The Schizophrenic Soul of American Liberalism
A war is being waged today for the soul of American liberalism—a war that will be won by the side that manages to incorporate its peculiar understanding of “community” into liberal doctrine. The two antagonists in this struggle might be described as “national community” liberalism and “small community” liberalism. The former strand of thought dominated the Democratic party and American public policy generally for the past five decades, while the latter strand is the contemporary heir of the New Left thought of the 6Os. We are given a superb view of this intellectual contest in the pages of Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 355 pp., $16.95)—a new study of the American character written by Robert Bellah and four other scholars—for in the final analysis, Habits is a profoundly schizophrenic book, precisely because it cannot choose sides in that contest.
The older of the two antagonistic strands of thought—national community, or progressive, liberalism—was formulated at the turn of the century by a number of intellectuals who were appalled at the consequences of urbanization, immigration, and, above all, industrialization, with its new and menacing concentrations of corporate wealth. Such forces had, in Walter Lippmann’s words, “come into the life of the simple American community as a tremendous revolutionizing force”; indeed, that older order of community had apparently been irretrievably pulverized. Some concept of community was essential, however, to counter the individualism that had been severely aggravated by modernity—else the commonwealth would dissolve in a riot of self-interest. And so Lippmann, Herbert Croly, John Dewey and others enunciated a new doctrine of national community. They would try to recreate the “simple American community” at the level of the entire nation, in part by employing a powerful central government to tame and harness to public purposes the forces of modernity. Regulatory laws and commissions would bring to bay the corporations, while a progressive income tax and a large welfare state would alleviate the inequalities of wealth that threatened national oneness.
At the same time, citizens would be drawn out of their individualistic shells by the central moral leader of the American republic, the president, who would preach from the “bully pulpit” sermons of public-spirited devotion to the national purpose. In Croly’s words, there would be a “subordination of the individual to the demand of a dominant and constructive national purpose.” Citizens would be bound together by ties of neighborliness and compassion—only now, as members of a nation, rather than of a small town. Again, in Croly’s words, America would be infused with the “religion of human brotherhood” which “can be realized only through the loving-kindness which individuals feel… particularly toward their fellow-countrymen.” In short, as John Dewey put it, the “Great Society created by steam and electricity” would become the “Great Community.
Franklin D. Roosevelt embraced this teaching of national community as a young progressive; he argued as early as 1912 that America was moving toward greater government control over society and economy as a result of a shift in emphasis from “liberty of the individual” to “liberty of the community.” It was, therefore, not surprising that this idea became the moral core of the New Deal, and, indeed, of all succeeding liberal Democratic administrations. Even Walter Mondale, in the 1984 presidential contest, hearkened back to this idea, when he appealed to America, “let us be a community, a family where we care for each other.”
This understanding of community was challenged in the course of the 60s, however, by another view of community. The New Left charged that progressivism’s powerful central government was in fact a distant, alienating, bureaucratic monstrosity—the very antithesis of community. What the nation needed, they argued, was “participatory democracy”—the devolution of political and economic power to small, intense, egalitarian groups, within which close bonds would develop, and, as Tom Hayden put it, individuals would be drawn “out of isolation and into community.” Only such limited, participatory units could satisfy the communitarian impulse, the New Left maintained—never a huge national society, dominated by gigantic federal bureaus and private corporations.
The New Left ultimately gave birth to the contemporary doctrine battling with the concept of national community for the soul of liberalism. Today’s “small community” liberals inherited the New Left’s belief that only limited, participatory groups can address the yearning for community. They differ from the New Left, however, in that they believe such groupings do not need to be created de novo, but in fact already exist all about us, in the family, neighborhood, church, union locals, and ethnic and voluntary associations. These groups, the new liberalism maintains, have from the beginning of the Republic lured Americans out of individualistic isolation, tempered the forces of modernity, and provided a steady if unspectacular resistance to the depradations of capitalism. All that is needed is to draw the truly revolutionary, communitarian potential from these traditional, seemingly conservative groups.
Thus we find Jean Bethke Elshtain arguing in the pages of Dissent that family and neighborhood “incorporate values that implicitly challenge corporate power and antidemocratic, managerial elites, and that this potential can be strengthened.” Harry Boyte maintains in The Backyard Revolution that “citizen activism frequently grows directly from traditional and particular group identities that leftists tend to see as ‘backwaters’ of parochialism—religious and civic traditions, ethnic ties, and family relations.” Hanna Pitkin and Sara Shumer claim that only “the direct experience of meaningful local self-government” can produce citizens capable of controlling “higher and more distant structures of… collective power.” In the same issue of democracy (during its brief existence, the flagship journal of small community liberalism), Sheldon Wolin called upon the left to “renounce the state paradigm,” and instead recognize that the true political being is “a person whose existence is located in a particular place and draws its sustenance from circumscribed relationships: family, friends, church, neighborhood, workplace, community, town, city.”
The division between this understanding of community and the older idea of national community is profound and, very probably, uncompromisable. Small community liberals maintain that vast national gatherings are inherently incoherent and alienating, governable only by powerful, distant, cold bureaucracies. National community liberals maintain that local, traditional communities are inherently conservative and backward—the “last bastions of reaction,” in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s words. The doctrinal confusion so evident on the left today is in large part a reflection of this division, and intellectual coherence is not likely to be restored until one of these communitarian concepts routs the other.
The same doctrinal confusion is evident in the pages of Habits of the Heart. At first glance, Habits appears to be fully in the camp of the small republic liberals: It proclaims itself to be an examination of the contemporary condition—and a defense—of traditional structures like the family, church, neighborhood and civic group that nurture the communitarian “habits of the heart” (Tocqueville’s phrase) so important for counteracting the worst effects of American individualism. Such structures—”communities of memory,” as they are called by Bellah et al.—are in grave danger today, threatened not only by the older form of “utilitarian liberalism” spawned by a commercial culture, but also by an’. “expressive individualism” spawned by the therapeutic culture. Even human commitments within the “communities of memory,” the authors maintain, typically tend to be defended in the sharply limited language of cost/benefit analysis or in the equally limited language of feeling and sensation. (This conclusion, it should be noted, is supported by a number of in-depth interviews with people across the country.)
Nonetheless, the authors are (at least initially) careful not to say that the communities of memory are doomed. Such a conclusion would foreclose the small community option, and lead quickly to the progressives’ conclusion that a new form of community is necessary. Thus, they claim, therapeutic and nihilistic views “have not… been able to replace social practices and commitments that are rooted in older views. Traditional modes of relating—familial, religious, and civic—persist in our society.” Even those individuals “most trapped in the language of the isolated self… are troubled by the nihilism they sense there and eager to find a way to overcoming the emptiness….” The problem, the authors carefully insist, is indeed an entrapment in an impoverished language, rather than the collapse of traditional institutions. Americans are apparently compelled by the power and omnipresence of individualism to express in unsound language commitments that otherwise remain relatively sound.
The authors of Habits exhibit not only the small community liberal preference for limited, traditional groupings, but also its skepticism of national community liberalism’s efforts to replace such institutions. They denounce the tendency of “liberal intellectuals” to caricature “regional or religious groups whose traditions and communities they find ignorant and potentially authoritarian,” and treat sympathetically concerned citizens who defend “the moral beliefs and practices of his or her community in the face of… the decisions of administrators and managers that do not understand, and are not answerable to, local community feeling.” Bellah et al. go so far as to suggest that progressive liberals never succeeded in enunciating a communitarian vision as an alternative to American individualism: they were “never able to formulate a vision of the national polity that would legitimate their efforts in terms of a moral discourse of the common good and provide an alternative to the culture of individualism.” (This is attributed in large part to progressivism’s reliance on bureaucracy and scientific management as the means to organize national society.)
Just when one is persuaded that Habits is squarely within the small community liberal camp, (an impression particularly easy to carry away from the earlier chapters), the volume turns to a discussion of remedies for the problem of an excessively individualistic American vocabulary—and suddenly, the book begins to sound like nothing so much as a progressive treatise from the turn of the century. We are told that small town life and its associated communitarian institutions were undermined by the industrial developments of the nineteenth century, which had “pulled the many semi-autonomous local societies into a vast national market.” Nonetheless, the authors note with good progressive alarm, “lacking the ability to deal meaningfully with the large-scale organizational and institutional structures that characterize our society, many of those we talked to turned to the small town not only as an ideal but as a solution….” In part, this is a foolish, “nostalgic desire to return to the mythical past.” It is also an alarming desire, however, for several (again, thoroughly progressive) reasons.
First, small community institutions are, indeed, “bastions of reaction.” They tend to “exclude the different and suffocate the unconforming.” To try to “return to traditional forms would be to return to intolerable discrimination and oppression.”
Furthermore, and more importantly, the “small town ideal provides no resources for thinking about the larger society and the forces that threaten the town….” To deal with the complexities of the large society, what is required is a “transition to a new level of social integration,” a new “social ecology” for America as a whole. That will come about, apparently, through a vast, new social movement that will carry the communitarian impulses of the small town—now wonderfully if inexplicably purged of its discriminatory and oppressive elements—to the level of the nation. This new social movement would imitate past social movements, insofar as it would understand that the “national society requires not only fair procedures regulating the individualistic pursuit of happiness but a substantive conception of just institutions and virtuous citizens.” Bellah et al. want “a national community that would be genuinely democratic and inclusive.” In short, Habits finally calls for nothing less, and nothing more, than the revitalization of progressivism’s vision of national community as an antidote to the excessively individualistic language of Americans.
It would be idle to quarrel with the substance of this new vision of national community, in large part because that is left maddeningly vague in Habits. We are given to understand that a decent national community requires “a rough equality of condition,” and that this equality is likely to come about only if we abandon the mindless pursuit of individualistic achievement and wealth. There is no progress beyond progressivism here, or in the concommitant demand for a redefinition of work, so that it becomes once again a “calling rather than a “career.” The redistribution of wealth becomes much easier if people work, not for money, but for “intrinsic satisfaction.” The “pursuit of excellence” and the “approbation of one’s fellows more than the accumulation of great wealth” would be the new standards of work. This is but a tired echo of Herbert Croly’s hope, expressed in 1909 in The Promise of American Life, that men would soon come to “work from disinterested motives,” and that they would “compete chiefly for the purpose of excelling in the quality of their work” rather than “for the purpose of securing the most money to spend or to accumulate.” It certainly is a rather drastic step, if our primary problem today is simply a failure of linguistics.
What finally saves Habits from being merely another iteration of Croly’s national community argument, however, is its aforementioned simultaneous allegiance to the spirit, if not to the historical fact, of the small, local community. The authors somehow assume that one can unproblematically strengthen community at both levels at once. They therefore never truly come to grips with the irreconcilable tension between the two ideas of community so vividly illustrated in the split in contemporary liberal doctrine. For it remains true that the argument for one concept carries with it an argument against the other: to small communitarians, a national community is inevitably bureaucratic, alienating and oppressive; to national communitarians, the small community is inevitably backward and reactionary.
Insofar as the authors try to deal with this ideological schizophrenia, they tend to fall back on a somewhat languid utopianism. They claim they will build progressivism’s national community, only without oppressive bureaucracies and scientific management; and they will preserve small, local communities, only without narrowness and bigotry. This is simply an easygoing, unexamined wish somehow to combine the best of both worlds while eliminating the worst. It ignores progressivism’s wisdom that a large, complex industrial society probably does require a massive, bureaucratic central government if it wishes to be bound together tightly, and the age-old wisdom of the small town that to include some in the local community, others must be excluded and treated as less desirable “outsiders.”
The authors of Habits are encouraged in their utopianism by the impression that it originated with the Founding Fathers of the Republic. They argue that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and others adhered to something of a national community vision, a desire to make “civic republicanism” the basis of our national life. The Founders, we are told, insisted that republican government “could survive only if animated by a spirit of virtue and concern for the public good.” “Without civic virtue, [the Founders] thought, the republic would decline into factional chaos….” Unhappily, the story goes, commercial and industrial developments early in our national history sabotaged the Founders’ project, enthroned individualism as our primary national characteristic, and drove civic republicanism into exile in the small towns of America. Habits maintains, therefore, that “though the yearning for the small town is nostalgia for the irretrievably lost, it is worth considering whether the biblical and republican traditions that the small town once embodied can be re-appropriated in ways that respond to our present need.”
This account of our national origins certainly supports the view that there is no inevitable tension between the small and national community arguments—apparently only the “accident” of commercial development drove American community from the national to the local level, and therefore certain new commercial developments can just as easily elevate it once again. The problem with the account is that it could not be more erroneous. As the late Martin Diamond argued so convincingly, the Founders’ great achievement—and one in which they took great pride—was that they had discovered a way to establish republican government without reliance on civic virtue. Civically virtuous republics, the Founders believed, could exist only in small, relatively tightly-knit communities, not on a scale as vast as the one planned for the new nation. At any rate, such small republics tended to be abusive of the rights of minorities, and therefore turbulent and short-lived. America could not—nor should it want to—be founded on civic virtue, they believed.
Instead, the Founders’ new republic would be founded on that element so despised by the authors of Habits, namely, commerce. A commercial society would dissipate the intense political commitments that once were thought necessary to bind republics together, but that also tended to produce oppression and ultimately dissolution. Such a commercial republic was not only possible within, it required, an area as large as the United States. This vast, national common market, it was hoped, would temper the rather problematic “civic virtue” that remained in the states and localities, and would quietly bind Americans together as a single people.
The authors of Habits, then, have the story of the Founding almost precisely backward. Commerce was not some incidental development that subsequently undermined the founding project, it was the founding project, to a large extent—the force that would peacefully integrate the new nation. Civic virtue was not the heart of the new nation, it was the highly problematic basis of strictly small communities—a quality that would now deliberately be confined to the states and localities.
It is clear from this revised account of the Founding that our regime is, at its roots, unfriendly to the projects both of national community and small community liberals, to say nothing of Bellah’s efforts to combine the two. Large, non-commercial nations could never become democratic communities, the Founders believed—they inevitably require despotic government, or to bring this insight into the twentieth century, rigid, massive bureaucratic government. At the same time, small communitarian democracies were inevitably oppressive. Bellah’s cool assumption that one can have large community without bureaucracy, and small community without oppression, is in fact a desire to dismiss what the Founders understood to be the very essence of each.
Bellah’s casual utopianism contrasts dramatically with the realism of the Founders’ scheme, as a way to preserve freedom and community in America. There is in the Founders’ understanding no easy combining of “bests” and dismissing of “worsts.” The Founders understood that commerce could be cold, alienating and impersonal—but that was the price to be paid for diversity and, thus, liberty. States and localities could be oppressive and narrow-minded—but that was the price to be paid for community.
The best that could be hoped for—and this we have very nearly achieved in America—is that the fragmentation and alienation of commerce would be offset to some degree by local community, the oppressiveness of local community tempered to some degree by national diversity. There were, however, always the negatives of, and an irreconcilable tension between, each element. They could never be brought into a wholly positive harmony—but that was, to the Founders, a worthwhile price to be paid for a regime that secured liberty while preserving community.
What would be the general vocabulary of a people committed to both commercial individualism and local community? Alexis de Tocqueville, as ever, had the most valuable insight here, in a chapter from Democracy in America entitled “How the Americans Combat Individualism By the Doctrine of Self-Interest Properly Understood.” In America, he warned, “there is hardly any talk of the beauty of virtue.” Instead Americans “maintain that virtue is useful and prove it every day.” Even though these devoted individualists are often “carried away by the disinterested, spontaneous impulses natural to man” and contribute to the community, they nonetheless choose to explain such acts by suggesting that “an enlightened self-love continuously leads them to help one another and disposes them freely to give part of their time and wealth” for the good of the community. In other words, Tocqueville might say to the authors of Habits of the Heart, do not permit the highly individualistic American language of “self-interest properly understood” to obscure the fact that Americans can be as compassionate and community-minded as other peoples. Bellah et al. apparently overlooked this warning, in what was otherwise intended to be an extended reflection on the enduring wisdom of Democracy in America. Yet cannot we say that this, too—this loss of the language of true virtue, but the preservation of its substance—is a worthwhile price to be paid for a regime that secures liberty while preserving community?