Conservatives are getting plenty of advice from both friend and foe alike on how to navigate the new electoral waters that have arisen as a result of Barack Obama’s back-to-back election victories. It’s demographics, say some. Others think that embracing issues prized by Hispanics, women, and youth will make the right more politically competitive.
But if the key to conservatives becoming relevant again is to be found in changing their positions or tweaking their message when it comes to immigration, abortion, or gay marriage, few on the right would accept such advice. And indeed, they shouldn’t. Embracing amnesty will not make Hispanics more Republican any more than taking the anti-abortion plank out of the party platform will cause more women to vote for the GOP.
The reason is that these “fixes” are superficial — rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The real problem conservatives have goes to the very heart of what America is and must continue to be if our most precious principles and values are to be saved.
At its most basic, America is about community. But the conservative definition of community no longer resonates with the growing numbers of Americans who traditionally were banned from joining and participating in that community. Indeed, minorities, many women, gays, and young people had little use for the kind of community described by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in their speeches. That’s because the modern state has twisted the very nature of what community should be, substituting an entirely new — and alien — definition for the traditional notion that community should be “governed by love and charity, not by compulsion,” as Russell Kirk put it.
In fact, as William Schambra points out in an article in National Affairs, like everything else in modern American society, that state has appropriated the notion of community for its own ends:
The age of Obama has been an age of revival for the Progressive ideal of a “national community.” It is a vision rooted in two core beliefs: that direct, local associations and channels of action are too often overwhelmed by the differences among communities and the fractious character of American public life; and that rather than strengthening the sources of these differences, modern government should seek to overcome them in the service of a coherent national ambition. By distributing the same benefits, protections, and services to all Americans, fellow feeling and neighborliness can be fostered among the public; combined with the power of the national government and professional expertise, this communal sentiment can then become a valuable weapon for attacking America’s most pressing social problems.
Contrast this “community by compulsion” with Russell Kirk’s “voluntary community”:
In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger. Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.
Conservatives believe that by shrinking government, by taming the Leviathan, the voluntary community can reassert itself and sweep away the collectivist nature of modern society — that we can return to an idyllic past where local communities governed themselves, individual rights rarely conflicted with the needs of the community, and the need for a big government in Washington was lessened considerably.
But for blacks, Hispanics, gays, and other minorities (who gave more than 70% of their vote to Barack Obama), this is a nightmare scenario. It was just these kinds of “voluntary communities” that denied their basic freedoms and caused Washington to step in and guarantee their constitutional rights. It didn’t take much hinting from the Obama campaign that this, in fact, was the goal of Republicans: disenfranchise blacks and Hispanics, put gays back in the closet, force women back in the kitchen, and deny worthy young people a chance to go to college. Having been nurtured in the “national community,” those who suffered as a result of a disproportionate emphasis on protecting individual rights naturally look upon the conservative definition of “community” with a jaundiced eye.
But there is a price to pay for membership in the new national community: one must deliver up his soul in order to belong. The communitarian impulse in a national community subsumes individualism and individual rights, as the needs of society outweigh the rights of its members. But the yearning for community, even in totalitarian societies, will cause individuals to give up a lot in order to belong. Robert Nisbet wrote, “The extraordinary accomplishments of totalitarianism in the twentieth century would be inexplicable were it not for the immense, burning appeal it exerts upon masses of individuals who have lost, or had taken away, their accustomed roots of membership and belief.”
Nisbet’s 1953 classic The Quest for Community anticipated and described the “national community” beloved of the left while tracing the history of community through the ages. On the occasion of a new, critical edition of Nisbet’s book published by ISI, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in the introduction:
Worse still, since Obama’s elevation to the presidency, America seems once more divided between “the party of the state” and “the party of the individual.” Conservatives are cracking open Atlas Shrugged and shouting about socialism, but they seem to have lost the appetite for thinking through the problem of community in an individualistic age—which is, of course, precisely the problem that make socialism so appealing in the first place.
The state as “protector” and guarantor of minority rights in a national community is what attracts Hispanics, blacks, gays, and those who believe their right to contraception, abortion, and a college education would come under attack if Republicans gained power. We can critique this worldview by trying to dismiss these concerns as unwarranted or even specious, but that only alienates the Obama supporters further.
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?