Republicanism for Democrats?

Is communitarianism just a return to the not-so-good old days?

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If you keep up with American politics, you know that politicians from Bill Clinton to Helmut Kohl are embracing a political theory called communitarianism. Arguing that our society's emphasis on individualism -- both the live-and-let-live social policies of liberalism and the conservatives' every-man-for-himself economics -- has gone too far, communitarians advocate neighborliness and civic virtue as a cure for modern woes. But while actions like voting, volunteering, and using public transportation no doubt contribute to a more connected society, many critics suggest that communitarianism is out of touch with the times; a giant leap backward that pines for a social order that never was.

Writing in The Nation (July 25, 1994) Katha Pollitt fires off a few good shots, decrying communtarians' romanticized view of marriage (two parent households are good; divorce, bad) and nostalgia for traditionally differentiated sex roles as 'antifeminism redux.' Pollitt also skillfully deconstructs the communitarian passion for good neighborliness as a happy-faced blame game. 'The communitarians like to speak of balancing rights with responsibilities, which sounds good,' she writes. 'But somehow the objects of this trade-off tend to be others: the young (curfews and national service), the poor (checkpoints in drug-ridden communities, work requirements for welfare), women (family values -- and what about that silence on abortion?).'

Besides, the problem most people have to deal with in today's world isn't about having an absence of community, but a surfeit of communities. Writing in the Pacific News Service (Feb. 20, 1995) Walter Truett Anderson asserts that given people's commitments to many different communities (i.e., ones created by their job, neighborhood, race, sexual preference, etc.) the communitarians are hopelessly out of sync with the realities of modern life: 'As Americans develop multiple loyalties...they have less and less sense of how to fulfill them. In an era when community is no longer rooted in place, sermonizing about voting or serving on juries offers no solution. The real question is how to sustain lasting ties in the absence of proximity, how to find intimacy in a world where borders no longer exist.'

Original to Utne Reader Online