Civil society is the network of voluntary associations, or non-governmental organizations, that are separate from the institutions of the government but subject to the rule of law. Apart from the government, civil society is a private domain that serves the public good. Some examples of the nongovernmental organizations that comprise civil society are independent labor unions, churches and other formal religious organizations, professional and business associations, private schools, community service clubs, and the privately owned media (independent newspapers, radio stations, television stations, websites). Persons in a constitutional democracy are free to belong simultaneously to many nongovernmental organizations. Thus, they may freely associate with like-minded persons to promote mutual interests.
A vibrant civil society is an indicator of good civic behavior in a constitutional democracy. It shows that many citizens are willing to donate their time, energy, and money in order to improve their community. It also demonstrates that citizens are using their constitutional rights to freedom of association, assembly, speech, and press. Through their civic participation in nongovernmental organizations, individuals develop the knowledge, skills, and virtues of citizenship in a democracy. Thus, the voluntary associations of civil society are community laboratories in which citizens learn democracy by doing it.
In stark contrast to a genuine democracy, a totalitarian government, which attempts to concentrate all power in a centralized state dominated by one political party, does not permit a free and open civil society to exist. In the now-defunct Soviet Union, for example, the only civic groups were those formed and maintained by the dictatorial government. There were labor unions, but they were neither independent nor free of government control. There were mass media, but the government-owned and managed them in order to prevent people from transmitting information contrary to the interests of the rulers.
The maintenance of a lively civil society depends upon constitutionalism. The constitutional government in a democracy is the guarantor of the individual’s rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, which are necessary to the formation and independent actions of civil society organizations. And the rule of law emanating from the constitution is the basis for public safety and order, which in turn enable civil society organizations to function and thrive. Civil society organizations, however, are not only protected by constitutionalism, but they are also protectors of it. Dynamic networks of free and independent nongovernmental organizations, including free and independent media, have resources that enable them to resist despotic tendencies of the government.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic work Democracy in America about the tension that exists between free civil associations and government:
Civil society is an opponent of despotic tendencies in government and an ally of genuine constitutional democracy. Free and private civil associations often act in harmony with governmental institutions but they also tend to check an abusive or liberty threatening exercise of state power. Thus, the nongovernmental organizations that constitute civil society can collectively be a countervailing force against a government that tries to nullify the constitutional liberties of its people.