Are we actually being offered a clear choice between libertarianism and communitarianism?

Back when he was elected governor in 2002, Mark Sanford was an outlier in the Republican Party. He called himself a “conservative,” but his words and actions in his first months in office made it increasingly clear that he was not that at all, but was a rather extreme libertarian — which is to say, a classical liberal.

For years, this put him at odds with most elected Republicans, who were more conventionally conservative. Among people who knew and understood him, his fan base was generally limited to the Club for Growth, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, and such anti-public education activists as Howard Rich.

Then came the Republican defeats of 2008. After that, the party went through paroxysms of self-accusation, and the loudest voices were those that said the party’s problem was that it was not extreme enough (especially in nominating iconoclast John McCain), in particular that didn’t hate government enough. And those voices, belonging to Jim DeMint and others, started to gain traction quite rapidly. While they were still calling themselves “conservative” and still do, they were defining the term away from the more traditional meaning that I have long embraced.

Then came the election of 2010, which brought together the elite theorists of the Club for Growth and the lowest-common-denominator populists of the Tea Party, united only by the fact that they deeply despised the idea that citizens can ban together to address their common challenges as a community — that is to say, despised the very idea of government in a free society.

In spite of all that, the Republicans in 2012 chose as their standard-bearer a relative nonideologue. But he only got the nod by the skin of his teeth, after the extremists failed to unite, for more than a few days or weeks at a time, behind a candidate they liked better. And in order to make sure the muscular, energized libertarian elements of the party turn out in November, he chose the most vocal and articulate exponent of their worldview as his running mate.

And so the picture was complete: The GOP ticket was fully onboard with the libertarian agenda. (Economic libertarianism, anyway. Cultural libertarianism has generally been left to the Democrats.)

But who, if anyone, was out there to champion what I see as the viable alternative to that view — communitarianism?

Well, to my great interest, key Democrats started saying some very communitarian things this week. Bill Clinton put it as strongly as anyone:

We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity.  We think “we’re all in this together” is a better philosophy than “you’re on your own.”

The former president accomplished two things there: He shoved aside so much of the divisive class-warfare rhetoric we had heard from other DNC speakers (such as the one just before him), and said the one thing that is the simplest possible assertion of the communitarian worldview — that “we’re all in this together.”

At  least — and here’s a huge disclaimer — I think of that as being a purely communitarian statement. Truth be told, there is so little discussion of communitarianism out there that I’m not always entirely sure I understand it, which is why I say I think I have communitarian tendencies, rather than “I am a communitarian.”

But to me at least, “we’re all in this together” isn’t just a description of how the world should be. It is a simple description of the way the world is, and you can’t engage the world realistically and effectively if you don’t recognize it.

But if I liked that, I really liked the things the president had to say the next night. First, there was his use of the word “citizenship.” That probably doesn’t sound like much to you, just another Civics 101 kind of term that you would expect to hear in a political speech. But actually, we haven’t heard it all that much since JFK’s “ask what you can do for your country” speech. You won’t find it, for instance, in the speeches of Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney at the RNC the week before.

“Citizenship” jumps out at me because of something I noticed several years ago — that the radical libertarian wing of the GOP, which now so dominates the party, doesn’t really believe in it. Or at least, doesn’t believe in it in any way I would recognize it.

I wrote about this several years back, in the context of the “school choice” debate. I had noticed something fundamental about the thinking of the people who advocated for tax credits and vouchers: They saw themselves as consumers, rather than as citizens. A citizen understands that he pays taxes to support public schools because they are a public good that benefits the whole society, not just the children who attend the schools or their families. Because he wants to live in a society in which everyone has some education and some ability to support themselves and contribute to the community, rather than having vast swaths of the society being incapable of constructive engagement. By contrast, the “school choice” advocates saw themselves as consumers. They saw themselves as paying for a service with those taxes — and if they, personally, had no one in their families attending those schools (ifthey were childless, or if their children attended private school or were homeschooled), then they shouldn’t be paying for the service. To them, this was irresistible logic — because they related to the world as consumers rather than as citizens.

So the word got my attention. Here’s how the president used it:

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.

Exactly. But Mr. Obama went beyond that. He went on to use language that seemed directly lifted from a communitarian website or something:

We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems — any more than our welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles — because — because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.
We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together — through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

“Rights and Responsibilities” is essentially the tagline of The Communitarian Network.

But use whatever words you want to describe it — communitarianism, citizenship, civic-mindedness, or Donne’s “no man is an island” — the fact is that the president, and Bill Clinton before him, were offering a powerful alternative to the radical individualism that the GOP ticket is offering.

There is still much I find terribly off-putting about the Democrats, all of which was on display this week — the Identity Politics, the unquestioning embrace of abortion on demand, the unrealistic way so many of them still speak of national security (for that matter, their general lack of concern about it, as so many of them prefer to dwell on domestic issues).

But this notion of citizenship, set against a very different view of reality being set forth by the GOP ticket, to me rather powerfully recommends President Obama going forward. Now that he has framed the choice in this manner, I will listen with great interest for the GOP response. At this point, I fear that it is sadly predictable.

18 thoughts on “Are we actually being offered a clear choice between libertarianism and communitarianism?

  1. Burl Burlingame

    If you look back through my comments here over the years, I think you’ll find I use the term “citizen” quite a lot. One of the things I really find annoying is declaring ideological warfare on fellow citizens. We’re all “real Americans.”

  2. Brad

    I wanted to link to that “consumer vs. citizen” column from years ago, but couldn’t find it online. Here, instead, is a brief recap of the idea from 2008, written as part of my argument as to why Mark Sanford would have been a horrible running mate for John McCain:

    ‘One of his two great policy priorities (the other is reducing the income tax, to which I will return) is to divert state funds to pay people to take their kids out of public schools, thereby reducing public support for the schools, which leads to less funding, which leads to the reduction of the one biggest item in the state budget. His ideological defenders would say, “No, it’s not about STATE funds; it’s about letting taxpayers keep their OWN money.” But that speaks to my point. The governor and his ideological ilk look at public policy as CONSUMERS, not as CITIZENS. A consumer holds to the ridiculous notion that the taxes a parent pays toward supporting public schools are a sort of user fee; therefore if the parent sends HIS kids to private school or homeschools, he shouldn’t have to pay the taxes. But folks, public schools don’t exist merely as a service to the kids who attend them at a given moment, or to their families. If they did, we wouldn’t HAVE public schools, since only about a quarter of taxpayers have kids in the schools at any given time. We have public schools because universal education is a crucial goal of the society as a whole. We have public schools in order to create an educated society, so we have people with skills to fill the overwhelming majority of jobs in the state. We have the schools so that kids have a chance of becoming informed, constructive citizens, voters and taxpayers, rather than rotting away on street corners or in prison. On the most basic level, we have them so that all of us — from toddlers to retirees — can live in safe, prosperous communities, rather than in a Somalia-like environment of despair. And it is one of those few things that the market would never, ever provide on its own, because only society as a whole — rather than private actors — can profit from providing universal education (as opposed to targeted service to segments of the market, which can be profitable to a provider.)’

  3. Tom Stickler

    There may be hope for you, yet, Brad.

    Another word to focus on would be “patriotism,” in the context that paying taxes is a patriotic act.

    Avoiding as much taxpaying as you can may be deeply unpatriotic.

  4. tavis micklash

    I have no problem being a citizen. I pay my fair share of taxes. I don’t mind new taxes if they are for something that I view as the public good.

    I don’t want to be a sucker though. Short term stop gap welfare I can deal with. I shouldn’t. Have to subsidize someone all their life though. Terms like hunger and poverty in america get tossed around. In reality the american quality of life is pretty good.

    At some point there has to be a point where enough is enough. I’m not saying go full norquist. That is unreasonable and undoable absolute. I also shouldn’t have to go full on subsidies.

    Like many others I don’t like either option. Luckily for me I live in a state where it doesn’t matter, since the electoral college has already pulled the switch for republican or libertarian. Or Whatever you call it nowadays.

  5. Worth

    I’m surprised you haven’t received negative responses. So many have imagined their own self-reliance for so long, they believe it.

  6. Juan Caruso

    “One of the things I really find annoying is declaring ideological warfare on fellow citizens. We’re all “real Americans.” BB

    Truer words could not be spoken. American citizens whose ideologies Brad regularly tends to marginalize and demonize (e.g. populists of the Tea Party) are certainly above the “lower denominated” thugs from any of the workers unions or elite theorists of the tax, spend and waste club welcomed in the Democratic Party.

    Our Bill of Rights guarantees many opinions, of course, and

  7. Phillip

    Your analysis of the “consumer vs. citizen” dichotomy is spot-on, and is another, more immediate way of describing the inherent conflict between capitalism (followed to its ultimate end point) and liberal democracy. It’s not that the two can’t coexist, but it takes a careful balancing between the dynamism of the economy and the ability of the government (as the democratically elected representative of the people) to check its excesses and to ensure that power still primarily resides with those chosen by vote by all citizens and not merely on the basis of economic power.

  8. Phillip

    oh, and as for the Democrats’ supposed “general lack of concern about [national security],” it seems that at the conventions there might actually have been a tad MORE mention of international issues by the Democrats this year than the Republicans. Also, I would caution against the assumption that more cautious and selective about use of American military force around the world somehow equates to a “lack of concern.” Opposition to the war in Iraq, for example, grew out of a GREAT concern about national security and international relations, because so many felt that (even leaving aside the question of sacrificing American lives, and many Iraqi civilians), the intervention in Iraq may have been a big strategic blunder. For your “lack of concern” phrase I would substitute “lack of automatic knee-jerk enthusiasm for US military intervention.”

    Understanding the importance of diplomacy, intelligence-gathering, patience, as tools in the kit along with the military option, this to me shows a GREATER understanding and concern with national security, in its widest meaning. Sometimes the action NOT taken is in the best interest of US national security.

  9. Brad Warthen

    You misunderstood me, Phillip. I meant that liberals tend to think of the federal govt as an instrument of domestic policy. That’s what animates them. Whereas I see it in terms of our relations to other countries.

    A matter of emphasis.

  10. Doug Ross

    What’s the greatest achievement ever accomplished solely by communitarians? No fair naming anything that required funding from those who don’t buy into that philosophy. If your success depends on taking money from people who don’t agree with you, your philosophy is pretty weak.

    Communitarianism is like being on a committee. Lots of busy work, little accomplishment.

  11. Steve Gordy

    One thing that’s always been helpful to me is remembering some things from Transactional Analysis. When a politician says, “the big bad government is robbing the taxpayers,” he may be right; but the communication style is Child to Child. Whereas in the rare case where a politician says, “the government is spending too much money and we have to put everything on the table to see what to cut,” he may be right or wrong; but I’m more prone to listen to an Adult to Adult communication.

  12. bud

    I don’t want to dismiss the concept of communitarianism out of hand but I find it offputting the way the philosophy bowls over individual freedom. The extreme version seems to wrest all personal decisions into the hands of elected officials. Sadly we have all too much of that now.

  13. Doug Ross

    What is the difference between a communitarian and a member of a commune?

    Have you seen a successful commune? Seems like you have to give up a whole lot of personal ambition to be a member.

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