The Quest for Community and the New Public Philosophy (Part I)


April 1, 1984

This essay was originally prepared for the American Enterprise Institute’s Public Policy Week 1983. The second part of his essay will appear in a subsequent issue of Catholicism in Crisis.

America is in search of a new public philosophy. The New Deal public philosophy apparently died some time ago, and now we must find one to take its place. What was the old public philosophy, and what are the likely characteristics of a new one? We will begin to answer those questions if we consider both old and possible new public philosophies as responses to the compelling human need for community. “The quest for community,” Robert Nisbet wrote thirty years ago, “will not be denied, for it springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature — needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status, and community.” The New Deal public philosophy promised to satisfy that need through its vision of the great national community, and the programs that followed from it. That vision was articulated by the progressives at the turn of the century, and installed at the center of American politics by Franklin D. Roosevelt; it continued to dominate American politics through the 1960s.

The eclipse of this vision of national community over the past two decades is what we mean, when we say that the New Deal public philosophy is dead. To be sure, the American landscape is still dominated by the vast array of federal programs enacted since 1932 as the expression and instrument of national community. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement today that such programs are “too big” and have become “too expensive.” That common sentiment is not to be explained by the literal exhaustion of our financial resources, of course; as many on the left and even some on the right have pointed out, Americans carry a relatively smaller tax burden than a great many other Western liberal democracies. The resources are there; but we no longer believe that we are obligated as citizens — as members of a single national community — to share those resources with our national “neighbors” through elaborate federal programs. What support those programs still enjoy — and it is powerful support — we commonly ascribe to the avarice of deeply entrenched special interests. Those pro-grams no longer seem to flow from the widely-shared, coherent vision of the New Deal that we are best understood as one nation of brothers, with extensive mutual obligations.

Before we can understand the concerns of the present, then, we must examine the New Deal public philosophy and its preliminary articulation in the progressive era. Only if we understand the promise and the appeal of the idea of national community, can we begin to fill out a new doctrine of community to replace that of the New Deal.

The new Deal Public philosophy can be traced primarily to the “New Nationalist” doctrines of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann and others at the turn of the century, and to a lesser extent to Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom.” Those progressive doctrines were formulated in response to what seemed to be a profound crisis of community in America. That crisis had developed in the late nineteenth century, as the powerful modern forces of technology, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration began to erode the “island communities” — small towns, built around strong families, neighborhoods, and associations — that had heretofore characterized American social organization. In one sense, the island communities had been important for America, the progressives believed; they had certain useful qualities, and had nurtured some valuable human attributes. Above all, the progressives understood, those “islands” had been communities in every sense of the word. Men had been bound together in them, as Herbert Croly noted, by a “genuine good-fellowship” that was the “natural issue of. . . . interests, . . . occupations, . . . and manner of life.” Early American societies, according to Croly, were based on “an instinctive familiarity of association, upon a quick communicability of sympathy, upon the easy and effortless sense of companionship.”

According to Croly and others, this intimate sense of community had been possible in earlier times because of a sameness, a homogeneity, an equality in the conditions of most small American societies: a “community of feeling and . . . ease of communication” followed from the fact that Americans “were not divided by radical differences in class, standards, point of view, and wealth.” The .idea of early American community was also associated in progressive thinking with full, democratic participation by all citizens in the political affairs of the small societies; the New England town meeting was the symbol of democracy, the “greatest school of political science and art that has existed among men,” according to progressive Franklin Giddings. Finally, small town society commended itself to progressives because of the strong sense of duty citizens felt toward each other — a willingness to sacrifice for the common good. Frederick Howe recalled that small towns were built on a “morality of duty . . . Duty should be always before one’s eyes.” This sense of duty and self-sacrifice served admirably to tame the self-interested individualism that was, according to the progressives, a particularly unattractive feature of the American character.

While small-town America thus nourished certain important values — “good fellowship”, egalitarianism, democratic participation, duty, and above all community — it nonetheless was doomed. The irresistible forces of modernity began in the late nineteenth century to sweep away the boundaries that had preserved the small island com-munities. The advent of railroad, telegraph, telephone, and the modern mass newspaper all served to destroy those boundaries and to suggest horizons beyond the village. The corporation grew to enormous proportions, and began to extend its powers beyond the control of city and state governments. Great cities sprang up, populated by aggregates of disconnected individuals, rather than the tightly-knit neighbors of early America. Immigration brought millions to our shores from strange cultures, thus destroying the homogeneity of early American society. As the new industrial system began to generate tremendous fortunes, great inequalities of wealth replaced the easy-going egalitarianism of small town America. Corrupt political machines replaced town meetings. Citizenly duty was neglected in the stampede for wealth, legitimated by new doctrines of emancipated individualism.

In short, the force of modernity had precipitated a crisis of community in America; the small town and all its virtues had been shattered. As Walter Lippmann described it, those forces hP.z.1 “upset the old life of the prairies, made new demands upon democracy, introduced specialization and science, had destroyed village loyalties, . . . and created the impersonal relationships of the modern world.”

But the disappearance of the “nation of villagers” (Lippmann’s apt description) and the rise of modernity was not to be regretted, according to the progressives. For the forces of modernity, if harnessed by a powerful central government, made possible the creation of a new, and vastly better, kind of community: the national community. The goal of progressivism, in John Dewey’s formulation, was to convert the “Great Society created by steam and electricity” into the “Great Community.”

The new means of communication, for instance — railroad, telegraph, mass newspapers — had not only erased the boundaries of the small town; they had, at the same time, bound the entire nation closer together. In addition, the tremendous new corporations created by the combination of modern technology and scientific management held out great promise, in the minds of many “New Nationalist” progressives. The wasteful, inefficient, anti-social competitive individualism of the free market was rapidly being replaced by “concentration and co-operation.” Walter Lippmann argued that the new corporation was the welcome “beginning of a collective organization,” holding out the “possibility of cooperation” in place of the “wasteful, the planless scramble of little profiteers.”

Thus, the forces that destroyed community were potentially forces that could create a new, and vastly better, form of community — but only if they were marshaled and coordinated toward a coherent national purpose. And the coordinator would, of course, have to be a powerful central government. It alone had the reach and strength necessary to tame modernity, and put it into the service of community; as Theodore Roosevelt argued, “the betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, mainly through the National government.”

The national government alone, for instance, could tame the great corporations, through regulatory commissions and laws, and turn them to public use. And a vigorous central government, the progressives argued, could begin to restore the material preconditions for community that had disappeared with small towns. The national government, for instance, was expected to address the growing inequality of wealth, and to reduce it on behalf of national unity. Hence the New Nationalists favored laws such as the progressive income tax and various welfare measures that would begin to restore egalitarian conditions. Lippmann even suggested a “comprehensive, nation-wide system of health, accident, maternity, old age, and unemployment insurance.” The government was also expected to address the growing problem of the heterogeneity of the American population, by more restrictive immigration laws and vigorous programs of “Americanization.” Roosevelt never tired of denouncing “hyphenated Americans,” and suggested that, if immigrants “remain alien elements, unassimilated, and with interests separate from ours, they are mere obstructions to the current of national life.” Finally, the progressives backed a series of political reforms — especially direct presidential primaries — that promised to restore, on a national level, some semblance of the direct democracy that had existed at the local level.

The tremendous expansion of government activities urged by the progressives was made possible largely by the introduction of bureaucratic techniques and scientific management into the public service. As long as the techniques were in the service of a government elected by the new devices of direct democracy, the progressives believed, there would be no conflict between government efficiency and popular rule.

Progressivism, then, relied on a powerful national government to harness the new forces of modernity and to begin to restore some of the preconditions of community. But such institutional and mechanical adjustments addressed only the preconditions of community; they could not by themselves restore those important moral and cultural attributes — public-spiritedness, neighborliness, fraternity, duty, self-sacrifice — that had characterized the small town, and that were, in fact, the essence of community. In order to generate those qualities, according to Croly and others, all government programs and all citizens would have to be pulled together by and infused with “the national idea”; there would have to be a “subordination of the individual to the demand of a dominant and constructive national purpose.” The national idea would inspire “discipline” and “individual subordination and self-denial.” A citizen would begin to “think first of the State and next of himself.” The national idea not only served to inspire public-spiritedness and discipline — it would also recreate the fraternal bond, the fellow-feeling, among citizens. As Croly argued, “the responsibility and loyalty which the citizens of a democratic nation must feel one towards another is comprehensive and unmitigable.” The nation would be bound together by the “religion of human brotherhood,” which “can be realized only through the loving-kindness which individuals feel … particularly toward their fellow countrymen.” Through such feelings, Croly maintained, “the network of mutual loyalties and responsibilities woven in a democratic nation become radiant and expansive.”

The national idea, in short, promised to recreate at the level of the nation the full sense of community, previously thought possible only within the small town. America could restore the “solidarity” and “intuitive homogeneity of feeling” of small town America by the “loyal realization of a comprehensive democratic social ideal,” in Croly’s words. A powerful central government and a compelling national idea would combine to create the great, national community.

A final element was added to complete the progressive vision of national community. The national idea required a spokesman, an embodiment. Herbert Croly hoped for “some democratic evangelist — some imitator of Jesus.” Other progressives settled for the American presidency. The president was central to the progressive idea of national community because he alone possessed a comprehensive view of the nation. As Woodrow Wilson suggested, “the nation as a whole has chosen [the President], and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman. His is the only national voice in affairs.” The President could unite and inspire the people, Wilson maintained, by combining their numerous and often discordant voices into one, coherent voice: the “voices of the nation . . .  unite in his understanding in a single meaning and reveal to him a single vision, so that he can speak . . . the common meaning of the common voice.” The president was to be elected by the new devices of direct democracy, and most of the administrative agencies of the enlarged central government would converge in his office. But he was, above all, the voice of the national idea, the articulator of national purpose, the cultivator of brotherhood and national community.

Some scholars argue that the resplendent progressive dream of national community was shattered by World War I. On the contrary, that was its finest hour. As soon as mobilization became necessary, for instance, the government moved without hesitation to augment its own powers, and to rationalize and coordinate major American industries. Above all, the war moved the “national idea” to the forefront of American consciousness; it appeared to pull Americans together, to inspire discipline and self-sacrifice, and to create a sense of national brotherhood and oneness. The events of 1917-18 introduced American liberalism to what John Dewey described as the “social possibilities of war” — possibilities for forging community that liberalism would never forget. Liberals would thenceforth never stop searching for the “moral equivalent of war,” a kind of war that would energize the national community, without the actual spilling of American blood.

Although the progressive vision faded after 1918, it was only natural that Franklin D. Roosevelt should return to it when he faced the crisis of the great depression. Roosevelt was drawn to the progressive vision, because in his view, the depression was simply another manifestation of the problems of modern industrialism that the progressives had faced — and had left unresolved — at the turn of the century. Roosevelt confronted, as Sam Beer notes, “on the one hand, a great concentration of economic power and, on the other, serious inequities of wealth.” Economic concentration and inequities threatened to fragment America, to dissolve the nation into class warfare. To begin to reunite America, Roosevelt resorted to strong measures from a reinvigorated national government. The National Recovery Administration, for instance, sought to rationalize and coordinate industry, and subordinate it to the public interest. Other measures such as the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act undertook to redress the great imbalance of economic and political power, and to restore the egalitarian conditions upon which community rested.

But the heart of the New Deal was the resurrection of the vision of national community. Roosevelt sought to pull America together in the face of its divisions by an appeal to national duty, discipline, and brotherhood; he aimed to restore the sense of local community, at the national level. Roosevelt once explained the New Deal’s “drastic changes in the methods and forms of the functions of government” by noting that “we have been extending to our national life the old principle of the local community.” Americans, he affirmed, must consider themselves all neighbors: “the many are the neighbors. In a national sense, the many, the neighbors, are the people of the United States as a whole. Nationally, we must think of them as a whole and not just by sections or by states.”

Roosevelt set the tone for the early New Deal in his First Inaugural, when he reached back to the progressive strategy of exploiting the “social possibilities of war.” America, he argued, must “move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.” We must be “ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline,” and pledge that the “larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.”

At the head of the national “army”, in Roosevelt’s understanding, was the American president. He pledged in his Inaugural to “assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.” In Roosevelt’s view, as in Woodrow Wilson’s, the president was the preeminent spokesman for the national idea, and the cultivator of national community.

This vision of the national community would continue to dominate American politics for three decades, and to this day it strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of millions of Americans. As Irving Howe wrote recently, the “lasting contribution of the Roosevelt era” was the “socialization of concern, the vision of society as a community.”

Not the least reason for the enduring appeal of the New Deal public philosophy during this period was the utter poverty of the conservative response to it. Although there were exceptions, conservatives generally fixed their attention on the growing concentrations of power in the state, and fretted that this concentration was disrupting the free market and crushing the individual. Conservativism throughout this period, in other words, was based on a defense of unfettered economic individualism. Albert Jay Nock, for instance, longed for government that “makes no positive interventions whatever on the individual, but only negative interventions in behalf of simple justice”; he hoped for a “regime of actual individualism, actually free competition, actual laissez-faire.” Some conservatives called for a revival of federalism to check the power of the state, but federalism, again, was seen to be primarily a defense of the individual against the state.

Conservatives could not comprehend that in the popular mind, “the State” was considerably more than an uncontrollable monster with a voracious appetite for power. Conservatives did not appreciate the powerful vision of national community that lay behind and gave meaning to “the State.” Indeed, as evidenced in their alternative to the liberal state — a return to laissez-faire individualism — they had no place whatever in their political lexicon for the idea of community. Conservatives could not begin to develop a coherent and comprehensive argument against the New Deal until they comprehended the truth that lay at the heart of the New Deal’s appeal, the truth that “the quest for community will not be denied.” The first sign of such comprehension appeared thirty years ago, in the volume from which that truth is taken, Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community.

Nisbet reflected conservative apprehensions about the growth of state power in the twentieth century — a growth that threatened the freedom of the West, by culminating in the ascendancy of the same sort of totalitarian regimes that had appeared in the East. But Nisbet in Quest goes far beyond the simple association of totalitarianism with the growth of state power. Indeed, Nisbet argued, it was dangerous and misleading to think of totalitarianism as simply the rise of an oppressive state, the sort of thing one had seen in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. To be on guard against totalitarianism’s grave threat to freedom, one had to understand its essence, and its essence, according to Nisbet, was its “fateful combination” of state power with the quest for community. Above all else, Nisbet argued, totalitarianism had developed an enormous appeal in the twentieth century because it promised to satisfy the human need for a “clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status, and community.” It did so through the vision of the “absolute, the total political community” — a tightly-knit, all-encompassing organization within which all citizens have a clearly defined status and purpose, a sense of comradeship and belonging, a sense of oneness with fellow citizens.

To be sure, neither Nisbet in Quest, nor I here, suggest that the New Deal was totalitarian. To say that the New Deal held out a vision of national community is to say nothing about the actual practice of Roosevelt and his predecessors, which was invariably more moderate and practical than their rhetoric. Nonetheless, it is clear that Nisbet intended readers to see the sobering and disturbing parallels between contemporary American political thought and the theory of the total political community. If alerted to those parallels, Americans might begin to create counterweights to the forces and ideas that had, in other nations resulted in totalitarian regimes.

What theoretical counterweight could be posed to the idea of the comprehensive political community? Would laissez-faire individualism — the preferred doctrine of American conservatism at the time — be a useful alternative? Definitely not, according to Nisbet: “It is absurd to suppose that the rhetoric of nineteenth-century individualism will offset present tendencies in the direction of the absolute political community.” Such a supposition was absurd, because it failed to acknowledge the “centrality of the quest for community.” To modern men, individualism meant only loneliness, separateness, and alienation — conditions that the total political community promised to remedy, and that therefore gave it its appeal. Indeed, Nisbet argued, individualism was viewed more properly as the ally, rather than the antagonist, of the political community. Proponents of the total political community understood that a precondition of its popular acceptance was precisely the creation of feelings of alienation and disconnectedness through the propagation of individualism — feelings that would then drive the people into the arms of the state.

Such alienation is a result, Nisbet argued, of “certain profound dislocations in the primary associative areas of society.” These “small, primary, personal relationships, “which include family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary associations, are critical for the individual and society because they “mediate directly between man and his larger world of economic, moral, and political and religious values.” Only within the “small areas of membership and association” can such values and principles be “made meaningful and directive to men.” Such associations not only preserve and cultivate moral and cultural standards within the individual, they also give the individual a sense of status, membership, and belonging. In short, “intermediate associations” are the true source of community, and their decline has produced the alienation and purposelessness that push men toward the total state.

Proponents of a powerful central state understood that the full allegiance of citizens would be transferred to the nation only when all subordinate allegiances and authorities — such as are represented by intermediate associations — are destroyed. The state was the agent, and not the accidental beneficiary, of the decline of associations. The state under- minded associations, Nisbet argued, primarily by absorbing their functions and duties. Associations had always been the primary source of community, because they had been the means by which people had solved critical problems in their lives. “The social problems of birth and death, courtship and marriage, employment and unemployment, infirmity and old age were met, however inadequately at times, through the associated means of those social groups.” But the state had now come to perform many of those functions, and associations had accordingly withered. As Nisbet argued, “deprive [associations] of their distinctive functions through increasing nationalization of services and welfare, divest them of the authority over their members through increasing centralization of political power in society, and those associations, like the extended family, the church, and the local community, must shrink.” The state’s absorption of the practical functions of associations was the precondition for the state’s absorption of allegiances; it insured that the quest for community would be redirected from the association to the central state.

If the destruction of intermediate associations was the principle means by which the total political community augmented itself, then, we can begin to see how we might preserve freedom in the face of the state.

At the conclusion of Quest Nisbet calls for a new philosophy of laissez-faire, which would be aimed not at the creation of “conditions within which autonomous individuals could flourish,” but rather at the creation of “conditions within which autonomous groups could flourish.” The power of the state should be, as much as possible, decentralized and diversified, giving breathing space to such groups. If we could begin to refurbish autonomous groups — the family, church, local community, and voluntary association — individuals would be able to quench their thirst for community, without resort to the central state. The proliferation of autonomous groups would, in turn, serve to curb the power and reach of the state.

But Nisbet’s was a lonely voice, indeed, in 1953. The New Deal vision of national community seemed then never to have had a stronger grip on American consciousness. 1953 marked the inauguration of a Republican administration that had allegedly campaigned against the New Deal, but then, by its actions, seemed to ratify that public philosophy. And America would turn, seven years later, to a young President whose view of America and of the presidency captured perfectly the idea of national community. John F. Kennedy would say of the presidency in 1960 that it “must be the center of moral leadership – a ‘bully pulpit’ . . . for only the President represents the national interest. And upon him alone converge all the needs and aspirations of all parts of the country, all departments of the government, all nations of the world.” Kennedy would argue that we need a president who “is willing and able to summon his national constituency to its finest hour . . . to demand of them the sacrifices that would be necessary.” In his Inaugural Address, Kennedy would hold before the American people the idea of the nation, and demand that they discipline themselves to its needs: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The “Man-on-the-moon” program would be explained in part as a way to pull the nation together in common enterprise: “It will not be one man going to the moon . . . it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.” Finally, Kennedy would be followed by a president who would try to make of America a “Great Society,” in which the “city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” One of the prime instruments for forging this society, according to Lyndon Johnson, would be a declaration of war on poverty, which would require us to “bring to the challenge of peace the same determination and strength which has brought us victory in war.”

In 1953, and for more than a decade afterward, the vision of national community had a firm hold on the American imagination – few concerned themselves, as did Nisbet, with the idea of reinforcing intermediate associations like the family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association, against the spreading power of the state.


  • William A. Schambra

    William A. Schambra is the director of the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. At the time he wrote this article, he was Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...