The ABCs of Communitarianism

articles
July 26 1996 3:30 AM

The ABCs of Communitarianism

A devil's dictionary.

Sometime over the last two years, someone somewhere must have decreed that the intellectual buzzword of the '90s was to be "communitarianism." Only five years ago, communitarianism was an obscure school of philosophy discussed in faculty seminars; today, its ideas are splashed across People magazine and on network TV. "Community" and "civil society," the two mantras of the movement, are part of everyday political discourse.

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Curiously, in a climate of polarized political discourse, everyone is a communitarian. The movement's cheerleaders can be found across the political spectrum, from Hillary Clinton to Barbra Streisand to Pat Buchanan. On the left, large liberal foundations like Ford and Carnegie, the bellwethers of political correctness, throw millions of dollars into projects relating to these ideas. (The result, predictably, is that the magic words "community" and "civil society" are sprinkled liberally now in all proposals for research grants, as in "The East Asian Balance of Power--The Neglected Role of Civil Society.") On the right, Policy Review, the journal of the resolutely conservative Heritage Foundation, announced last year that it was reorienting itself to focus on civil society.

What is communitarianism? Where did it come from? How come everyone seems to agree it is good? It's actually all quite simple. You just need to remember your ABCs.

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A Is for Aristotle. He is probably started it all. In his treatise on government, The Politics, he famously wrote that "man is by nature a political animal," meaning that human beings can best fulfill themselves as part of social and political groups, not as isolated individuals sitting at home watching TV (well, the fourth century B.C. equivalent). Usually regarded as the original conservative philosopher, Aristotle is popular now with "troubled liberals" who worry that modern societies, organized around an individualistic, rights-based creed, leave human beings feeling "hollow at the core."

Of these troubled types, Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel is perhaps mostly closely identified with communitarianism. Along with serious scholars like Michael Walzer and unserious publicists like Amitai Etzioni, Sandel criticizes "minimalist liberalism"--the tradition made most famous by John Stuart Mill--for too easily celebrating individualism and materialism at the expense of social and moral issues. In his new book, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Sandel tries to revive an alternative American path, the Republican tradition, which, he says, focused on character-building and citizenship. While their critique of liberalism's reluctance to introduce morality into politics is trenchant, left-wing communitarians like Sandel themselves are reluctant to advocate strong remedies--say prayer in public schools or laws against divorce--and rely instead on vague statements about the value of community life and neighborhoods.

Conservatives have few such inhibitions. Former Reagan official and intellectual firebrand William Bennett agrees with everything that troubled liberals say is wrong with modern society. His answer, however, is not to talk about nice neighborhoods, but instead, to talk about Virtue. Actually, he writes about it, and since his Books of Virtues, collections of morally instructive tales from all over the world, are relentless best sellers, one has to assume someone is reading them.

The advantage that Bennett and others, like neo-conservative writer Ben Wattenberg and Christian Coalition spokesman Ralph Reed, have is that while liberals spend a great deal of time analyzing the problem--liberalism's value-free politics--they are wary of actually filling the vacuum with any kind of absolutist morality. They are, after all, liberals. By contrast, conservative communitarians have solutions. Both groups talk up abstract virtues like honor, commitment, and thrift, but conservatives then propose specific policies that put into law their moral and religious preferences in order to deal with all sorts of issues: unwed mothers, absent fathers, unruly schoolchildren, gay lovers, and so on. It's a game liberals can't win.

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B Is for Bowling. One of the most important debates among academics and policy wonks over the last two years has been, is it better is bowl together or alone? In "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," a now-legendary article written in 1995, Harvard's Robert Putnam pointed out that league bowling in America has been declining for decades, while individual bowling is on the rise. This, he contends, is a symbol of the decline of community spirit and the rise of atomistic individualism.

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