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

The vision of national community — the progressive/New Deal concept of the nation as small town or family — held sway over American politics for many years after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932. This changed dramatically in the course of the 60s and 70s, however. The central themes of the turbulence and unrest of that period were disillusionment with this vision — the realization that it could not, after all, satisfy the need for purpose, membership, and status — and a growing realization that community was available only in “intermediate associations,” or in small groups that were constructed to resemble those associations.

Consider, for instance, the New Left. It grew up in part as an offshoot of the Civil Rights movement; the profoundly disturbing message of that movement was that for a significant minority of Americans, the dream of national community had been denied, because they had not been integrated into that community. Anti-war sentiment also fueled the New Left: the war seemed to teach the New Left that the powerful presidential office could not only be the voice of the national community — it could also commit us to a distant war, in a fruitless affirmation of the national idea.

But these disturbing omissions and commissions of the national community only prepared the way for the truly radical argument of the New Left that the very notion of national community was an illusion. The New Deal public philosophy had constructed a powerful central government as an expression and reinforcement of the idea of national community; to the New Left, this central government appeared only as a distant, bureaucratic monster, utterly bereft of the qualities of community. America had not been pulled together into a tightly knit “Great Society” — instead, “loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today,” as the Port Huron Statement noted in 1962. Even the vast new welfare programs that allegedly reflected our mutual commitment as members of a single great nation came to be denounced as instruments of the “warfare-welfare state,” as devices to keep the poor quiet and to insure their subservience to the state.

The alternative to the central state, the New Left claimed, was “participatory democracy.” Although only vaguely formulated, the idea seemed to be that political, social and economic power should be developed to small, local groups. Within such groups, equality and full domestic participation would be restored. Above all, the purpose of participatory democracy was precisely the restoration of the sense of community that had been promised by the New Deal: “politics,” proclaimed the Port Huron Statement, “should have the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community.” The proliferation of communes during the 60s and 70s gave expression to this new vision of community to be attained within small, local groups.

The 60s and 70s also saw the “rise of the unmeltable ethnics.” Its message was, again, that the idea of national community was illusory or oppressive, and that true community was to be found within the “intermediate associations” of revitalized ethnic groups and neighborhoods. The first manifestation of the new ethnic consciousness was the “Black Power” or Black Nationalist movement: its argument was that Blacks should not seek integration or absorption into the larger, white national community, but rather that they should seek to preserve the peculiar virtues of the Black race — above all, its sense of oneness of community — by a certain distance from the white race.

The larger and politically more enduring manifestation of the new ethnicity was, however, a growing self-awareness and self-assertiveness among the descendants of immigrants from Southern and eastern Europe; Michael Novak gave voice to this new awareness in The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. That awareness was, in part, a reaction against the old progressive doctrine that all peoples coming to America must be forced to accept the values and standards of a single homogeneous national community. The “new ethnics,” possessed a strong sense of family, neighborhood, and ethnic group. That instinct, Novak argued, could lead to a new kind of politics for America: “a turn toward the organic networks of communal life . . . family, ethnic group, and voluntary association in primary groups . . . If I were to invent a political program for the future, particularly for the poor and the lower-middle class, I would center its social focus on family and neighborhood.”

The movements of the 60s and 70s made clear that the idea of national community could not be sustained. Americans had tired of the exhortations to come together in the face of a common enemy, domestic or foreign; they had grown weary of and cynical’ about presidential calls for public-spiritedness and self-sacrifice on behalf of the national idea. What was left in the wake of the decline of national community was, on one side, a seemingly remote, impersonal, oppressive bureaucratic state headed by an “imperial President,” and on the other, lonely, estranged, alienated individuals. The New Left and the new ethnic consciousness implied that the way to address this problem was a return to Robert Nisbet’s intermediate associations. (See “The Quest for Community and the New Public Philosophy: Part I”, C in C, April 1984.) Those associations were, it seemed, the only true source of community after all.

The federal government throughout this period sought to check the erosion of community in America by certain institutional mechanisms — among them, community action programs, revenue sharing, and other measures of decentralization — that allegedly began to return power to the states, cities, and local groups. That government, however, never truly relinquished the goal of national community, or the reality of centralized power; its more characteristic response to the erosion of community during this period was the effort to shore up the idea of national unity, by resort to the techniques that had served Roosevelt and other presidents so well over the years. The classic example of this effort came toward the end of this period, with Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech. The problem facing America, Carter maintained, was the “growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and . . . the loss of unity for our Nation.” American citizens felt increasingly disconnected and alienated, and, when they “turned to the Federal Government” they found it “isolated from the mainstream of our Nation’s life.” Carter’s solution to the problem was the well-worn New Deal technique for forgoing community consciousness, the moral equivalent of war — in this case, the war on the energy problem. “On the battlefield of energy, we can win for our Nation a new confidence, and we can seize control of our common destiny.” The solution to the energy, crisis, Carter suggested, “can help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit of our country. It can rekindle our sense of unity . . . and give our Nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.”

The widespread cynicism that greeted Carter’s speech was an indication of the low estate into which the national idea had sunk by the end of the 70s. The New Deal vision of national community had been profoundly shaken by the developments of the 60s and 70s. As the federal government sought desperately to deal with the erosion of its authority, in other quarters the search was underway for methods by which intermediate associations might be reinvigorated, so that the quest for community — no longer answered by the New Deal — might be satisfied.


The search for methods of reinvigoration returned to one of the central points of Nisbet’s The Quest for Community. If, as Nisbet argued, associations and the sense of community “thrive on self-help,” then the most promising technique for reinvigorating intermediate associations seemed to be to halt the erosion of their authority, and perhaps even to restore authority to them. To be communities, associations must begin again to assume some responsibility for solving important social problems. And this was the strategy that Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus began to explore in To Empower People (1977).

Berger and Neuhaus launched their inquiry in the wake of the decline of the idea of national community. As they note in their volume, American politics had come to be marked by a “strong animus against government, bureaucracy, and bigness as such.” This mood was not irrational, they suggested, because recent experience validated complaints about “impersonality, unresponsiveness and excessive interference.” Citizens were increasingly burdened by a sense of “the anomic precariousness of individual existence in isolation from society” and a sense of “alienation [from] the public order.”

We might begin to close the gap between impersonal government and allienated individual, the two authors suggested, if we could, in our public policies, begin to acknowledge the authority of those “institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the larger institutions of public life.” Berger and Neuhaus called those institutions “mediating structures,” and they included in that category “neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary association.” As they understood, the concept of mediating structures had “been around for a long time;” what they were adding to the idea was “the systematic effort to translate it into specific public policies.” If mediating structures were re-empowered — were given a place in the formation and execution of public policy — then citizens would once again be drawn into associations to solve commom problems. The threat of individual alienation and impotence would be alleviated, because men would once again be members of vital communities performing critical functions for the individual.

At a minimum, Berger and Neuhaus argued, public policy should seek to “protect and foster mediating structures”; at a maximum, public policy might even “utilize mediating structures for the realization of social purposes.” To Empower People suggested a number of strategies that fit such standards: the encouragement of urban homesteading; the alteration of tax regulations to encourage home improvements; the use of informal neighborhood “law enforcement agents” to fight crime; the introduction of education and day-care center vouchers; measures to encourage care of the handicapped in the home rather than in institutions; deemphasis of professional accreditation in social services; and the use of foster homes and halfway houses in the treatment and prevention of drug addiction, juvenile delinquency, and mental illness.

This was an important insight, for if the idea of intermediate associations were to have a chance of becoming a new public philosophy, it would have to issue in precisely such a practical political program, just as the New Deal vision of national community had once inspired the vast range of programs of a powerful central government.


The idea of intermediate associations needed make more than a practical program, though; it also needed a powerful political spokesman, if it were to move into the vacuum left by the decline of The New Deal public philosophy. Millions of Americans in the 70s longed for a leader that would speak to them, not of national community, nor of rugged individualism, but rather of family, neighborhood, and voluntary association. They wanted a spokesman for, and programs to protect and empower, the intermediate associations that alone satisfied their quest for community.

They ultimately found such a spokesman in Ronald Reagan.

Governor Reagan of California had a reputation as an ultraconservative, and indeed, in many of his utterances about the perils of the central state and the need to protect the free market and free individualism from its encroachment, he fit that description. At the same time, however, he spoke a different language — the new language of intermediate associations. This language appeared in many of his early speeches, but nowhere more clearly than in an ad-dress delivered in 1976 to the Executive Club of Chicago. This address was intended to establish the basic themes for his 1976 presidential campaign and it became, according to Peter Hannaford, a “remarkably accurate preview of . . President Reagan’s agenda” after his election in 1980. At the heart of the speech was Reagan’s call for “an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale, a scale that human beings can understand and cope with; the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church organization, the block club, the farm bureau.” This return was necessary because “activity on a small, human scale crates the fabric of community . . . the human scale nurtures standards of right behavior, a prevailing ethic of what is right and what is wrong, acceptable and unacceptable.” Reagan’s call for a return to the “human scale” was an argument for intermediate associations, within which the quest for com-munity might be satisfied.

The “human scale” had been endangered by the growth of central government and its intrusions into society, according to Reagan: “Thousands of towns and neighborhoods have seen their peace disturbed by bureaucrats and social planners through busing, questionable education programs, and attacks on family unity … States and local communities [had] been demeaned into little more than administrative districts, bureaucratic subdivisions of . . . government in Washington, with programs, spending priorities, and tax policies badly warped by federal measures.” The way to begin the return to the human scale was to “reverse the flow of power to Washington.” It would not be sufficient to “try to make [government] more efficient or ‘responsive’ “; what was needed was “nothing less than a systematic transfer of authority and resources to the states — a program of creative federalism for America’s third century.

This was not the federalism that Republicans had sup-ported in the past, as a defense of the individual against the state. Nor was it a federalism that tried to appease localist sentiments, by decentralizing administration of programs that were nonetheless still designed and run by Washington. Reagan’s federalism was intended, rather, to be a genuine restoration of the ability of states and localities to make crucial decisions about the social problems before them. This would serve to rehabilitate the authority of “human scale” intermediate associations like the family, church, neighborhood, and voluntary groups. They would become true communities again, able to meet the needs of, and provide direction and purpose for, their citizens.

The theme of empowering intermediate associations played a central role in the election of 1980. The Republican platform that year was organized around five concepts: family, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom. Not by accident were intermediate associations assigned the first two places. The preamble to the platform noted that the party still stood for “a defense of the individual against the state,” but, the preamble continued, it was now time for political debate to “transcend the narrow terms of government and the individual . . our society consists of more than that; so should the political debate. We will reemphasize those vital communities like the family, the neighborhood, the workplace, and others which are found at the center of society, between government and the individual.” In his acceptance of the nomination for President, Reagan pledged to build a “new consensus with all those who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom;” he called for a restoration of the “American spirit of voluntary service, of cooperation, of private and community initiative.”

The election of 1980 brought to office the first President in fifty years who spoke not of the great national community, but of the sort of community to be found in intermediate associations. Reagan held before the nation not a vision of national oneness, but a vision of an “orderly, compassionate, pluralistic society — an archipelago of prospering communities and divergent institutions.”


This is not to say that the idea of intermediate associations has become the new public philosophy, nor to suggest that the idea of the great national community has been altogether forgotten. Indeed, the national community seems to have found a vigorous spokesman in a leading candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Walter Mon- dale. As Mondale noted in a speech to the California Democratic Conference in January 1983, “we need . . . a community again. There’s nothing more basic to the principles of America than that we are in this country and in this society together. We belong to one another. We hold common interests. We share common burdens. When times are tough, it isn’t easy for us to sense that kinship. But that is what a president is all about.” We find in Mondale a classic statement of the New Deal idea of national community — one that is pulled together by the powerful moral leadership of the president.

Nonetheless, there is among Democrats as well as among Republicans, on the left as well as on the right, a growing appreciation of the centrality of intermediate associations in any future public philosophy. The family, for instance, has made a remarkable comeback among liberal theorists. Only ten years ago, the left was arguing that “the institution of the family is inherently reactionary and … oppressive to its members,” as a feminist newsletter, Women and Revolution, put it. Today, Jean Bethke Elshtain argues in Dissent magazine that “feminists, until recently, were too little concerned with the impact of social change on whole families. Social feminism of the sort I propose places children in the center of its concern — children surrounded, as they need to be, by parents or their permanent, not temporary, substitutes.” Elshtain suggests that the left must find an important place in its doctrine for the family, because “most American citizens see themselves, first and foremost, as family men and women and members of communities, and much of their energy is devoted to keeping those families and communities alive.” Nathan Glazer noted in 1978 that Christopher Lasch’s new book on the family, Haven in a Heartless World, presented a defense of the “patriarchal and authoritarian family in terms that might embarrass a conference of Catholic bishops.”

The left is also rediscovering the value of local community. Harry Boyte, in Backyard Revolution, argues that small communities “represent an old American practice of cooperative group action by ordinary citizens motivated by . . . civic idealism.” Such groups “seek some kind of democratization of power relations — the greater involvement of ordinary people in decisions affecting their lives.” Boyte criticizes the left for too often being an “accomplice to government intervention in the name of abstract progressive principles — urban planning, integration through busing . . . and many others — in a way that ignores the intervention’s impact on living communities.”

Even the value of voluntarism as a way of resurrecting community is now becoming apparent to the left. Kathleen Townsend Kennedy, is a recent Washington Monthly article, complained that “liberals clearly have let the conservatives steal the cause of voluntarism for their own partisan purposes,” and she urged her colleagues to understand that “voluntarism can become the catalyst for creating a society characterized by both compassion and community.” Betty Friedan, in The Second Stage, called for a “new passionate voluntarism” that will revive a “uniquely American strength and female tradition.”

The growing attention given to intermediate associations suggests that sooner or later, we will have a new public philosophy centering about such associations. There are, to be sure, profound differences in the way right and left would approach the development of such a public philosophy. The left sees intermediate associations as a revolutionary force — as a way to transform capitalist society. Boyte, for example, hopes for a “rediscovery of the insurgent dimensions to traditions and institutions,” and Elshtain’s family “incorporates values that implicitly challenge corporate power and anti-democratic, managerial elites.”

The right, on the other hand, foresees some sort of coexistence between capitalism, or the “economic sphere,” and intermediate associations, or the “moral-cultural sphere.” According to this formulation, the spirit of community fostered in intermediate associations would temper and moderate — but would not, as the left has it, displace altogether — capitalism’s individualism and acquisition of wealth.

These contrasting approaches should suggest to partisans of democratic capitalism that now is the time to begin seriously addressing the question of a new public philosophy based on intermediate associations. Conservatism must resist the temptation to revert to a simple-minded defense of capitalist individualism. Should they so revert, then, as we have seen, others less friendly to capitalism will cheerfully assume the initiative.

What is needed to begin addressing that question is not primarily an effort to develop specific new programs involving mediating structures — although that work must, of course, continue. After a decade of policy research in this area, we now know enough to say that there are a number of such programs that will work, or that are at least sufficiently promising to try out. What is needed even more now is a clear explanation of the ideas behind intermediate associations — a forceful articulation of the possible new public philosophy.

A first step in this articulation is a clear statement of the problem that it seeks to address: the breakdown of community. The erosion of community within intermediate associations has manifested itself over the twentieth century in individual alienation, disconnectedness, and self-absorption, and it has created or contributed substantially to many of our most troubling social problems, such as crime, delinquency, drug abuse, and the persistence of poverty. The erosion of intermediate associations is partially attributable, as the progressive argued, to modern forces such as industrialization and urbanization. But it is also attributable to the growth of the central state and its absorption of the functions of intermediate associations.

This was neither inevitable, nor the result of an insidious plot. If followed from a promise held out by the central state: the promise of the restoration of community, at the national level. The dream of the great national community gave moral sanction to the tremendous expansion of government programs from the New Deal through the 60s. The failure of the dream in the 60s and 70s — the realization that community was not possible, after all, at the national level — is the immediate cause of the crisis of community that we face today. On the one hand, we see a vast structure of government programs that no longer seem to serve a collective moral purpose — only the purposes of entrenched special interests. On the other hand, we have alienated, frustrated citizens, to whom government seems remote, bureaucratic and impersonal. In short, we no longer have, or seriously hope for, a national community.

The new public philosophy seeks to respond to this crisis by an effort to restore community, but now within the intermediate associations. To accomplish that, the absorption of functions by the state must be stopped and reversed. Intermediate associations will become true communities again only when they perform vital services for people, for people come together in associative communities not simply to be together, but to solve problems that cannot be solved otherwise.

This is, perhaps, the most difficult phase of the argument for conservatives to make, because the goal of building community has for so long been associated with the left. Conservatives have often argued for the return of functions to states, local communities, and voluntary associations, but they have usually done so because this will preserve individual liberty, or because it will reduce federal expenditures and balance the budget, or because services will be provided more efficiently at the local rather than at the federal level. Such happy results may or may not follow from the return of functions; at any rate, they should be secondary considerations. The primary consideration should be that the return of functions is necessary to begin to restore the sense of community within intermediate associations. The new public philosophy will be something of an anomaly in recent times: a conservative doctrine of community.

This public philosophy obviously offers a vision of America very different from the one suggested by the New Deal. Instead of one vast community of citizens, bound together in public-spirited devotion to the state and to each other as national brothers — a beautiful but impossible dream — there is rather the vision of a great collection of communities. Those communities would have renewed authority to satisfy the needs, to shape the moral standards, and to impart meaning to the lives of individuals within them. Freedom is preserved by the friction among those groups, by their competition for allegiance — and by the fact that the state is no longer likely to become the sole arbiter of morality and imparter of purpose for its citizens. We are, of course, still one nation in certain critical respects — in foreign affairs, in regulation and encouragement of commerce, and in the guarantee of equal rights for all citizens. But the vision of America now offered is not of one national community, but of a nation of communities.

The clear articulation of the new public philosophy of intermediate associations is an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. It is easy to see, to understand, the idea of a single, great national community, bound together by powerful, centralized programs, and widespread, public-spirited devotion to the national idea. That is a simple, direct, appealing notion. It is by no means so easy to understand the concept of a nation composed of many communities. This is a confusing and complex concept, because we cannot reduce the many particular communities to a single abstract idea. To describe the concept adequately, we are forced into a new way of thinking about politics — or, perhaps, a way of thinking about politics as old as Aristotle. At any rate, we are compelled by the failure of the New Deal public philosophy to articulate this new idea, because it remains as true today as when Robert Nisbet wrote it in 1953 that the “quest for community will not be denied.”


  • 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.

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