ABERDEEN, Scotland—In a month when you are probably spending too much time watching speeches beamed from Tampa, Fla., and listening to “spontaneous” applause from Charlotte, N.C., let me take you away, just for a moment, to the Braemar Gathering: a day of bagpipe contests, footraces, games, and parades, held every year in a remote Scottish village.
Although Highland gatherings are alleged to have taken place on the site for more than a millennium, the Braemar Games in their current incarnation date to the 19th century. They were organized then by the Braemar Highland Society, originally an insurance group that provided members with sickness and death benefits. In 1832, the society started offering 5-pound prizes for the winners of various annual contests, including a race up and down a steep hill. Queen Victoria started coming in 1848, visiting from nearby Balmoral Castle, and Queen Elizabeth II keeps up the tradition.
That hill race is still run every year. On Saturday I watched the runners take off in large numbers, blue-faced from the cold. Other traditional contests included Highland dancing competitions, relay races, tug of war, “putting the stone” (throwing 16- and 28-pound weights), and “throwing the hammer over a bar” (self-explanatory). The crowd’s clear favorite was “tossing the caber,” an event that involves lifting, carrying, and throwing a very long wooden log. Indeed, the sight of an enormous tattooed man in a kilt and sneakers flipping what appears to be a telephone pole into the air is not to be missed.
But though the sports might sound old-fashioned, there is nothing archaic about the atmosphere. Local companies cheerfully support many of the contests. Glenfiddich T-shirts are much in evidence. Most of the contestants come from nearby—the rules clearly state which areas qualify as “local”—but a few with Slavic surnames give away the presence of 21st-century immigrants.
Locally organized, sustained by local businesses, providing local entertainment and local employment, the Braemar Gathering has not been created by the British government, yet neither is it the product of a single person’s will to power. In other words, the Braemar Gathering—like Texas rodeos, Iowa county fairs, Wisconsin cheese festivals, and New York block parties (not to mention Quaker meetings, Catholic charities, 4-H clubs, book groups, and the Girl Scouts)—is a classic example of civil society, a phenomenon that gets too little, or maybe the wrong kind of, attention during election seasons.
Nowadays, we Americans spend a lot of energy arguing about the role of the individual versus the role of the state. We did it during last week’s Republican Convention, we’re doing it during the Democratic Convention, and we’ll probably keep doing it until November. But we still spend a lot of our time living and working somewhere between the extremes. And most of our best ideas for reform and economic growth come, as they always have, from this in-between sphere. The Braemar Highland Society figured out how to give its members health insurance in the 19th century. More recently the political scientist Robert Putnam has documented the achievements of groups such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which revived a decaying neighborhood in Boston, and the branch libraries of Chicago, which has reinvented public libraries as cultural centers. Even in a society where such things are supposed to be declining, what Putnam calls “social capital” or what Alexis de Tocqueville called “associations” are still the source of much original thought.
Politicians have long known this: George W. Bush was onto it when he championed faith-based organizations, as was Barack Obama when he spoke of the “spirit of service” in his inaugural address. Although politicians might well look at a county fair or a street festival as an opportunity to canvass for votes, civil society by definition isn’t a political phenomenon. In fact, when a civic organization is politicized—or, sometimes, even when it is funded with public money—its character is inevitably changed.
How then can politicians capture the energy of a kilt-wearing Scot throwing 28-pound stones or the energy of an enthusiastic librarian or energetic neighborhood activist? The answer is that they can’t. They can encourage and inspire them, making sure that the legal system supports them and that regulations don’t strangle them; they can use their ideas or co-opt them into government. Nevertheless, what is most interesting and creative about democratic societies almost always happens outside the political process, not within it. Remember that while watching this final phase of the American election campaign, if and when you need cheering up.