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Civic Dictionary


Prepared by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland
editor-in-chief and research director of the Civic Practices Network

Communitarianism emerged in the 1980s as a response to the limits of liberal theory and practice. Its dominant themes are that individual rights need to be balanced with social responsibilities, and that autonomous selves do not exist in isolation, but are shaped by the values and culture of communities. Unless we begin to redress the balance toward the pole of community, communitarians believe, our society will continue to become normless, self-centered, and driven by special interests and power seeking.

The critique of one-sided emphasis on rights has been key to defining communitarianism. Rights tend to be asserted without a corresponding sense of how they can be achieved, or who will pay for them. "Rights talk" thus corrupts our political discourse, and is used to trump genuine conversation, public deliberation, and practical compromise. It is used to escalate claims, induce guilt and polarize debate. And it is employed without a corresponding sense of responsibilities, other than not actively inflicting harm. Communitarians believe deeply in preserving rights, and extending them in regimes that are nondemocratic or practice discrimination. But they believe that rights need to be seen in a more balanced framework, and that the U.S. would benefit by a temporary moratorium on the manufacture of new rights.

Communitarians argue that the one-sided emphasis on rights in liberalism is related to its conception of the individual as a "disembodied self," uprooted from cultural meanings, community attachments, and the life stories that constitute the full identities of real human beings. Dominant liberal theories of justice, as well as much of economic and political theory, presume such a self. And our "habits of the heart" deeply draw upon this, even in many cases where we behave as committed community activists.

Communitarians would, again, shift the balance, arguing that the "I" is constituted through the "We" in a dynamic tension. This is not an argument for the traditional community, repressive majoritarianism or the patriarchal family —although not a few critics have interpreted it thus. Communitarians are critical of community institutions that are authoritarian and restrictive, and that cannot bear scrutiny within a larger framework of human rights and equal opportunities. They accept the modern condition that we are located within a web of pluralistic communities with crosscutting tugs and pulls, and genuine value conflicts within them, and within selves. But, as Jean Bethke Elshtain notes in her elaboration on the communitarian individual who happens to be a woman, "the contract model [of liberalism] leaves little space for those contributions of women that have been linked to the human life cycle, to the protection and nurturance of vulnerable human existence. In contractarian terms, women become individuals only when they, too, join the ranks of the sovereign-self ideal. In the rights-absolutist climate of opinion, women are likely to be seen as victims or suckers if they fail to join the 'separated' celebration with anything less than total enthusiasm."

The "Responsive Communitarian Platform," drafted by Amitai Etzioni, Mary Ann Glendon and William Galston in November 1991, sketches out the basic framework. It urges that we start with the family and its central role in time-intensive moral education, ensuring that workplaces provide maximum supports for parents through working time innovations, and warning against avoidable divorces in the interests of children first. The second line of defense is reviving moral education in schools at all levels, including the values of tolerance, peaceful conflict resolution, the superiority of democratic government, hard work and saving. It also argues for devolving government services to their appropriate levels, pursuing new kinds of public-private partnerships, and developing national and local service programs.

Communitarians see themselves as building a major social movement paralleling that of the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century. Their ideas have been very influential in academia, and have filtered into the Clinton White House.

While a few communitarians have developed refined institutional analyses to match their critiques—one thinks of liberal-communitarian Ezekiel Emanuel's very interesting proposals on health care—communitarian thinking has not yet contributed to moving the debate on specific community and civic institutions substantially forward. This tends to give their arguments a moralizing quality, according to various critics.

Selected Readings

Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society. New York: Touchstone, 1993.

This is the basic statement of communitarianism by a key founder of the movement. It is provocative and readable, and contains the "Responsive Communitarian Platform." It addresses broad issues such as the erosion of a moral voice in our public discourse. It contains chapters on the communitarian family and school, as well as the balance of rights and responsibilities in such controversial issues as hate speech, and drug and HIV testing for public safety and public health. While it ranges across many issues in attempting to define a different discourse, it remains undeveloped at the level of institutional analysis, especially on civic innovations and community building strategies.

Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. New York: Free Press, 1991.

This is a key text in the communitarian argument about how an intemperate rhetoric of personal liberty and rights tends to erode the social foundations upon which individual freedom rests, and impedes compromise, mutual understanding, and the discovery of common ground. A political language saturated with rights undermines our capacity for public discussion of the right ordering of our lives together. The book is legal theory accessible to the educated nonspecialist.

Amitai Etzioni, ed., New Communitarian Thinking: Persons, Virtues, Institutions and Communities. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.

This is the best current collection of theoretical writings within the communitarian tradition. It includes essays by Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Amy Gutmann, Charles Taylor and others, as well as a very useful introductory essay by the editor. It demonstrates the richness and depth of communitarian thinking. A companion volume by the same editor, Rights and the Common Good (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), covers more ground with a greater number of shorter essays, but also has more of a patchwork quality.

Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

This modern classic focuses on one fundamental question: how modern Americans might preserve or create a morally coherent life. But whether this is possible hinges on the relationship between moral character and political community. The authors argue that individualism, not equality, is the central moral value of American life, and ask whether it may be destroying the moral and political community that it depends on for its survival. The entire work is accessible, even pleasurable to read. Particular attention might be paid to Part Two, "Public Life" and the Conclusion. A subsequent volume, The Good Society (New York: Knopf, 1991), takes up these questions at the level of institutions, and includes chapters on education, work, government and law, religion, and America's role in the world.

Ezekiel Emanuel, The Ends of Human Life: Medical Ethics in a Liberal Polity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

This book argues that two key unresolved issues in medical ethics today, terminating care and the equitable allocation of medical resources, require that we rethink the premises of liberal political theory. The author develops in detail a liberal communitarian model of community health programs, which recognizes fundamentally different conceptions of the good life among different communities deliberating about values, and yet secures individual rights and equity within a larger liberal polity. While the topic is specialized, it is perhaps the single best extended communitarian argument that grapples with the specifics of alternative (though nonutopian) institutional design, and incorporates insights from existing civic innovations in the health arena.

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