Community and Political Thought Today

By Peter Augustine Lawler; Dale McConkey | Go to book overview

6
Communitarianism and the Federal Idea

WILFRED M. MCCLAY

The communitarian "movement" has arisen as an effort to address the evident deficiencies of modern liberalism, and to push our political thinking beyond its fixation on the sovereign autonomy of rights-bearing individuals.1 There is much that is commendable in such an effort. But the communitarianism we have been getting so far suffers from a fatal defect: it is much too closely bound to the very liberalism it would correct. As a result, it tends to use the language of "community" as a form of mood music, a pleasingly imprecise way to soften our image of all organizations, including those that are decidedly not families or communities, such as universities, business corporations, or nation-states. The problem with such discourse, as was brilliantly explained in the late Robert Nisbet 1953 classic The Quest for Community, is that it is not only inaccurate but pernicious. It serves to dismiss or devalue the elements of genuine community where they exist, while distorting our speech about other kinds of organizations with imprecision, sentimentality, and coercive unctuousness.2 Hillary Rodham Clinton's celebrated effort to endow the national social-services bureaucracy with the attributes of a cozy "village" is a case in point.3 Such rhetoric simply claims the wrong territory for community, and in so doing, makes it harder to reckon that term's proper limits. It merely repackages, rather than challenges, the shortcomings of liberalism as now practiced.

Much more promising, however, is the work of Harvard political scientist Michael J. Sandel, whose Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy is one of the most accessible and thoughtful explorations of the communitarian alternative yet to appear.4 Sandel argues that today's public philosophy is the liberalism of "the procedural republic": a liberalism that makes

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