Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why Is Government Afraid of Civil Society?

An interesting article in today's Wall Street Journal details the impact nonprofits have on the spread of democracy across the African continent.  The article focuses on recent unrest in Zimbabwe but also talks about the influence of  nonprofits in  the spread of  democracy in other  African  countries.  Here is an  excerpt:

In many ways, the unrest stirring Zimbabwe and other nations is coming because democracy has chalked up modest advances. Mr. Mugabe's ruling party lost its stranglehold on Parliament in the March 29 vote. And the president, whom international observers and the opposition accuse of rigging previous elections, was forced into an embarrassing run-off. Mr. Kututwa and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network -- the nonpartisan coalition of local nonprofit groups he heads -- played a crucial role in that defeat. Field workers at far-flung polling stations called in, faxed or text-messaged results to organizers in the capital of Harare. Working out of a command center at the capital's Holiday Inn, the group crunched the numbers and came up with Mr. Tsvangirai as the projected winner. Faced with an independent count, most of the international community accepted those numbers, making manipulation harder. These days, "it is very difficult for any dictator or any incumbent to falsify the results of an election and just get away with it," says Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese telecom tycoon who has become a democracy advocate.

I suppose its not government, per se, that is afraid of civil society but rather those who have captured government for their own personal gain.  And its not just in third world or developing countries that nonprofits have to watch their backs.  A 2003 report by OMB Watch details (or alleges, depending on your point of view) efforts by the "current occupant" to silence nonprofit organizations inimical to his views:

There is now a growing litany of examples under each of these three categories, but because each proposal or action affects only limited numbers of nonprofits, they have not drawn significant attention. Yet the proposals and actions by the Bush administration and conservatives are already taking their toll. Even when proposals have been dropped, they leave a chill on speaking out on issues in their wake. Instead of a single legislative or regulatory proposal that would limit nonprofit speech, the Bush administration and conservative allies have proposed or begun implementing a number of proposals that are akin to a “death by a thousand cuts.” These “cuts,” which have suddenly accelerated in the last year, come in three areas:

Changes made by nonprofits resulting from fear of how laws such as the USA Patriot Act are being implemented.

· Attacks on nonprofit advocacy, particularly when there are disagreements with Bush administration policies;

· Limits imposed by government on other nonprofit speech, particularly targeted to those working on issues-- such as reproductive rights, HIV/AIDS, and international development activities, where there may be ideological differences with the administration-- are particularly singled out as targets to control their speech; and


Tricky Dick famously used his young attack dog in an effort to silence a nonprofit organization pursuing socially responsible investments via proxy battles.  And just to be nonpartisan, a recent  book, "The Power to Destroy:  The Political Uses of the IRS From Kennedy to Nixon"  (book review) details the efforts of presidents (and advisors) from Marilyn's Boys to Tricky Dick to use the IRS against exempt organizations.  People also accused Slick Willy of using IRS audits of exempt organizations for political purposes.  To be sure, the evidence suggests that the professionals at IRS resisted these efforts. 

Prompted by White House officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the IRS investigated the activities of various nonprofits, with an eye toward revoking their exemptions. The effort focused on conservative organizations but also included a few left-wing groups. What's striking about the story is not the White House pressure, but rather the IRS's response. Tax exemptions thrust the IRS into dicey territory, forcing staff to make judgments about political organizations. This was not a role the IRS welcomed, but agency officials did their best to craft a fair and balanced approach. The IRS emerges from this account as generally well-intentioned. Andrew chides IRS officials for trying to fend off critics, noting the agency's instinct for protecting itself. That response seems reasonable given the political artillery often trained on the agency. Andrew points out, however, that protectiveness can sometimes shade into whitewash, especially when the agency is under intense scrutiny. There's some truth to that complaint; certainly, not every IRS official has been entirely forthcoming with agency critics over the past 40 years.

The answer to the title question, I think, is that civil society is as contrary to concentrated power as dogs are to cats.  Democracy, to thrive, needs frequent dilution and nonprofits are always adding more water.


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