The Forgotten Communitarian

Why are Bill Clinton’s contributions to restoring the language of
civic obligation so regularly and casually overlooked? A response to
James T. Kloppenberg.

By Will Marshall

Tagged CommunityVolunteerism

In “Restoring the Language of Obligation,” [Issue #24] James Kloppenberg laments “the ignorance of most Americans about the centrality of the concept of obligation in American history.” Yet there’s a gaping hole in his own synopsis of that history—the 1990s, when civic themes re-entered the nation’s political discourse in a big way.

Invocations of civic duty and the disinterested pursuit of the common good were touchstones of American politics from colonial days until around the 1970s, says Kloppenberg, when liberals “traded the language of duties for the language of rights.” He argues persuasively that the ensuing fixation with rights talk and identity politics sped the unraveling of the New Deal coalition, and, by eroding more expansive notions of social solidarity, abetted the rise of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government populism.

But there his recap ends, skipping the striking period of civic ferment that followed. In politics, for example, Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats” consciously sought to reclaim the civic-republican tradition. Concepts like mutual obligation, community, and national service, and balancing citizens’ rights with their responsibilities, were central to the nation’s political conversation in the 1990s, and even migrated abroad via the “third way” dialogue between Clinton, Tony Blair, and other center-left political leaders.

In announcing his candidacy in October 1991, Clinton promised leadership “that will provide more opportunity, insist on more responsibility and create a greater sense of community for this great country.” Thus was born the “opportunity, responsibility, community” mantra that would come to encapsulate the New Democrat governing philosophy. The New Dems rejected both the right’s “fend for yourself” logic of social abandonment and the left’s tendency to carve the commonweal into costly entitlements for favored groups.

On the stump, Clinton hit a nerve by promising “no more something for nothing” and calling on young Americans to “give something back” through national service. The late Charlie Moskos, a Northwestern University military sociologist, often observed that the federal government, by steadily expanding student aid while asking nothing in return, had unwittingly created a “GI Bill without the GIs.” New Dems (including me) conceived of national service as a “civilian GI Bill” that would reforge the severed link between public service and public benefits.

Clinton also saw national service as a way of pushing back against economic and political forces that were aggravating inequality and deepening the nation’s social cleavages. “I believe that this national service project has the capacity, anyway, to make us believe we don’t have anybody to waste, to make us believe we are all in this together, to give us a chance to reach across racial and income lines to work together,” he told Steve Waldman, author of The Bill, a 1995 book about how Clinton’s service idea became law.

At first, Clinton’s hard-boiled political consultants were mystified by his fixation with service. They’d never heard of the idea, hadn’t polled it, and didn’t see any organized interests that could be mobilized behind it. Eventually, though, they came around as they saw the strong visceral response it drew from audiences beyond the Beltway. In Congress, however, Clinton’s idea got a rough reception from both sides. Conservatives claimed it would force young Americans to “serve the state,” Soviet-style. Liberals objected that tying college aid to service would discriminate against the poor, who would be forced into service while rich kids went to school on their parents’ dime. In the end, Clinton managed to shepherd through Congress a whittled-down program in 1993, and AmeriCorps was born. More than 700,000 Americans have served in the corps, which was later expanded, and many popular service programs, like City Year, have long waiting lists.

The decade’s civic efflorescence was by no means confined to the political world. Volunteer and civic-enterprise programs like City Year, Hands on Atlanta, and Teach for America sprang up to offer young people a chance to serve communities. Nonprofit groups experienced “phenomenal growth,” reported Independent Sector, employing nearly 11 million people by 1998. The term “civil society” came back into vogue, as intellectuals across the spectrum rediscovered Burke’s “small platoons” and the Tocquevillian realm of voluntary associations.

In “Bowling Alone,” a seminal 1995 journal article, Robert Putnam drew attention to a long decline in associational life, which he argued had depleted America’s social capital. A cascade of books—Reinventing Citizenship by Harry Boyte, The Spirit of Community by Amitai Etzioni, The Essential Civil Society Reader by Don Eberly—highlighted the “third sector” as a vital sphere of social action and “public work” operating independently of both markets and the state. My own institute worked with scholars like DeWitt John to popularize the notion of “civic environmentalism,” which devolves decisions about how best to manage watersheds and natural habitat from Washington regulators to communities and individual landowners.

Scholars like Etzioni, Mary Anne Glendon, and William Galston organized the “communitarian” movement to push back against a radical individualism that denied communal rights and bonds. James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory found expression in a proliferation of “community policing” experiments that emphasized public order, quality of life issues, and foot patrols over the paramilitary approach to crime control.

Clinton paid close attention to these developments. In addition to national service, he applied the logic of civic reciprocity to another big innovation: welfare reform. “We should give people on welfare the skills they need to succeed, but we should demand that everybody who can, work and become a productive member of society,” he said in declaring his presidential bid.

Welfare reform explicitly balanced collective and personal responsibility. Saying that society had an obligation to “make work pay,” Clinton first got Congress to approve a vastly expanded federal tax subsidy for low-wage workers. Liberals loved this “work bonus,” but flinched from the “personal responsibility” side of the equation: making welfare temporary and requiring most recipients to work. Several quit the Administration when Clinton, after rejecting two harsh bills cooked up by the GOP House, signed a third one in 1996 that, among other things, ended the permanent entitlement to cash assistance.

This falling out is instructive, and in a way it reinforces Kloppenberg’s point about liberals’ tone deafness to civic themes. It’s no accident that the impetus for welfare reform, like national service, came from the reformist center rather than a left bent on defending the programmatic status quo against the right’s assaults. Worse, many liberals had fallen into the patronizing habit of seeing welfare recipients as passive victims—of racial prejudice, or the structural inequities of capitalism—who needed to be rescued by society.

Clinton, however, insisted on treating welfare recipients as citizens with agency and responsibilities of their own. Society’s obligation to help the poor, he said, is the flip side of the recipient’s obligation to work, to be a responsible parent, and to strive always toward self-sufficiency. It was hard to argue with the results: Millions of low-income mothers went to work, child and adult poverty rates fell, teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth rates declined, and child support payments rose. Crucially, welfare reform also deprived Republicans of a potent wedge issue, as Clinton’s realignment of social policy with mainstream values defused middle-class hostility to anti-poverty initiatives.

Finally, the third leg of Clinton’s civic tripod—community—pointed in two directions. One was toward policies conceived in a spirit of mutual obligation: universal health care, national service, welfare reform. The other was toward “reinventing government” to make it less bureaucratic and more enabling of communities and citizens.

Clinton grasped a political paradox that eluded many liberals in the 1990s, and unfortunately, continues to elude them today: To win public support for public activism, progressives have to reform government, not just defend it. It drove liberals crazy, but by identifying with the public’s antipathy toward big, bureaucratic government, Clinton was able to create space for a slew of new public initiatives, including “opportunity zones” to spur investment in communities; federal seed money for public charter schools; S-CHIP health coverage for children; and HOPE scholarships to defray college costs. There’s a lesson here for Barack Obama, who faces even higher levels of public mistrust of government.

What happened to the civic efflorescence of the 1990s? It took a big hit from the Monica Lewinsky affair, which made Clinton’s talk of responsibility ring hollow. The scandal also torpedoed Clinton’s hopes of modernizing Social Security and Medicare, which he saw as a way of capping his legacy as a modernizer of progressive politics. Facing a GOP impeachment drive, he couldn’t afford to alienate liberals, who were adamant against entitlement reform. The intense partisan polarization that followed made it harder for Clinton and the New Dems to build consensus around common civic or creedal values.

Then came the bizarre 2000 election, in which Vice President Gore refashioned himself as a populist while George W. Bush appropriated Clintonian themes, even emblazoning the words “opportunity and responsibility” on his campaign bus. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and faith-based initiatives seemed to point to common ground on anti-poverty policy, but that promise evaporated once he took office. And rather than build on another of Clinton’s big accomplishments, the restoration of fiscal responsibility, Bush promptly squandered the budget surpluses he inherited on two rounds of tax cuts. The second, coming not long after the trauma of 9/11, subverted the logic of civic duty and wartime sacrifice. The Iraq War further inflamed partisan spirits, shriveling the political center.

The left’s revisionist account of the 1990s puts Clintonism down to “triangulation.” In this narrative, Clinton wasn’t an innovator at all, merely an opportunist who pandered to anti-liberal prejudices to pick the GOP lock on the White House. This interpretation misjudges Clinton, ignores the wider effusion of civic thought, and, most importantly, drives liberals away from resonant civic concepts and language that can help them mobilize public support for progressive goals.

Fortunately, as Kloppenberg notes, President Obama frequently invokes civic responsibility and interdependence in defending his agenda. The idea that “we’re all in this together” pervades his push for passing universal health care, ending Bush’s unconscionable tax breaks for the rich, and bailing out U.S. automakers (and autoworkers). However, the enormous tasks he will face if he wins re-election—rebooting economic innovation and job creation, reducing deficits and debt, reforming taxes and entitlements, spurring investment in clean energy and technologies—require deeper sacrifices than he’s been willing to ask for thus far.

In an unfortunate bit of backsliding, the 2012 debate seems to have reverted to the same, dumb “markets vs. government” arguments of the 1980s. Taking a page from Clinton, Obama should make the case for a broader mobilization of civic energies to solve the nation’s big problems. The key challenge is not, as many liberals suppose, to induce Americans to love big government. It’s rather to challenge them to practice big citizenship, which means asking not how we smite our political enemies, but what we owe each other and our country.

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Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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