BPI — Business and Professional People for the Public Interest — celebrated its 40th anniversary with a dinner Friday evening at Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel. To mark the occasion, BPI honored “40 who’ve made a difference,” 40 people whom the program grandly called “a stunning kaleidoscope of vision and accomplishment by a diverse group of individuals representing many different fields of endeavor — civil rights, education, law, housing, the arts, healthcare.”

Let me name a few: Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology; Thom Clark, president of the Community Media Workshop; Sunny Fischer, executive director of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation; Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund; the Reverend Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society; former state senator Dawn Clark Netsch; Alexander Polikoff, former executive director of BPI; George Ranney, CEO of Chicago Metropolis 2020; Jackie Taylor, founder of the Black Ensemble Theater; Judy Wise, senior director of Facing History and Ourselves

As the 40 portraits were flashed on a giant screen, I sat at my table increasingly impressed by them all, wondering how many were native Chicagoans and how many had been lured here by the city’s opportunities. For an ambitious person can not only do well in Chicago but, if he or she prefers, do good. Or, I reflected, considering the money in the room, one and then the other. Or both at once.

What is certain is that the 40 — and even more so, these friends, members, and benefactors of BPI sitting in the banquet room applauding the 40 — represent a stratum of power and leadership as essential to a full description of how Chicago functions as those political mechanics in City Hall whose grubby corruptions make headlines and get columnists foaming. It would be simple to say that this layer of power represents an alternative to that one. The history of BPI, as described on the organization’s Web site, has Gordon Sherman, president of Midas Muffler, responding to a Chicago “marked by stark inequities to which government was unresponsive and institutions indifferent” by asking businessmen to ante up $1,000 each, his goal being “to create an organization that would fight for the public interest.” The organizing and staffing was largely the doing of its first executive director and legal counsel, Marshall Patner. Early BPI campaigns helped defeat Mayor Richard J. Daley’s plan to build an airport in Lake Michigan and challenged segregation in public housing with Gautreaux v. CHA, a suit litigated by Polikoff that concluded with a Supreme Court victory in 1976.

But the relationship between the elected and the unelected is much more tangled than these simple, virtuous roots suggest. BPI didn’t fill the house because it’s an insurgency; people came to the dinner because movers and shakers enjoy feeling good about themselves. Even Roland Burris showed up, basking in the company. And if you’d put the question to the house, “Who elected Barack Obama?” the answer would have been, “We did.”

This isn’t said in criticism. I’m trying to describe something wonderful that Tocqueville more than a century and a half ago called uniquely American — our knack for forming public associations. “The Americans,” he wrote, “make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes…. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

Tocqueville explained that only in numbers do the powerless citizens of a democracy acquire power. He went on, “As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to.” And he added, “Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.”

The speaker at the BPI banquet was Deval Patrick, raised in the Robert Taylor Homes and now governor of Massachusetts, a Harvard Law graduate much in the mold of the president. Warmly received, he spoke of activism in government, and he said, quoting congressman Barney Frank, “Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

A thoughtful conservative would have bristled at that, or perhaps laughed. For the occasion contradicted him. Some of the people in the room were in government, or had been in government, or hoped to arrive there, but the name they gave to the things they did together was BPI. On other nights in other banquet rooms there will be other names (the next dinner on my personal docket is for Judy Wise’s Facing History) — but government won’t be one of them.