Among the many criticisms regularly directed at Hillary Clinton, the perception that her life, her career, and now her march to the White House has been focused, scripted, and controlled to a discomforting degree is one of the most common. She lacks the genius and the foolishness, the expansive generosity and the destructive self-indulgence of her husband, many say. In contrast to Bill, Hillary is depicted in a perfectly calibrated, perfectly adaptable, perfectly predictable political gray. There is some truth to this portrait, as Clinton herself has admitted on the stump. Still, despite the surprising strength of Bernie Sanders’s challenge to her during the primaries, the damaging FBI probe into her private email server, and her continuing deep unpopularity with large parts of the electorate, Clinton apparently sees little need for introspection and little reason for going off script. And she’s probably not wrong to think that way. She’s qualified, she’s experienced, she’s a known quantity—all things that her opponent Donald Trump is not.
So why should she rethink her technocratic, hawkish, statist, moderately progressive liberalism? Close to 25 percent of voters basically agree with her on all the major issues, and more than another 35 percent are moderate enough to find Trump appalling in comparison to her. So she’ll keep appealing to the core constituencies of the Democratic Party, keep assuring moderates that America’s place in the global economic and military order will not be challenged by her presidency, stay focused on November 2016, and avoid all surprises.
Twenty years ago, when Bill Clinton ran for re-election against Bob Dole, the outcome didn’t turn out to be much of a surprise either. As Time magazine put it a week before the election: “It’s not much of a contest, but it is a choice.” But the similarities largely stop there. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is taking place at a profoundly different moment. Deep concerns over the ongoing threat of global terrorism and the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis have replaced the—arguably naïve—squabbles that dominated the often superficial world of the mid-1990s: fights over violent Hollywood movies and video games, over O. J. Simpson’s guilt, over whether Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern and the whole new, overheated media world of CNN and talk radio were going to destroy American democracy. We may look back with amusement at all that handwringing, but those frequently abstract and apolitical distractions included serious reflections regarding what America in that (mostly) rich and victorious post–Cold War moment ought to be all about.
Cultural criticism that looked inward, thinking through the nature and future of the American community, thrived during that brief moment. Clinton herself, in 1996, made a major contribution to it with her most-remembered book: It Takes a Village, and Other Lessons Children Teach Us. The worries and perspectives of the era that produced that book and the arguments featured within it are mostly absent from the Clinton campaign of 2016. Not that she has run away from the book or its general sentiments; on the contrary, she explicitly referenced it in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. “None of us can raise a family, build a business, heal a community, or lift a country totally alone,” she reminded us. But reducing a set of ideas that once apparently engaged her (and many others) at length to a simple invocation of the Democrats as “the party of people working together” leaves a great deal unsaid. As Clinton’s march toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue continues, it’s worth looking back at that book and its milieu, to consider more deeply ideas that she and many voters don’t seem to think are worth arguing over any longer—but that still demand a place in our national understanding all the same.
Those ideas, worries, concerns, and perspectives actually all share a label, one Clinton never used directly in It Takes a Village: “communitarianism.” In the mid-1990s that concept and label—along with variations on it, like “civic republicanism” or “third-way politics”—were riding high, or at least as high as any broadly applicable yet intellectually coherent ideological movement ever rides in the United States. In 1995 and 1996 bookstores and op-ed pages were filled with writings that employed explicitly communitarian rhetoric and questions. Probably the single most influential academic article on communitarian themes during the 1990s, Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” was published in 1995. (He would go on to expand the article into a much-discussed book of the same title.) Probably the most significant book published by the scholar most thoroughly associated with communitarianism—Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent—was published in 1996. But that just scratches the surface. There were also Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Democracy on Trial, Daniel Kemmis’s The Good City and the Good Life, and the writings of communitarianism’s cheerleader-in-chief, sociologist Amitai Etzioni. Clinton’s It Takes a Village was right in that mix, even if it sold far more copies than all the aforementioned books put together.
The heart of the communitarian argument was essentially a revival and embrace of the moral anthropology of classical republicanism. Communitarians argued that our full development as social creatures, fellow citizens, and simply human beings depends on cultivating civic virtues and an understanding of responsible freedom that individualism often undermines. Thus, forms of economy, government, and personal behavior that give primary (or at least equal) consideration to community identity, integrity, and participation ought to be pursued. In other words, communitarianism began with the res publica. (You could use other languages to articulate these concerns, of course: Catholic writers influenced by communitarian principles, like Mary Ann Glendon and David Hollenbach, often suggested that it really began with St. Paul’s description of the Body of Christ.) Very simply—no doubt too simply—the popular argument of the 1990s went basically like this: If you saw the point of freedom as the achievement of opportunities for independent choice, you were some kind of philosophical and political liberal; but if you saw the point of freedom as the ability to contribute to, or deliberate about, the common good, then you must be some kind of communitarian.
PUTTING IT IN THOSE terms might suggest why whatever traction communitarian arguments seemed to be gaining twenty years ago didn’t appear to last. The 1990s were—despite all the aforementioned critiques—all about the celebration and empowerment of individuality, after all. The spread of the internet, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the state socialist parties that were aligned with its cause, the simultaneous explosion of both globalization and irredentism (famously diagnosed by a fellow-traveler of communitarianism, Benjamin Barber, in Jihad vs. McWorld, also published in 1995) all contributed to this. Liberal marketplaces were on the march, and the Moral Majority was beginning to fall apart. So obviously the language of communitarianism—collective responsibilities, not individual rights!—was going to be smothered by the dot-com boom and lost amid the wreckage of the Religious Right’s crack-up, right?
Well, perhaps. But then again, that very celebration of choice almost certainly added to the vague discontent so many felt throughout the 1990s. Ehrenhalt, at least, took very seriously the possibility that, while those in the driver’s seat of American culture and politics twenty years ago wouldn’t figure out where they’d gone wrong or gone too far, their children might. They would respond, he suspected, to the expanding discontent around them by rediscovering the value of the authority, the structure, the narratives, and, most crucially, the limits that healthy communities provide. He concluded The Lost City with a hunch:
[The rising generation] will come to adulthood in the early years of the next century with an entirely different set of childhood and adolescent memories from the ones their parents absorbed. They will remember being bombarded with choices, and the ideology of choice as a good in itself; living in transient neighborhoods and broken and recombinant families where no arrangement could be treated as permanent; having parents who feared to impose rules because rules might stifle their freedom and individuality. Will a generation raised that way be tempted to move, in its early adult years, toward a reimposition of order and stability, even at the risk of losing some of the choice and personal freedom its parents worshipped?
It might be easy to look at an American generation supposedly addicted to selfies and mobile apps and dismiss Ehrenhalt’s predictions. Still, perhaps allowances should be made. The young adults I have come to know as a college professor over the past fifteen years—the famous Millennial generation—emerged from their adolescence, journeyed through their universities and apprenticeships, married and began their families (or pointedly chose not to), and started their adult working lives all in the midst of two huge developments that couldn’t be more different from the drifting, distracting years of 1995 and 1996: the War on Terror and the Great Recession.
The social, political, and cultural consequences of those transformative events are many and diverse, but there are areas of overlap. Both privileged global narratives (abetted by increasingly global technologies). The constantly implied message conveyed by the angst and arguments both these developments provoked was that the primary community one was part of, the community that most threatened one’s choices or preferences, was a global one—which is to say, a community only in the most attenuated sense of the word. Think of the categories so often deployed over the past decade and a half: the United States vs. worldwide terror, Bush vs. the UN, Obama vs. the Tea Party, Red America vs. Blue America, Christians vs. Muslims, the West vs. the Rest. (The apocalyptic rhetoric that Donald Trump has both personally benefited from as well as inspired in his opponents is a partial continuation of the same tendency.)
If the money-making exuberance, talk-radio squalor, and occasional aimlessness of America in the 1990s was partly what made it a little easier for people to consider a more communal and civic way of conceiving the political stakes around them, then presumably the increasingly ideological intensity of recent years helped push such reflections to the back burner. The fact that too many communitarian thinkers—Barber, Etzioni, and Elshtain stand out in particular—went along with this, perversely ramping up their discussion of the res publica to world-historical and international levels, didn’t help their cause.
And yet, if the hollowness of the 1990s opened up a space for one kind of communitarian moment, perhaps the bewilderment of today is the occasion for another, different kind. To take one example: It’s too easy to assume that the unfolding of individual rights in regards to sexual morality in America has proceeded without any kind of attention to social responsibility, civic respect, and permanence. The whole story of how it is that America’s political and legal culture went from the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 to Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 will no doubt be told and retold many times from many different perspectives. But surely there must be at least some significance to the fact that, out of all the assaults upon this country’s default cultural understandings about sexual behavior, the one that generated the greatest Sturm und Drang—at least since the end of anti-miscegenation laws during the Civil Rights era—was not divorce or polyamory, but rather a push for marriage: a push that ultimately invokes ideas of sexual commitment and limits, not liberation. Despite reasons to be troubled by the sexual world that liberal individualism’s apotheosis helped usher in, the reality is that most twenty- or thirty-something Americans today do not appear to have thrown off the idea of this most intimate kind of belonging, but rather to have embraced—in an admittedly new way—the cause, the right, and the properness of marriage.
It is interesting to note how much Clinton, whose career in politics has been so thoroughly entwined with expectations and condemnations particular to matters of marriage, motherhood, and gender roles, presented herself twenty years ago as struggling through this same evolution. Not that she addressed it specifically; the few comments about the lives of gay and lesbian Americans in It Takes a Village are entirely nonpolitical. But ultimately one cannot read Clinton’s book today without connecting the positions she hesitatingly laid out there with transformations of the American community that are now broadly accepted. Which prompts another question: Why, then, has Clinton, along with many of her strongest supporters, left this communitarian perspective aside?
Partly, to be sure, because much of the perspective she offers in that book sounds downright conservative. From the start of It Takes a Village, one can’t help being struck by Clinton’s traditionalism. Using language clearly borrowed directly from Putnam and other communitarian and civic republican writers (though never with any direct citation), she framed her arguments around a recognition of the dependency of a democratic community—as well as a healthy environment for child-raising—upon stable moral traditions and civic involvement. To this was joined her own obvious sympathy for the more civically involved and family-ordered world of her youth in the 1940s and ’50s. The results are sometimes surprising: in her book Clinton speaks unambiguously against no-fault divorce and the casual glorification of sex and violence in music and mass media. (She praised both former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett and Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center on these points.) Clinton also clearly favored abstinence-promoting education and mandatory school uniforms.
Clinton’s expression of these concerns, however, was almost always conveyed in terms of families managing themselves and even thriving in the midst of the cultural and economic transitions that capitalism and individual choice make inevitable. That is, in It Takes a Village Clinton was certain that community and family are essential to a truly rewarding childhood, but she wasn’t calling for the American economy or society to be radically restructured around prioritizing them. Instead, she seemed committed to the idea of government employing what some contemporary writers call “structured paternalism” to conserve those traditional realities. This was a very liberal form of communitarianism.
Her approach remains consistent throughout the book. For Clinton, the community on which individuals, particularly children, depend is far more threatened by bad corporate actors than by bad cultural developments, and more in need of trained, organized, expert assistance than almost anything else. For example, she favored providing resources to parents “scouting out child care” options, for assuring “basic safety requirements” and the “training of child care workers” at day-care centers, for checking children for “proof of immunization” in public schools, and for fighting the “institutional resistance” to maternity- and paternity-leave policies. Clinton’s faith was, twenty years ago, one that readily accepted the original progressive idea of an activist government. Such a government employs incentives and structures to make possible a more equitable distribution of those goods, freedoms, and opportunities that individual parents, teachers, and caregivers should want to cultivate in a changing world. It is revealing, I think, that Clinton was honest enough to confess a self-consciousness about how her own priorities, and the priorities of her generation, contributed to the discontent and dislocation to which she was responding. (In one telling anecdote, she sheepishly admits that she was too fearful to allow the young Chelsea and a friend to bicycle to the public library ten blocks away, while simultaneously reminiscing about the freedom of movement she had enjoyed at that age.) Yet she also never offers any sustained critique of those priorities, choosing instead to ameliorate problems rather than consider their deepest sources.
There always was a suspicion, at least among her more careful readers, that Clinton’s deployment of communitarian concerns was less than wholehearted. Elshtain strongly criticized It Takes a Village in the New Republic for what she saw (correctly, in my view) as its implicit bias in favor of the mores of our educational meritocracy, as opposed to embracing the whole of America’s messy, diverse communities. The harshness of Elshtain’s review was perhaps to be expected; in her own sometimes-communitarian manifesto, Democracy on Trial, she emphasized again and again the divided, contentious, multi-layered, and civilizing processes of democratic belonging (as opposed to the definitional fact of belonging itself). Elshtain also offered a strong rebuke to those who twisted the concerns of her erstwhile communitarian compatriots—perhaps thinking of Clinton here—into what she saw as a too-casual defense of vague “community institutions” capable of “eviscerating any public-private distinction” in the name of a “future perfect gemeinschaft.” In short, Elshtain wanted to resist hitching concerns about community to the assumptions of progressivism. In taking this line, Elshtain was working out an argument similar to the one often made by Christopher Lasch, whose final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy was published posthumously in—you guessed it—1996. Lasch warned against a communitarianism that was powered more by a static nostalgia than by a populist drive to empower citizens, families, and neighbors, to build and preserve community in the face of capitalism’s two-pronged effect of increasing global cultural homogeneity and economic inequality. The suspicion was that if the dictates of Clinton’s progressivism were in tension with her professed attentiveness to the needs and hopes of actual, flawed communities, her progressivism would win.
Over the months of the Democratic primaries, millions of young people, both women and men (and not just white ones), showed strong support for the broad range of policies Clinton advocated, but nonetheless chose to support her opponent. It may be worth noting that, among the college-student-aged Sanders supporters I know, a determination to challenge the system and push the Democratic Party further to the left is often conjoined with what might be recognized as a kind of careful, chastened, decidedly non-grand and quite diverse communitarian or civic republican perspective. This is a different version of communitarianism than the one students of mine would find if they read It Takes a Village today, one that doesn’t look back to the 1950s as a favored point of reference.
There is the reality of the shifting—but not necessarily compromised—attachment to that most grounding of institutions, marriage, which I’ve already mentioned. Similar arguments could be made about how technology is used today (how much contemporary screen addiction reflects complete isolation, and how much reflects new forms of social interaction?); the work habits of the millennial generation (might the rise of the DIY ethos and the resistance to long-term expectations for corporate work suggest not just resigned economic realism, but also a desire to carve out space for creative opportunities with one’s friends and family?); their living patterns (is the flight from the suburbs and the return to the city an embrace of individualizing anonymity, or actually a rebuke of exactly that?); and much more. Maybe, despite the upheavals of the past two decades, some of the communitarian challenge to American liberal individualism and its corporate economic support isn’t dead. Perhaps many of the people who agree with Clinton’s policies but nonetheless don’t quite trust her recognize that the populist Sanders captured the point of the communitarian challenge —especially its inescapably moral dimension—in a way that Clinton’s technocratic policy-minded approach did not.
ANOTHER WAY OF capturing the dynamics of this new, different strain of communitarianism can be found in the work of Matthew Crawford: first in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, published in 2009, and now The World Beyond Your Head, published just this past year. These books point to a re-appropriation of communitarian concerns in terms that are more local, more diverse, less statist, and less structured than what technocratic progressivism offers. Crawford is a trained political philosopher who has embraced motorcycle repair as a vocation, and who ably defends that choice as one that reconnects him with a kind of hands-on cognitive and moral authenticity. He works through ideas of tradition, technology, belonging, authority, embodiment, and identity by way of figures as diverse as Aristotle, Burke, Kant, Marx, and Heidegger.
While Crawford doesn’t identify his argument as one primarily about recovering the res publica (indeed, his second book is subtitled “On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”), any close reading makes it clear that his concern is to help people, in their ordinary and everyday work, perceive the communities of practice of which they are part. He wants to enable them to see, “from the perspective of communitarianism,” the importance of seeking to grasp in one’s life choices those character-forming opportunities of habit and work. Without the disciplines of skilled labor and the virtues they foster, we are ultimately at the mercy of social, political, and economic forces that make us, for all our pretensions to individuality, just cogs in the machine of late capitalism. There are rewards in that machine, to be sure. And yet, Crawford warns: “genuine community is possible only among people who are willing to put themselves at risk” by abandoning the depersonalizing, bureaucratized processes that remove responsible choices from our lives. It is that sort of riskiness that I see in young adults who are, even in the midst of an often profound alienation, building connections and businesses, engaging in projects and initiatives, leaping into relationships and commitments. There is flight into a technologically secured privacy among these people, yes; but there is also, I think, an emphasis on finding and strengthening their places in conjunction with others.
This relatively hopeful view rests on a kind of wager: that humanity’s traditional social anthropology has not been entirely defeated, and the ability to perceive and pursue collective and stabilizing ways of life has not been entirely lost. If that is the case, then the ability to form and sustain functioning communities hasn’t been lost either. It’s still there, somewhere; we just have to learn how to see it where it is and for what it is. From that perspective, perhaps the rising generation that Ehrenhalt spoke of evinces more than a little communitarianism after all—and their ambivalent reaction to Clinton may be part of that.
None of this is to say that liberal individualism and the rampant mobility and often militant non-judgmentalism of American society today isn’t a problem; on the contrary, those of us who care about conserving a humane connection to our own communal nature and history need to constantly watch how we teach, how we live, how we spend—and just as important, where we do these things—in order to combat such ideas and practices. But as one form of attachment gives way, our mourning should not prevent us from noting and nurturing other attachments that take its place.
If another rash of books were to be published proclaiming communitarianism, the movement would likely be revealed as more local, less political, more sustainable, less ambitious, and both more and less conservative (in the familial and cultural senses, respectively) than it was twenty years ago. But the essential focus of a hypothetical, 2010s communitarianism—the imperative of belonging to and bonding with the people and the rituals of a particular place—would be, I think, the same. We might hope for such a revival, even if it is highly unlikely that a future President Clinton could contribute much to it: she has committed herself for too long to a static, government-centered perspective on community and family. But those who might hear and respond to such a revival might well look around themselves and find, in comparison to those of us who latched onto these teachings two decades ago, that they are far less alone in feeling inspired by these today. And who knows? If enough hear that call, perhaps such citizens and voters could even influence our next president to remember and reconsider what she once wrote about and pondered. Clinton does have a reputation for making time in her strict schedule for regular, expert listening, after all.
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