Symposium | Obama's America


By Jedediah Purdy

Tagged CivicsCommunity

Alexis de Tocqueville famously believed that the young American republic had a genius for community. “Voluntary associations,” he wrote, sprang up everywhere to solve practical problems, agitate for political change, or try to move other Americans by moral suasion. These supple and pragmatic groupings trained people to take charge of their own affairs and put them in the habit of accommodating those who disagreed with them. They fostered the blend of initiative, self-assertion, and mutual respect that makes civic life work.

But Tocqueville also saw a bleaker face of American community. In a society of restless self-seekers, always eager to do a little better and fearful of falling behind, he worried that the moral imagination would contract. Americans, he wrote, fixed their attention on their own affairs and the affairs of those closest to them. They became indifferent to the larger community. These self-made people “owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”

Tocqueville’s paradox has only become more apt over the last eight years. Americans have both asked communities to do more and withdrawn into themselves, making the country more communitarian and more libertarian all at once. Some of this change is rooted in the politics of the Bush Administration, which has leaned on the language and symbolism of community but asked little in the way of civic engagement. Some of it, though, reflects much deeper changes, beyond anything Tocqueville foresaw or presidents can control. Americans have embraced stronger forms of individuality and self-realization, and they have begun seeking out communities that help to fulfill these goals. The very nature of community in America has changed.

Let’s begin with today’s version of Tocqueville’s paradox. On the one hand, communities are being asked to step up and do work that, not so long ago, would have belonged to government. This is true in the bipartisan embrace of faith-based social services. It is true of lawmaking: Ever more Americans live in housing developments, where homeowners’ associations take the place of local government. Even in political rhetoric, the last two presidents have studded their major addresses with the language of community, service, character, and personal responsibility, emphasizing the role of families and religious institutions in American life and eschewing traditional talk of national purpose or greatness. (The glaring exception is George W. Bush’s dramatic portrayal of a global anti-terrorism campaign as a national mission, but that is sharply divergent from his approach to domestic politics.) The public’s trust in institutions maps these changes, as Americans put their faith in local and civic rather than national and political institutions. Polls find that religious organizations, small business, and the military (a volunteer organization) enjoy far and away the highest levels of public trust, while Congress and the presidency come in near the bottom.

At the same time, there is evidence that Americans are withdrawing, both into their own lives and into communities of the like-minded. For all the quibbles it produced, Robert Putnam’s conclusion in Bowling Alone stands: Recent decades have devastated traditional social networks that were often cross-class and quasi-civic. A 2006 study found that between 1985 and 2004, Americans reported the average number of people with whom they can “discuss important issues” falling from three to two, with a quarter saying they have no one with whom to discuss such issues and 80 percent saying they turn only to family members. These networks are weakest among poorer and less-educated people. So is the share of those who say they more or less trust others.

As for like-mindedness, the most striking piece of evidence is journalist Bill Bishop’s (author of The Big Sort) discovery that between the very close presidential election of 1976 and that of 2004, the share of American counties with landslides (a spread of 20 points or more) rose from 27 percent to over 60 percent. Bishop speculates that this political segregation results from sorting along subtler cultural lines, as mobile Americans choose neighbors like themselves. In turn, party affiliation comes to be less about policy and more about cultural style and identity-reinforcing issues like abortion and guns. Other trends bespeak the same pattern. The local and voluntary organizations that Americans tend to trust (religious groups, small business, public schools in certain communities) are those they share with people like themselves, while the political and impersonal ones they mistrust lump them together with strangers. The emergence of civic brokers in politics, like megapreacher Rick Warren, marks an effort to bypass traditional sources of information in favor of judgments filtered by the like-minded and culturally similar. No doubt some of these attitudes are long-standing. It is probably not accidental that the country Tocqueville described has a fair amount in common with today’s America. But the trends are intensifying, at least across recent decades.

There is fair reason to think, then, that the country continues to play out Tocqueville’s paradox. We are becoming more communitarian toward those who resemble us, substituting voluntary associations for politics in addressing social problems and drawing on like-minded communities rather than national sources in making political decisions. But we are also more likely to feel disconnected from the fates of those we consider different from us, and skeptical of institutions that tie us too strongly to them. And, as in the bleak end-point of Tocqueville’s description, we are more likely to be alone.

The shape of our politics may be in some ways a symptom of this situation. But it could also be a cause, as Bush’s presidency has exploited and amplified these insular trends. Karl Rove’s politics of divisive cultural symbolism and mistrust of culturally different “elites” seized on the underlying changes and made them more politically salient. The administration’s indifference to civic obligation even after September 11 produced no unifying counterpoint to balkanized culture.

The Obama-McCain contest was mixed on this front. The two candidates were, in their partisan fields, the ones most identified with the idea of a national civic identity that might bridge subcultures. Their victories bespoke an appetite for a unifying politics, suggesting that even if Americans do not trust or identify with the institutions that tie them together across party and cultural lines, they hunger for versions of those institutions that could sustain their loyalty. Yet the general election brought inter-community hostility and mistrust back to the fore–ironically, since one might expect the general, rather than partisan primaries, to be the place where unifying ideas get most traction. Instead, the red-meat culture-war rhetoric of the Republican National Convention and the electrically divided response to Sarah Palin revivified us-and-them cultural issues.

The switch from civic-minded primaries to a culturally divided general election raised the troubling possibility that, although Americans avidly wish for a more unifying national politics, they cannot coalesce around a political idea that would in fact unify them. Differences in attitudes, priorities, and styles may be so strong, and so habitually important in forming political judgments, that either party can produce its own vision of national community, but neither can persuade the other’s partisans to share it. That would be an especially tragic situation, in which the very situation that voters wish to change restricts their power to overcome it.

What will the changing shape of American community mean for the next president? Part of the answer depends on what Obama makes of it–whether he takes it as given, as the Bush Administration has mostly done, or he challenges it by tapping the appetite for a stronger sense of shared civic community.

There are reasons to take it as given. Cultural division could present a serious barrier to ambitious initiatives. A national health care program, for example, could falter on the perception that the wrong kinds of people–the other kinds of Americans–would benefit too much, or contribute too little, a kind of argument that is nearly always available absent a background feeling of solidarity. The same goes for a national-service program or a draft of the kind that another war might require. There are things that people simply will not do for others with whom they have only a weak feeling of common fate, and if paying taxes is one, dying may certainly be another. It might be smarter then to develop initiatives that don’t ask too much of civic spirit and instead draw on traditional ideas of self-reliance. Social Security got some of its political traction because it came dressed as a guaranteed savings account, not a solidaristic entitlement program. Linking new programs to personal effort is one approach, exemplified by income supports for the working poor and college loans or grants tied to academic performance. Another is to concentrate help on areas seen as beyond the control of the individual, such as catastrophic health insurance and early-childhood education.

But there is another strategy: to use governing as an opportunity to build an electoral majority and a policy program out of the president’s own image of national community. Nothing about today’s cultural division necessarily dooms a national-service program or universal health care, and either, if successful, might strengthen a feeling of common fate among citizens. So might taking on energy independence and research into renewable fuels as a national mission, along the lines of the Apollo program. If politics can contribute to balkanized community, it can also contribute to changing it. Creating experiences of shared effort, such as national service, can affect participants’ attitudes beyond those experiences and make them open to broader visions of national community.

There is, however, another way of looking at the whole question. Those inclined to take politics seriously might find it obvious that we should worry about homogenous communities and thin, fractious national identity. Maybe so, but it is also helpful to consider why American community has been developing as it has, and how the changes are connected with positive aspects of our national life.

The wish to be among people one feels comfortable with is hardly selfish and narcissistic (or, certainly, it is not only that). Rather, it is of a piece with a much larger development, and a good one. Americans since World War II have asked more of their private lives than ever before: not just survival and basic security, but self-improvement, self-expression, and a sense of a meaningful life. Civic culture flourished in the early twentieth century not least because there was not much else to do, and there was considerable need to get out of the house or tenement.

But Americans have recently sought to enrich the experience of staying in the house or the office. The ideal of marriage is increasingly of a highly personal and complex fit with one’s own personality, as it already is and as one wishes it to be. The same goes for the ideal of a career. On the consumer side, economic life increasingly includes a complex of self-improving and life-enriching techniques and technologies, from mood-altering drugs to psychotherapy, Lasik surgery to diet books. It is no surprise that Americans have asked similar things of their communities. Where once a sturdy house and neighbors who did not fight too loudly might have seemed enough, now people seek places to live where their values and identities make sense to others, and find reinforcement. What self-sorting Americans embrace in the new forms of community is more important to them than the traditional kinds of community they are leaving behind.

These changes in personal goals redound to larger ideas about freedom and the American polity, sometimes in positive ways. The Supreme Court’s ruling for a constitutional right to same-sex intimacy is in one respect a political expression of a much more widespread idea: that personal identity is important enough that people can demand respect for it. The same idea underlies the much broader trend toward openness and tolerance around sexual identity, almost indisputably the biggest piece of moral progress in the last ten years of American life (at least until the election of an African American president).

The emphasis on personal identity also contributes to a subtler but significant loosening of the terms of racial identity politics. The last generation of racial politics was obsessed with group authenticity, the question of who was “really” whatever the identity at issue was. The obsession extended from college campuses to the media to the 2002 Newark mayoral election, in which the black incumbent, Sharpe James, attacked the black challenger, Corey Booker, as, in effect, a white man and a Jew. (Booker lost, then won in 2006.) One of the reasons Barack Obama’s candidacy stirred so much excitement among younger voters is that both his biography and his language, particularly in his instant-classic Philadelphia speech on race, express a complex reality in which individuals combine diverse strands of experience, some inherited, others chosen. These changes have a downside for solidarity, of course: Witness the remarkable poll late last year that found barely half of black Americans consider themselves part of a unified race, because of the extent of African American diversity. But solidarity, too, has a downside. Mandatory identity is a psychological and political burden, and the power to opt out in favor of one’s own particular self is a gain in freedom, whatever else it is.

The meaning of community has changed in American life, not just since Tocqueville’s observations, but in the last few decades. As Americans have become more individualistic and placed more value on personal fulfillment, they have rejected forms of community that constrain those goals and looked for neighborhoods, groups, and friendships that reinforce them. The old idea of community–geographic, racial, and civic–was of non-optional membership. Today’s versions is all about options: We create ties with what moves us. That’s particularly convenient for people who already have a lot of choices and don’t need much support from the old, mandatory types of community–neighbors, family, or government acting on a strong idea of civic bonds. It’s harder for those who start with fewer advantages, or have bad luck, and need a hand at a time when no one is moved to extend one.

These changes are hardly the first: American community has been an ever-changing thing from the beginning. And Americans have always feared that community was breaking down around them. Members of the founding generation, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, ended their lives feeling like strangers in a democratic, money-chasing, evangelical society they did not recognize. The Southern form of community that locals spent the early twentieth century consolidating had to be forcibly disassembled by federal courts and, in some cases, federal troops. The Sixties convinced pessimistic observers that American civilization had become a contradiction in terms, overwhelmed by hedonism and narcissism. Out of every disruption, however, new forms of orderly social life have arisen, in which people have raised families, worshipped, and learned to live with their neighbors. At each stop on this bumpy historical ride, Americans have disembarked to congratulate one another on their Tocquevillean genius for community.

Historical perspective should not encourage either the blithe mistake of assuming that community will always take care of itself or the nihilistic mistake of concluding that “community” means nothing but what a given time makes of it. The word describes our ways of addressing basic human needs, from making neighborhoods safe to finding fulfillment and recognition in daily life. We cannot meet these needs entirely through government, the market, the nuclear family, or solitary reflection. Community is everything else: volunteer service, activism, friendship, shared worship, book groups, and sports. People choose versions of community that suit them–canvassing for Obama and playing ultimate Frisbee in Chapel Hill or teaching Sunday school and coaching midnight basketball outside Denver–but not in the same way they make up an iPod playlist. They enter community out of a sense of responsibility and a wish to be connected and make a difference beyond themselves. They may hope to find reinforcement in the experience, but often they also hope to change. Community is neither the opposite of politics nor its useful handmaiden. It is neither a stern, virtuous counterpoint to private life nor a self-regarding extension of it.

The American project would go into receivership if ordinary people lost the power to do certain things: solve problems for themselves, talk intelligently and sympathetically with others from different backgrounds, assuage one another’s loneliness and suffering, and connect all of this activity with the larger national life of politics. We are not likely to lose those powers now. But the ways we exercise them are changing, rapidly and sometimes momentously. Barack Obama will have to negotiate the new landscape of community, and he will have some chance to change it. But it will also remain its own thing, persisting and changing. That is part of its point.

From the Symposium

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Jedediah Purdy is a professor of law at Duke University School of Law.

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