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.

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.


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.


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.

Part of the reason that Putnam’s article resonated so strongly outside elite circles–People magazine profiled him in a bowling alley–is that in using the example of bowling, that staple of 1950s, Putnam touched on a powerful chord of nostalgia for the America of that golden decade. A new book by Alan Ehrenhalt, The Lost City, is subtitled Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s.

Ehrenhalt’s book may be the best of the new literature on community, because rather than waxing poetic about community in the abstract, he describes actual communities. The result is a vivid picture showing that the strong bonds that developed in those fabled neighborhoods of yore were kindled by conditions that we might find discomforting today–fear of authority, lack of choice, and poverty. People stayed in neighborhoods, for example, because they could not afford to move, and because other neighborhoods would not accept them easily. They attended church services and neighborhood social events because small banks, schools, and other community institutions were run by a local elite that enforced a certain kind of conformity. Porches and stoops, those symbols of a vibrant social life, stopped being used as gathering places for a rather practical reason–air conditioning. Ehrenhalt himself advocates a return to the choice-free, obedient life of the 1950s, but while seductive in the abstract, it sounds more and more confining on close examination. Imagine having to go to parties with your local bank manager so that you could get a mortgage.

Hard-core left-wingers are horrified by this rise in nostalgia about the 1950s, a decade that was seen, not so long ago, as a grim period of pre-enlightenment, racist, sexist, capitalist boredom. The Nation’s Katha Pollitt takes Putnam’s very example, the shift from league bowling to ad hoc bowling, and suggests that “[that] story could be told as one of happy progress from a drink-sodden night of spouse-avoidance with the same old faces from work to temperate and spontaneous fun with one’s intimate friends and family.” Hmm. “Temperate and spontaneous fun” sounds like something one might have to do in a work camp. And the occasional “drink-sodden night of spouse-avoidance”–for both sexes–is probably key to enduring marriages.

B, by the way, could also be for “baseball,” but it turns out that baseball leagues have been growing steadily over the last decades. And the number of soccer clubs has been rising meteorically as well. The simplest explanation for this rise might be the desire for a little exercise.


C Is for Civil Society. Civil Society has nothing to do with Emily Post. It’s a term used to describe that part of society that exists between the family and the state–voluntary organizations, choral groups, Rotary clubs, etc.

Alexis de Tocqueville noticed in the 1830s that America was brimming with them, and argued that they were good for democracy. This celebrated hypothesis has by now become a theological certitude in the minds of most American intellectuals. It recently received powerful empirical support from Robert Putnam, whose 1993 book, Making Democracy Work, documented that northern Italy is civil-society rich and southern Italy, civil-society poor. Certainly the north has been better governed than the south for centuries, but that is not to say that is has been a better democracy. After all, Italy has not been a democracy for that long. There was that fellow, Mussolini, and before him, the emperor. Perhaps civil society is good for efficient government rather than democratic government. Memo to Lee Kuan Yew …

Of course, civil society could also be the Mafia, the Michigan militia, Hamas, the Nation of Islam and other such groups involved in communal projects. But when most civil-society boosters talk about the concept, they use it to mean–arbitrarily–those groups that they like. So the left points inevitably to nonprofit do-good organizations, and the right talks about church groups.

Consider the difference between the conservative writer Francis Fukuyama and left winger Benjamin Barber, who, in their recent books, praise civil society extravagantly. In Fukuyama’s Trust, he argues that private companies are an important part of civil society and that nonfamily business activity is a key indicator of a politically and economically healthy society. But for Barber, the author of Jihad vs. McWorld: How the Planet is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together–and What This Means for Democracy–a book President Clinton has read and praised–business, far from being part of civil society, leads the assault on civil society. “Who will get business off the backs of civil society?” Barber asks. Now it isn’t clear why firms don’t fulfill most of the functions of civil society. Indeed the term “civil society” originated with writers like Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and David Hume in England and Scotland in the 18th century as a way to describe private business activity. On the other hand, you don’t hear many conservatives proclaiming the virtues of Greenpeace.

Communitarianism was supposed to be a third way, neither liberal nor conservative, that charted a new course for philosophy and politics. But as this primer suggests, it has become a collection of meaningless terms, used as new bottles into which the old wine of liberalism and conservatism is poured. Community means one thing if you are a conservative and another if you are a liberal–the same with civil society, and even bowling. Call it politics as usual.

Illustrations by Robert Neubecker