Academic journal article Policy Review

By the People: The Old Values of the New Citizenship

Academic journal article Policy Review

By the People: The Old Values of the New Citizenship

Article excerpt

Out of the ashes of George Bush's defeat in 1992 has come a bold new strategy for American conservatism. The strategy, called the "new citizenship," builds on the scholarship of Robert Nisbet, Michael Novak, Peter Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, and other leading conservative thinkers. Its goal is the reconstruction of civil society, the return of America to the self-governing republic described by Alexis de Tocqueville and envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Its social vision contrasts sharply with the similar-sounding but profoundly different rhetoric of "national community" espoused by President Clinton.

Michael Joyce, president of the Bradley Foundation, has been the principal architect of this new strategy. Pointing to the signs of massive discontent among American voters toward our major governing institutions - the immense popularity of Ross Perot's radical, populist call to return government directly to the people, the success of term limits and tax-and-spending limits in referendums across the nation, exit polls showing widespread skepticism about government's intentions and programs-Joyce has argued that "Americans are sick and tired of being told they're incompetent to run their own affairs." Speaking before The Heritage Foundation in December 1992, Joyce articulated his vision for conservatism in the next generation:

Americans are eager to seize control of their daily lives again - to make critical life choices for themselves, based on their own common sense and folk wisdom - to assume once again the status of proud, independent, self-governing citizens intended for them by the Founders.

Americans, he went on, are "sick and tired of being treated as helpless, pathetic victims of social forces that are beyond their understanding or control...of being treated as passive clients by arrogant, paternalistic social scientist, therapists, professionals, and bureaucrats." Under the "new citizenship" strategy, conservatives would empower families to take back their schools and neighborhoods, to make key decisions about education and health care and the character of their communities.

Two themes are emerging from the new citizenship concept. A "resistance" theme calls for rolling back the incursions of the therapeutic state into the everyday lives of Americans by challenging the political hegemony of the "helping" and "caring" professions and bureaucracies. This requires dramatizing their status as entrenched, corrupt special interests more concerned about advancing narrow ideological agendas and protecting political prerogatives than about serving the public.

Common Sense, Everyday Wisdom

Resistance also means challenging the cultural hegemony of "expert" knowledge on behalf of the common sense, everyday wisdom of the average American. It includes a strong critique of the new moral code of our elites - in particular, the central place accorded untrammeled self-expression - on behalf of traditional values like self-discipline, personal responsibility, and moral integrity.

The larger and more ambitious "restoration" theme calls for nothing less than revitalizing the institutions and values of American civil society. Through our vast, pluralistic network of civic institutions, as Tocqueville noted many years before, Americans had always been able to harness private energies to countless public tasks. At the same time, civic associations and groupings helped sustain order and public morality, and generally leaven the materialistic individualism of commercial democracy with an inclination toward broader citizenly duties. The traditional, local institutions of civil society - families, schools, churches, neighborhoods, and other "mediating structures" - had allowed the exercise of genuine citizenship and cultivated character for the next generation.

That the institutions and values of civil society are deeply imperiled and desperately in need of resuscitation today is a conviction widely shared across the political spectrum. …

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