229. "Clinton and the Spirit of Community" Legal Times, (March 15, 1993), pp. 46-47. Also published: "Joining Together" San Francisco Recorder, (March 16, 1993), p. 10.


“If you’re looking for a label for the new administration in Washington - something other than ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’ - try ‘communitarian.’” a USA Today article suggests. Indeed, President Clinton often speaks in communitarian terms: “if we have no sense of community, the American dream will continue to wither.” Likewise, Vice President Albert Gore Jr. has echoed a communitarian theme: “while we give supreme value to the rights of the individual, we expect that freedom to be exercised with respect toward others and with decent restraint.”

But what does it mean to be a communitarian? Communitarian ideas have been around since the days of the Old and New Testaments. The communitarian movement, however, was born in the first days of 1991, with the publication of the first communitarian quarterly. That publication grew out of an dialogue among a group of diverse thinkers, ranging from Harvard’s neo-conservative Nathan Glazer to Rutgers’ liberal social activist Benjamin Barber.

It was a social-science finding published at that time that triggered the dialogue: Young Americans, the data showed, feel strongly about their right to be tried before a jury of their peers, yet when asked about serving on a jury most seek to avoid this responsibility. Communitarians see this finding as symbolic of the ‘80s: A chorus of give-me demands, and little willingness to serve the common good. It is an affliction that runs the political gamut, from welfare cheats to special interests. The communitarian movement seeks to raise the commitment to social responsibilities to correct for decades of this excessive focus on individual rights.

The adjustment communitarians favor is not a diminution of rights, as some of their critics - most notably the American Civil Liberties Union - claim. Rather, the communitarian movement’s main concern is with assumptions of responsibilities. Communitarians favor national service, for instance, to enable the young to develop their civic spirit. Communitarians seek to curb the role of special interests in Congress by stemming the flood of private money into the coffers of elected officials, thereby enabling the legislature to serve the public interest. And communitarians favor drug tests for those who directly have the lives of others in their hands (e.g., airline pilots and school-bus drivers), and see these measures as a legitimate interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures” rather than as a diminution of rights. The same holds for sobriety checkpoints and other carefully crafted measures to protect the public.

President Bill Clinton, too, often speaks to the general themes of social responsibility and the need to make his sacrifices for the common good. His first slew of policy recommendations reflect these ideas. For the first time since the deficit escalated, people are not told that it will fix itself but that we have overindulged and it is time to act responsibly. This is surely a major communitarian theme.

President Clinton’s national service programs are modest (because of budget constraints), but they are the most ambitious such programs since John Kennedy’s Peace Corps. The welfare reform that Clinton favors - demanding that those on welfare either find work or repay their debt through service to the community - further illustrate the direction he is moving. There is debate as to at what point does demanding responsible behavior from welfare recipients turn into cruel punishment (e.g., cutting payments if a woman on welfare conceives more children), but the message is unmistakable: social responsibility will be encouraged with more than warm words: it will be underwritten with special incentives and, perhaps, even penalties.

Possibly President Clinton’s most interesting communitarian moves are in his community-building message and acts of inclusion. During the campaign, candidate Clinton spoke out against those who sought to pit one group against the others. Although Clinton did not kowtow to minorities - he distanced himself from Jesse Jackson - he has now included in his cabinet and other key posts of his administration a large number of Americans from diverse backgrounds, making his government look “as America does.” So far, this seems to have brought a large measure of interracial peace and has drawn approval from women’s groups. How this will play out, it is too early to tell; for now, the United States leads the world - from Canada to Yugoslavia and from India ti Ireland - in finding ways to accommodate a plurality of groups within one reforming community.

Communitarian themes are found in Clinton’s speeches and position papers, including the support for campaign finance reform (limiting PACs and curbing lobbying), community policing, and community development banks. An important message and program relating to communitarian concerns, however, involves law enforcement, and on this, the president’s position remains unclear. Thus far, the administration has deliberately focused on its economic message and, of course, attended to international events that cannot be deferred. The difficulties in finding an attorney general further delayed the hatching of any definitive Clinton program in this area. But given the high level of crime, this is not an area that can be safely ignored for long.

A communitarian response to crime is needed, of the sort suggested by Mark Kleiman, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He argues for a changing mixture of rehabilitation and punishment: First-time offenders get short jail sentences and lengthy rehabilitation; with additional convictions, however, this combination is reversed. I would add there is also a need to reduce the length of sentences while significantly increasing the probability of being caught and convicted.

President Clinton’s communitarian tendencies reflect, in part, his personal history and his experiences as the governor of a small state, his longing for family bonds after the early loss of his father, and a shrewd analysis of the failures of the previous Democratic presidential candidates who were perceived as overly rights-minded and inattentive to social responsibility.

There are also, however, specific links between the communitarian movement and the man. One of the first founders of the communitarian movement was William Galston, a professor of public affairs and an influential member of the Progressive Policy Institute - the think tank connected to the Democratic Leadership Council and associated with Clinton. Galston and another founding member, Daniel Yankelovich, presented detailed papers during a Democratic retreat in New Orleans in which Clinton participated. I prepared a statement on communitarian thinking and policies, which the Progressive Policy Institute distributed to all members of the 1992 Democratic Convention.

Galston now serves in the West Wing of the White House, as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, where among other things, he is developing a national-service program. Henry Cisneros, an endorsee of the communitarian platform, serves as secretary of housing and urban development. Alice Rivlin, who served on the board of a communitarian public-interest law firm, The American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, serves now as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. In short, the links between the communitarian movement and the Clinton administration are well-established and we can expect continued communitarian messages from the White House.

President Clinton, then, can be expected to demonstrate his communitarian tendencies in other aspects of American life, too, although his role necessarily will be limited to fostering a supportive social climate for change. In particular, such a attitude would be welcome with respect to a subtext of the communitarian agenda: strengthening the social institutions and practices that undergird the moral and social values of the community. Values need to be incorporated into the daily lives of people - in families (when they are intact), in schools (when they deal with character education and not merely with developing academic skills) and in neighborhoods (when the social bonds are drawn upon to raise a moral voice). This reconstruction of what has been called the seedbeds of virtue, need not entail a return to a society that discriminated against women, minorities and was a bit authoritarian. Families can be egalitarian where both parents are to be expected to be more dedicated to their children. Schools can be in the “business” of character education without introducing values other than those we all share. And communities that support and encourage members to act responsibly need not exclude or discriminate against outsiders.

Ultimately, however, only if we all accept more or our social responsibilities, will the moral, social, and political environment of the United States significantly improve. This is what communitarianism is all about.

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052
202.994.6118
comnet@gwu.edu