in this together. We cannot solve the monumental issues we face—racial inequity, massive economic disparities, climate insecurity, and a global pandemic—by engaging only with those who agree with our political views. American identity has never been primarily about those binary terms Democrat and Republican. Our identity is also shaped by our common life, the daily interactions of community—the province of civil society.

In order to move ahead and heal our deeply divided nation, we must invest in creating the infrastructure for a strong civil society. Just as we have historically made massive investments in the physical infrastructure of our country, our roads, bridges, and railways, we must now turn to strengthening the social infrastructure of our county. Brie Loskota, the executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC, uses the term “critical social infrastructure” to denote the organizations, habits, practices, relationships, and beliefs that support the functioning of society. For too long, this infrastructure has been underinvested in and taken for granted. Our national healing will not happen through government or the private sector alone; it will be led by civil society. No matter where we sit, we all need to relentlessly identify and scale up systems that promote social capital and social cohesion.

Civil society is defined by the World Bank as “the wide array of non-governmental and not for profit organizations that have a presence in public life, express the interests and values of their members and others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.” In short, civil society is not the government or private sector, it is us. Civil society institutions bind our communities together, and they are where we have the opportunity to encounter people different from ourselves. American civil society has been on a downward trend over the past 50 years. We’ve seen the consequences of that downward trend: deep fragmentation, higher levels of polarization, and a loneliness epidemic. But as Robert Putnam tells us in his new book, we have been here before and there is a way out. It will take strengthening our civic infrastructure, establishing skills and competencies to learn to trust one another again, and a general resurgence of federal support for civic leadership.

Faith-based institutions are one of the most underutilized assets in civil society. Across the United States, there are 350,000 congregations—more than schools, colleges, and universities combined. They play a critical role in the spiritual, physical, and mental health of their members and of the surrounding community, and represent every type of American ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. For many Americans, their faith is what informs their moral framework. In short, faith communities are a deep well of social capital. Despite all of the prosocial benefits that faith communities confer, the field of religious pluralism is poorly understood and undercapitalized by funders. In a survey conducted by the Inclusive America Project on philanthropic giving to faith-based institutions by foundations, we identified approximately $68 million over 2018 and 2019 combined, a meager amount compared to investments made on other policy issues like immigration or criminal justice reform. While many in philanthropy and the public sector may be wary of religion’s role in public life, if they seek to do prosocial work, faith communities are a critical asset that they need to better understand.

There is no doubt that the pandemic will have devastating effects on the nonprofit sector, impacting an already fragile ecosystem. In 2017, a Bridgespan analysis of 274 nonprofits revealed that 42 percent had less than three months’ worth of cash on hand. That number is certainly worse now. Organized philanthropy must shift the way it does its grant giving to address this fallout. Funders should consider multi-year grants and general operating grants for grantees. This will allow organizations to gain some stability in this precarious time, and it also empowers grassroots leaders who know their community best. It is a good sign that some foundations have allowed greater flexibility to their grantees during the pandemic, they should continue to do so. The story of the election will be about how millions of people of color, especially women, showed up to defend our democracy. For the funders who have spent massive amounts of money funding democratic infrastructure to support a free and fair election, they should turn some of that investment toward such peace-building activities between citizens.

Both our main challenge and opportunity is this: In a multi-religious, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic nation, how do we envision a common life? And how do we do this while maintaining our differences and building a truly equitable society? When the French historian Alexis De Tocqueville visited America almost 200 years ago, he marveled at the strength of American civil society and its centrality to a healthy democracy. It was where citizens put into practice the mutual obligations to one another, the habits of effective citizenship. We saw this in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, where churches, mosques, synagogues, and gurdwaras provided food, attended to the elderly, and provided solace in a time of grief and anxiety. An inclusive Americais one with pluralism at the heart of it. Pluralism is not merely side-by-side tolerance of the other, but rather robust engagement based on an understanding and respect for our differences coupled with a mutual commitment toward the common good.

So how do we build that trust and respect with one another? We need to cultivate the skills of active listening, approaching one another with humility, and learn how to have difficult conversations. There have been some great efforts to do this bridge-building work over the past few years. The Civil Conversations Project has open-source primers contextualized by six grounding virtues that guide their work, which include, for example, generous listening and adventurous civility. Our work at the Aspen Institute has examined how Muslims and Evangelicals can build common ground through a framework of vulnerability and a shared goal of religious freedom. The Better Arguments Project posits that we should not have fewer arguments, but better ones. The Interfaith Youth Core recently introduced a program called We Are Each Other’s which encourages young people to lead important bridging work in their communities. If we use the analogy of a vaccine here, these programs are in the early testing phase to inoculate us against the caustic division we face. They need to be supported and scaled so that they may reach many more Americans.

The young people in our country comprise the most diverse generation in American history. They are demonstrating civic leadership in their communities in innovative and entrepreneurial ways. Policymakers also have a role to play in encouraging civic leadership. One idea that could have bipartisan support is to create a federal program focused on national service that would place young leaders in local communities with equitable pay. A program similar to AmeriCorps but revised to reflect the needs of our current civic landscape. It should center support for Black, brown, and indigenous led leadership and the persistent issue of structural racism. To be sure, many of the challenges we face, particularly around racism, are structural in nature and will require systems change over time. That said, this effort must be both top-down and bottom-up. Structural reform is necessary, but it must be coupled with the individual agency of citizens.

My entire career has been spent working in and supporting civil society. I am a Muslim, a woman of color, and a child of immigrants. I’ve seen the devastating impact the last four years has had on so many communities, including the ones with which I identify. Despite this, I feel hopeful about the future of American democracy. This year we witnessed the massive multi-faith, multi-racial, multi-ethnic social movement for racial equity in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the way individuals have stepped up to meet the needs of their neighbors during this pandemic, and how frontline workers risked their own lives to save others. I hope that this moment in our nation’s history will be remembered as a time when we tried to close the gap between our ideals of justice, inclusion, and opportunity for all and the lived reality of so many that so starkly contradict those ideals.

From the Symposium

Election 2020: What Comes Next


The Best Economic Metric

By Faiz Shakir


See All

Read more about civil societyCommunityequalityJoe Biden

Zeenat Rahman is the Director of the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus