| || Civic
by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland
editor-in-chief and research director
of the Civic Practices Network
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
few communitarians have developed refined institutional analyses
to match their critiquesone thinks of liberal-communitarian
Ezekiel Emanuel's very interesting proposals on health carecommunitarian
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
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
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.
ed., New Communitarian Thinking: Persons, Virtues, Institutions
and Communities. Charlottesville: University of Virginia
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.
Richard Madsen, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism
and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1985.
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.
The Ends of Human Life: Medical Ethics in a Liberal Polity.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
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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