The GOP and Revitalizing the ‘Voluntary Community’
The key to conservatives becoming relevant again.
November 16, 2012 - 12:00 am
Therefore, conservatives must rethink their idea of community, discovering where traditional associations can be nurtured and maintained, while recognizing that the country has changed and that new approaches to knitting together a cohesive whole out of many disparate parts will have to be tried.
Douthat asks some tough questions:
This is the problem that the Right has confronted not only in the Bush era, but across the past three decades—and it hasn’t been resolved yet. Once the bonds of community have frayed, is it enough to merely withdraw the power of the state, and watch communities reknit themselves? Will the two-parent family revive, for instance, if antipoverty programs are pared away? Are there countless versions of, say, the Mormon Church’s welfare network waiting to spring up, if only the heavy hand of the state relaxes itself? Or is it possible that once community has frayed sufficiently, the state cannot simply withdraw itself without risking disintegration—but must, perforce, play an active role in the revival of civil society, by seeking to reduce the demand for government before it reduces the supply?
Nisbet anticipated these dilemmas, but he did not solve them. He allowed a role for wise administration in the restoration of community, without specifying how large that role should be. “What we need at the present time,” he wrote in the closing pages of The Quest for Community, “is the knowledge and administrative skill to create a laissez faire in which the basic unit will be the group.” But the specifics of what this meant were left—appropriately, if frustratingly—to policymakers to explore.
There is no road map we can follow, no sign posts to guide our way. But first things first: recognizing there is a problem in the way conservatives define community and that change is necessary in order to stop the collectivization of America should be the primal thrust of any ongoing effort on the right dedicated to making conservatism relevant again.
How then, to proceed? Schambra offers some advice:
Resistance to the Progressives’ assault on community has spurred powerful reactions against liberal programs for nearly a century. Given the current direction of public policy, we are likely to see more such reactions in the coming years. But to be effective, both politically and practically, this resistance must be informed by its own compelling vision of community — something conservatives have too often failed to provide.
When conservatives talk of community, they tend to call upon revered intellectual figures: Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Russell Kirk, or Robert Nisbet. To be sure, these are all important sources of instruction. But as our challenge now is to first harness opposition to a Progressive vision of community, conservatives must pay careful attention to those who, in our present day, are disaffected by this vision. We must meet them where they live and work; we must appeal to them in terms that speak to their concerns and their priorities; and we must appreciate the contributions they can make to conservative thought and social policy — even, and especially, in ways we might not expect.
Is immigration reform the most important issue facing most Hispanics? Obviously not. Their concerns are the same concerns of most conservatives: our livelihood, our personal economy, and family. Is this not a reflection of Kirk’s “voluntary community”? And don’t those concerns intrinsically reject the “national community” beloved of liberals?
But a drowning man will reach for any lifeline, even if it’s from a pirate ship. The collectivist nature of the national community may be odorous to many in Obama’s coalition, but conservatives have failed in making it obvious that minorities, gays, women, and the young would all be comfortable in our vision of the voluntary community. These shared values should be what’s most important, not the right’s stand on gay marriage or abortion.
What the voluntary community offers is unity. The national community actually functions best in division where politics cleaves people into identifiable groups based on race, sex, sexual orientation, class, and age. This is a feature, not a bug. Addressing the needs of the national community fairly can only be done if everyone gets an approximately similar slice of the pie. This can only be accomplished when divisions are exploited in order to recognize specific groups of recipients.
With unity must come a recognition that there has to be a voluntary surrender of some individual rights at times for the good of the community. Those who call themselves “rugged individualists” and believe the community has no hold on them must rethink that notion. Obama was rightly pilloried for telling the entrepreneur “you didn’t build that.” He said it in the context of compulsory taxation for the “rich” — the collectivist impulse to redistribute property.
But lost in the criticism was a small but significant point: voluntarily relinquishing some individual freedoms to the community is necessary for the cohesion of the whole as well as for the prosperity of the businessman. No one should be a law unto themselves and few on the right would go so far in their dedication to individualism. But to live and thrive in a community implies sacrificing for the greater good. Not the forced altruism and collectivism found in the national community, but what Kirk refers to as “community… stand[ing] at the antipodes from collectivism”:
Community is voluntary and diverse; collectivism, enforced in uniform. Community grows up from love; collectivism lives upon compulsion. A truly liberal society, whatever the 20th–century liberals say, is the fine growth of the voluntary cooperation of a great many men and women, working through there several free associations and orders in society—through their church, their local government, their guild or professional group, their club, their fraternity. When these voluntary organizations expire, then real freedom and representative government perish, and the ‘liberalism’ which survives, in Lord Acton’s phrase, is ‘fit for slaves.’”
Can a community based on love, voluntary association, and real diversity compete with the vision of a compulsory “national community” enunciated by Barack Obama and the rest of the left?