A well-established body of democratic theory suggests that associations are the schools of democracy and, because they produce civic and active citizens, are vital to the quality of democracy. In this paper we find that this may not be the case in newer democracies with authoritarian legacies. Survey research in the large urban centers of São Paulo and Mexico City reveals that citizens who participate in associations are more likely to actively pursue a range of rights and entitlements, but this participation does not improve the quality of their relations with government.
Participation in associations does not make it more likely that an individual has the type of direct relations to government that approximate the democratic ideal, and that suggests that public officials treat citizens as legal equals and carriers of rights and entitlements. Instead, associations are as likely to reinforce the detached, brokered, or contentious relations to government that are common in newer democracies and vary in their distance from the democratic ideal. Rather than focus on voting behaviour or partisan activities, we explore the civil component of active citizenship that operates when citizens’ seek access to the public goods necessary for enjoyment of the rights and entitlements constitutive of contemporary citizenship.