Christopher Lasch – Communitarianism or populism

Taken from Lasch’s book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc)
Excerpt from the Chapter Communitarianism or Populism (p.104-112)


The good society, like Whose Keeper?, is much more an attack on the market than an attack on the welfare state. Communitarianism in this form is difficult to distinguish from social democracy. At one point the authors of the former book explicitly call for a “global New Deal”, notwithstanding their reservations about the “administered society”. They have a great deal to say about responsibility, but it is “social responsibility”, not the responsibility of individuals, that mainly concerns them. In their plea for “responsible attention”, I hear overtones of “compassion”, the slogan of social democracy, a slogan that has always been used to justify welfare programs, the expansion of the state’s custodial and tutelary functions, and the bureaucratic rescue of women, children, and other victims of mistreatment. The ideology of compassion, however agreeable to our ears, is one of the principal influences, in its own right, on the subversion of civic life, which depends not so much on compassion as on mutual respect. A misplaced compassion degrades both the victims, who are reduced to objects of pity, and their would-be benefactors, who find it easier to pity their fellow citizens than to hold them up to impersonal standards, attainment of which would entitle them to respect. We pity those who suffer, and we pity, most of all, those who suffer conspicuously; but we reserve respect for those who refuse to exploit their suffering for the purposes of pity. We respect those who are willing to be held accountable for their actions, who submit to exacting and impersonal standards impartially applied. Today it is widely believed, at least by members of the caring class, that standards are inherently oppressive, that far from being impersonal they discriminate against women, blacks, and minorities in general. Standards, we are told, reflect the cultural hegemony of dead white European males. Compassion compels us to recognize the injustice of imposing them on everybody else.

When the ideology of compassion leads to this kind of absurdity. it is time to call it into question. Compassion has become the human face of contempt. Democracy once implied opposition to every form of double standard. Today we accept double standards – as always, a recipe for second-class citizenship – in the name of humanitarian concern. Having given up the effort to raise the general level of competence – the old meaning of democracy – we are content to institutionalize competence in the caring class, which arrogates to itself the job of looking out for everybody else.

Populism, as I understand it, is unambiguously committed to the principle of respect. It is for this reason, among others, that populism is to be preferred to communitarianism, which is too quick to compromise with the welfare state and to endorse its ideology of compassion. Populism has always rejected both the politics of deference and the politics of pity. It stands for plain manners and plan, straightforward speech. It is unimpressed by titles and other symbols of exalted social rank, but it is equally unimpressed by claims of moral superiority advanced in the name of the oppressed. It rejects a “preferential option for the poor”, if that means treating the poor as helpless victims of circumstance, absolving them of accountability, or excusing their derelictions on the grounds that poverty carries with it a presumption of innocence. Populism is the authentic voice of democracy. It assumes that individuals are entitles to respect until they prove themselves unworthy of it, but it insists that they take responsibility for themselves. It is reluctant to make allowances or to withhold judgement on the grounds that “society is to blame”. Populism is “judgemental”, to invoke a current adjective the pejorative use of which shows how far the capacity for discriminating judgement has been weakened by the moral climate of humanitarian “concern”.

Communitarians regret the collapse of social trust but often fail to see that trust, in a democracy, can only be grounded in mutual respect. They properly insist that rights have to be balanced by responsibility, but they seem to be more interested in the responsibility of the community as a whole – its responsibility, say, to its least fortunate members – than in the responsibility of individuals. When the authors of The Good Society say that “democracy means paying attention”, they seek to recall us to a sense of the common good and to combat the selfish individualism that blinds us to the needs of others. But it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. In the name of sympathetic understanding, we tolerate second-rate workmanship, second-rate habits of thought, and second-rate standards of personal conduct. We put up with bad manners and with many kinds of bad language, ranging from the commonplace scatology that is now ubiquitous to elaborate academic evasion. We seldom bother to correct a mistake or to argue with opponents in the hope of changing their minds. Instead we either shout them down or agree to disagree, saying that all of us have a right to opinions. Democracy in our time is more likely to die of indifference than of tolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become an excuse for apathy.

The differences between populism and communitarianism are differences of emphasis, but they have important political consequences. My strongest objection to the communitarian point of view is that it has too little to say about controversial issues like affirmative action, abortion, and family policy. The authors of The Good Society assure their readers that they “do not want to advocate any single form of family life”. It is the “quality of family life” that matters, in their view, not its structure. But quality and structure are not so easily separable. Common sense tells us that children need both father and mothers, that they are devastated by divorce, and that they do not flourish in day care centers. Without minimizing the difficulty of solving the problems that confront the family, at least we ought to be able to hold up a standard by which to measure the success or failure of our efforts. We need guidelines, not a general statement of good intentions. If communitarians are serious about what Bellah calls a “politics of generativity” they need to address the conditions that are widely believed to make it more difficult than it used to be to raise children. Parents are deeply troubled by the moral climate of permissiveness, by the sec and violence to which children are prematurely exposed, by the moral relativism they encounter in school. and by the devaluation of authority that makes children impatient with any restraints. Much of the opposition to abortion reflects the same kind of concerns, which cannot be addressed simply by taking the position that abortion, like the structure of the family, ought to be a matter of private choice. The privitization of morality is one more indication of the collapse of the community, and a communitarianism that acquiesces in this development, at the same time calling for a public philosophy, cannot expect to be taken very seriously.

Any attempt to base public policy on a clearly articulated set of moral guidelines, of course, invites the predictable objection that moral perceptions are inherently subjective, that it is impossible to arrive at a general agreement about these matters, and that politics and morality therefore have to be strictly segregated. Any attempt to combine them, according to this reasoning, will result in the imposition of one group’s values on everybody else. The most common criticism of communitarianism is that it would lead to the regimentation of opinion, the repression of dissent, and the institutionalization of intolerance, all in the name of morality. Opponents of communitarianism, who include right-wing libertarians as well as left-leaning liberals, cite Calvin’s Geneva, Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth, and the Salem witch trials to show what happens when the state tries to enforce morality. The word “community”, in their ears sound like a prescription for bigotry and parochialism. It conjures up images of village life out of Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis: suspicious, gossipy, complacent, ruthless in its suppression of originality and intellectual freedom. From this point of view, communitarianism appears to threaten everything the modern world has achieved in its progress from provincialism to cosmopolitanism, including the respect for “diversity” that has become the hallmark (we are told) of civilized societies.

The best answer to this indictment is that it exaggerates the difficulty of reaching a common understanding about moral issues. Amitai Etzioni, founder of the Responsive Community, the leading communitarian journal, argues convincingly that “there is more consensus than at first seems to be the case”. The “values we share as a community” include a “commitment to democracy, the Bill of Rights, and mutual respect among the subgroups”. Americans believe in fair treatment for all and in the “desirability of treating others with love, respect, and dignity”. They believe in the virtues of tolerance and truth telling. They condemn discrimination and violence. Etzioni argues in his recent book The Spirit of Community that makes it possible to envision a “reasonable intermediate position” between libertarianism and authoritarianism. Unfortunately the inordinate influence wielded by special-interest groups, the media’s vested stake in conflict, and the adversarial mode of justice embodied in our legal system promote condflitc ratjher than consensus. We conduct ourselves politically as if we had nothing in common. Some zealots go so far as to urge, in Etzioni’s words, that “we forgo the notion of one society and allow it to be replaced by a conglomerate of tribes of various colors”. Indeed, they claim that tribalism is the only form of “community” that is likely to take root in a multiracial, multicultural society.

Etzioni not only rejects this point of view but is confident that most Americans reject it too, since they share a wide range of basic beliefs. It can still be objected, however, that his description of the “moral infrastructure” consists of vague generalities and that people are bound to disagree about their application to specific issues. There is a good deal of evidence, however – though Etzioni does not avail himself of it- that Americans agree even about concrete issues, the very issues, prominent in recent years as a source of bitter ideological conflict, on which agreement is allegedly impossible. Public opinion polls show that large majorities favor the expansion of economic opportunities for women. A Gallup poll conducted in 1987, moreover, found that 66 percent rejected the proposition that “women should return to their traditional role in society”. Yes 68 percent, according to the same poll, believed that “too many children are being raised in day-care centers”. Almost 90 percent described themselves as having “old-fashioned values about family and marriage”. In 1982 Daniel Yankelovich reported a two-thirds majority simultaneously in favor of women’s rights and a “return to more traditional standards of family life and parental responsibility”.

E. J. Dionne, who reports these findings in his Why Americans Hate Politics, notes that conventional labels do not accurately describe what Americans believe. “In the current era, … the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ seem less useful than ever”. Take the abortion issue, the most divisive issue in American politics, on which compromise is seemingly impossible. When the issue is defined as one of private choice against governmental interference, prochoice positions win out. But most Americans believe that too many abortions are performed and favor restrictions such as parental consent. The same ambivalence shows up in popular attitudes towards government. Most people agree, in principle, that government is too big and intrusive, but they support Social Security, national health insurance, and full employment. IN general, Dionne reports, polls suggest that “Americans believe in helping those who fall on hard times, in fostering equal opportunity and equal rights, in providing broad access to education, housing, health care, and child care”. At the same time, they believe that “hard work should be rewarded, that people who behave destructively towards others should be punished, that small institutions close to home tend to do more than big institutions run from far away, that private moral choices usually have social consequences”. Above all, they believe that families in which mothers and fathers live under the same roof with  their children provide the best arrangement for raising the young. This commitment to the “traditional family”, Dionne insists, should not be interpreted as opposition to feminism or even to alternative lifestyles. It simply reflects an understanding that “children are usually better off when they live with a mother and a father who made more than a passing commitment to each other”.

As Dionne characterizes them, popular attitudes contain more common sense than rigid ideologies that dominate public debate. They are ambivalent but not necessarily contradictory or incoherent. Unfortunately they find no expression in national politics, and it is for this reason, according to Dionne, that Americans take so little interest in politics. The exmplanations of political apathy and stalemate offered by other commentators, including Bellah and Etzioni, emphasize procedural considerations: sound bites; campaign finance; the overwhelming advantages of incumbency in congressional elections. The real explanation, however, is substantive: The parties no longer represent the opinions and interests of ordinary people. The political process is dominated by rival elites committed to irreconcilable ideologies. If Dionne is to be believed, the politics of ideology has distorted our view of the world and confronted us with a series of false choices: between feminism and family, social reform and traditional values, racial justice and individual accountability. Ideological rigidity has the effect of obscuring the views Americans have in common, replacing substantive issues with purely symbolic issues, and of creating a false impression of polarization. It is the prominence of issues that strike most Americans as unreal, Dionne argues, that explains “why Americans hate politics”. The issues that give rise to strident professions of faith, on both sides of the ideological divide, seem to have little bearing on the problems most people face in everyday life. Politics has become a matter of ideological gestures, while the real problems remain unsolved. “When Americans say that politics has nothing to do with what really matters, they are largely right”.

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