William Galston has been writing with authority about communitarian politics since I was an adolescent, and his recent essay in New Republic may be the best thing written yet on the strengths and defects of Barack Obama’s rhetorical embrace of “community”. It’s a window, for reasons intentional and unintentional, into why modern liberals have struggled so much with building a broad case for their most cherished reforms.
As Galston observes, communitarian language has deep roots in American civic tradition, from the pilgrim John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill”, a biblical phrase that he reshaped into a clarion call for shared sacrifice and mutuality; to Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and its paen to heroic civic vigor; to Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic keynote address, which elegantly describes “the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound to one another.” The same strains have surfaced prominently in Obama’s best recent efforts—including the Osawatomie, Kansas “inequality” speech in December, and the State of the Union.
It’s a rich, moving way of describing the ties that bind Americans. But as Galston concedes, it’s fared imperfectly for modern liberals, especially Obama, whose modest rebound in recent polls seems tied more to improved unemployment ratings and the travails of the Republican field than to any rhetorical strategy. Indeed, the case can be made that the sharp rise in consumer confidence and the demolition derby the Republicans are waging should be yielding even greater gains for Obama, whom Gallup and Quinnipiac still peg at a lackluster 45 percent approval rating.
Galston deserves enormous credit for resisting the liberal line that America is too steeped in selfish materialism or anti-multicultural backlash for a community based argument to take hold. Instead of lapsing into judgment, Galston points out that “the instances of [community] solidarity [Obama] invokes lie well outside the experience of most Americans today.” Among the litany of reasons why, Galston cites the chasm between the career prospects of children of two professional parents and kids of single parent drop-outs; the fact that labor market stability is so unconnected to corporate profit; and the un-egalitarian composition of our armed forces.
He might have added to the list the ideological split between secular, advanced degree urban dwellers and evangelicals with two years of college or less in the exurbs and suburbs. He might have also noted the generational fault-line around retirement programs, and the distribution of Americans into seniors who are reaping more substantial benefits from programs like Medicare than they ever contributed, and millenials and thirty-somethings who are financing a retirement apparatus that is unlikely to be around for them.
Omissions aside, Galston is dead-on in his observation that few Americans experience the sense of attachment to their fellow citizens that Obama is idealizing. But having masterfully diagnosed the short-comings of communitarian rhetoric, Galston fades into cliché when describing the solution. The “steady appeal to common sense and common decency” he proposes sounds more like a conduct standard for freshman dorm life than a political argument. It’s a telling lapse, though, that suggests why the left struggles to broaden its coalition. For all of their ventures into the language of reciprocity, and mutual obligation, modern liberals (even creative ones like Galston) invariably associate our national ills solely with their antagonists on the right. Income inequality is a problem that is laid at the doorstep of rapacious Wall Street policies and corporate influence in shaping the tax code. There is scarce reference to the undermining of education reform by teacher’s unions or the degradation of both learning and cultural assimilation that still rages in inner city neighborhoods—two trends that deepen unequal achievement levels for the black and brown.
The left is quick to attribute lower middle/working class alienation to economic trends like stagnant compensation and globalization. That’s a partial truth that obscures two culture-driven forces—the competitive disadvantage working class kids face in entering the most elite colleges and the wage pressure illegal immigrant labor exacts on unskilled American labor. It’s a critique, in other words, that conveniently ignores the unintended consequences of liberal policies like race based affirmative action and soft border enforcement.
Rather than paint a more comprehensive picture of why Americans are losing faith in our systems, liberals have been content to source the blame out to a card-board, one-dimensional set of villains: the multi-national corporations and over-sized capital markets that have hoarded prosperity and all but bribed policy-makers into protecting their ill-gotten gains. A not altogether false description, but one that only partly resonates with the many Americans who know the crisis is deeper and more complex, and implicates sacred cows of the left as well as the right.
If liberals appreciate that some of their own policy priorities burden down-scale workers, you wouldn’t know it from their rhetoric about low-income whites voting against their own interests. It’s also been awhile since Obama has lamented the persistent culture of entitlement in the inner city, or since the Democratic Party has cast a critical glance at the way its own client groups impede accountability and reform in the social services or education sectors; to the contrary, the party has forfeited the critique to conservatives who all too often confuse reform with down-sizing.
The result is that the liberal communitarian appeal is essentially a rallying cry to the Democratic base. Instead of an urgent call to renew communal bonds, it sounds like a well-worn legal indictment of the faults of the one percent: heavy on a blow by blow recitation of the ways the powerful have gone awry, over-inclusive in the list of wrongs attached to their waywardness. It’s cold comfort to a serious thinker like Galston that the political right has all but abandoned community as a social organizing principle in favor of an exclusive focus on liberty and individualism: even on ground that the right is not contesting, the left is floundering to find its footing.