Community and Political Thought Today

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

8
Advice from a Tocquevillian Liberal: Arendt, Tocqueville, and the Liberal-Communitarian Debate

BARRY SHARPE

Perhaps no single idea has attracted more attention in recent years in academic political theory and political rhetoric than community. While Republicans and Democrats alike scramble to see who can successfully highlight the role of community in their political rhetoric, many scholars in academic political theory remain engaged in a "debate" over the value and meaning of community in liberalism. The so-called debate between liberals and communitarians, a series of exchanges inspired by John Rawls A Theory of Justice and largely framed by Michael Sandel critical response, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, was a driving force in academic political theory in the 1980s (and continues intermittently today). The central issues surrounding the communitarian critique have revolved around presumed defects of liberal political theory: an inadequate, "flattened" conception of the self that failed to capture the social "embeddedness" of individuals, its inherent inability to protect and maintain the necessary foundations for liberal theory and practice, its thoroughly flawed ahistorical model of the individual and community, and its damaging advancement of the priority of the right over the good.1 A debate dominated by conflict over ontology (e.g., atomism versus holism) and claims and counterclaims about what community is and is not ultimately gave way to a variety of exchanges that made it very difficult to differentiate so-called liberals from communitarians. More to the point, the liberal-communitarian debate, conceived as a singular exchange between identifiable camps, "ended" as liberals and communitarians alike moved on to exchanges on various forms of community and tradition, including liberal traditions and communities.

Recently a number of observers of and participants in the liberal-

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