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Ivy Ideas
Conservative approaches to community-building have a place among liberal scholars.


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In this, the summer of Republican discontent, as one conservative after another abandons President Bush, could it be that the seeds of a reinvigorated conservative vision are being sown in two of the places conservatives regularly malign, Cambridge, Mass., and Paris, France?

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At Harvard, Robert Putnam, famous for his book Bowling Alone about Americans’ social alienation from one another, has released the results of a massive study that correlates increased diversity in a community to a demonstrable decline in voting, volunteerism, friendships, and social trust. The declining belief in “political efficacy — confidence in the ability to influence the community,” Putnam’s study says, “accompanies a rise in passive activities, such as watching television, which is seen as the ‘most important form of entertainment.’” As Putnam concludes in his recently published article in Scandinavian Political Studies, “ethnically diverse neighborhoods produce hunkering.”

Meanwhile, in Paris, Frederic Martel’s book De la cultur en Amerique (On Culture in America) counters “a certain ideological anti-Americanism” in France with a lengthy study of the way culture flourishes in parts of America without the centralized control and huge governmental support of national culture found in France. Martel observes, “If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found, cultural life is everywhere.” Like Tocqueville before him, Martel attends to the spirit of initiative and association, to the role of nonprofits, philanthropists, and community organizations. Along the way, he rebuts the common European belief that Hollywood’s America accurately reflects the way Americans live and think.

Comparisons with Tocqueville, inevitable when a Frenchman writes positively about America, typically miss what is of interest here. Tocqueville was worried about a new physiognomy of servitude, a compliant citizenry relieved of its burdens by a compassionate centralized bureaucracy. Libertarians seize upon this part of Tocqueville; but he was just as troubled by individualism, the tendency of citizens to abandon the wider society and to define their lives in terms of material well-being and in relation to a small group of friends and family — the “hunkering” Putnam sees today.

There are some puzzling results from Putnam’s study. Even as it shows a relationship between increased diversity and low social connectedness, such conditions do seem to correlate with a greater awareness of politics and involvement in political activism such as protests. Social-science studies, of course, supply all sorts of correlations, but are often not so definitive about cause and effect. Could it be that what is principally driving the decline in “political efficacy” is not so much diversity itself as a certain conception of liberalism? By that, I mean an outlook where political life is not about building local communities, but about voicing opinions on national and international issues. Its mantra would be: Act locally, but only with respect to global issues.

More disturbing news for liberalism can be found in another recent academic study, this one on charitable giving. In Who Really Cares?, Arthur Brooks, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, contends that four forces help form charitable habits: religion, skepticism about government in economic life, strong families, and personal entrepreneurism. Yet, Brooks’s argument is not libertarian. Instead, it shifts the terms of the debate. How so?

Among the many successful associations cited by Brooks is Common Cents, a New York organization dedicated to advancing social justice and offering children an opportunity to experience philanthropic giving. The result is that children realize their “interconnectedness” with the community. Brooks stresses not just the outcomes of charity — how much is given to whom — but the way the practice of charitable giving benefits both the recipient and the donor, indeed the whole community. Brooks is recapturing the classical language of the common good, which is equally at odds with libertarian individualism and bureaucratic collectivism.

Fostering the practice of charitable giving requires politicians to be self-effacing, and herein lies the problem. Seldom does a government official say that the most vibrant sources of charity and virtue in our society exist outside of government. In a culture of celebrity politicians, beholden to endless numbers of interest groups, this extra-governmental outlook is a difficult approach even for conservatives, as is clear from the unabated growth of government under Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” Attention to Putnam and Brooks might provide a fresh language for the practice of democratic government and the virtues of communal solidarity.

Religion, family, and private enterprise as the chief sources for promoting charitable activity? This is not a conclusion readily embraced in academia, where, as Brooks notes, the selfishness of conservatives and the generosity of liberals are bedrock assumptions. Indeed, both Brooks and Putnam admit to initial surprise at the results of their studies. Putnam went so far as to delay publication, while, at the urging of academic colleagues, he tried a number of other ways of looking at the data.

Such hesitation confirms conservative suspicions about academia. One wonders whether Putnam’s colleagues would have been so insistent on reevaluation, had the initial results yielded conclusions more congenial to the political leanings of most academics. On the question of diversity and social solidarity, academics need look no further than their own workplace, where diversity remains a mantra for hiring but where, as an increasing number of Ivy League administrators admit, there is precious little in the way of a shared educational vision or even conversation with colleagues.

This is not to say liberal academics are the only ones in need of reassessing their assumptions. On the Right, it would be prudent to acknowledge that the development of ideas — ideas with depth and scope — require arenas like universities, where intensive research increasingly confirms what conservatives have long known: American communities are eroding, and a lack of a unifying purpose makes it hard to bolster them.

Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.



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