Community-based Conservatism: Sketching a Comprehensive New Conservatism for the 21st Century

By Brandon McGinley ’10

Back in November 2008, in my second article for the last pages of the Tory, I wrote of the “blank slate” with which American conservatism was presented after the election of Barack Obama.  As for how best to take advantage of this opportunity, I spoke only in the broadest language: “we must dedicate ourselves to a full-blooded conservatism that finds its unshakable foundation in this nation’s original ideals and in a consistent philosophy of human freedom and dignity.”  What precisely this would look like I did not know, but hoped to discover.  This article is an idealistic sketch of what that comprehensive, “full-blooded conservatism” might look like.

This sketch may not appeal to all who self-identify as conservatives.  In fact, some might find it, in part or in whole, positively repulsive.  Of those, some will be people of truly conservative temperament who disagree, either on pragmatic or principled grounds, with some of the specifics of this vision.  Others will be libertarians and utilitarians and others who fundamentally disagree with the most basic premise of this sketch – that the purpose of human society is the formation and preservation of moral goodness among the people.  Although they might be “conservatives” as part of a political coalition, they are not conservatives in any more meaningful sense.

And so the fundamental consideration of political discourse and decision-making must be the good – the most basic human good, a good that transcends materialism – of the persons who make up the political community.  And yet individuals cannot fully achieve and appreciate this good in a vacuum; as was perceived by the earliest ancient philosophers, man is a social animal.  This is not an idle observation; there are aspects of personal flourishing, such as the interpersonal responsibility and trust that comes with mutual dependence (as in a family), that are only obtainable in the context of community.  Indeed, the new natural lawyers identify friendship as a basic, irreducible, incommensurable human good.

And yet our modern politics has consistently shown at best ambivalence and at worst antipathy toward the importance of community.  If one were to use one word to describe the development of American (and all of Western) society during the 20th century, it would be “atomization.”  Whether through the explosive growth of the welfare state, the consolidation of consumerism in big-box mega-marts, or even the physical design of our towns and cities, cohesive local communities and other mediating institutions (Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”) of social life have been systematically rendered obsolete.  That is to say, modernity has been remarkably successful at reducing society to two types of agent: the individual and the bureaucracy (whether corporate or governmental).

It might not be clear why this development is to be lamented.  This atomization of society, though, acts to deprive individuals of the responsibilities and relationships that inspire happiness, virtue, and ultimately fulfillment.  Consider the welfare state.  When the federal government thrusts itself into the role of sole caretaker of the impoverished and underprivileged, it absolves individuals and communities of responsibility for the health and comprehensive well-being of friends and neighbors (and even family members).  It replaces personal interactions which express charity, compassion, and love with the ruthlessly impersonal calculations of offices and bureaucracies.  It tells members of struggling communities and the people at large that “You need not be your brother’s keeper; we’ll take care of that.”

This new conservatism, then, is poised to fill an important vacuum in American politics.  It will be a conservatism of policies, of course; it will continue to advocate on behalf of important social issues and will propose new policies to resist and reverse social atomization by reinforcing families, communities, and localities.  But more importantly, it will be a conservatism of arguments; it will defend these ideas and policies explicitly on the grounds that communities will be fortified.  For although the problem of atomization can be treated institutionally, it will require the will and the understanding of average Americans to be rolled back.  The people must comprehend, and conservatives must argue, that policies are good and bad precisely inasmuch as they strengthen and weaken those familial and geographic associations that insulate the people from government and encourage social virtues.

I argue for this approach today, however, not just on principled grounds.  This fresh and comprehensive vision of conservatism (and of Americanism) can also be politically powerful, capturing important strains of American electoral politics and marshaling them in the service of true principles of social well-being.  But what exactly will this conservatism look like?  We’ll first take a look at how some typical cultural issues can be understood from the perspective of the problem of social atomization.  Next, we will explore a reformulated economic conservatism that takes seriously the social and moral implications of the way individuals interact with the economy.  Finally, it is important to describe a few concrete causes that conservatives can take up to support the cause of community.

The quintessential cultural conservative issue is abortion.  The traditional argumentative dynamic is that of a conflict of rights between the freedom of the mother and the life of the fetus.  And yet the implications of legal abortion extend well beyond the two individuals commonly supposed to have a stake in the decision.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a social policy more atomizing than legal abortion, as its widespread acceptance and availability undermines any sense of interpersonal responsibility between parents and children, between mothers and fathers, and among members of families generally.  It affirms that the only legitimate consequences of sexual activity are fundamentally personal – such as emotional fulfillment (or distress) and physical gratification (or pain).  Finally, it establishes in the collective social consciousness the principle that life is not an inviolable, fundamental value, that an individual may decide the moral worth of another without regard not only for that person, but for the family, community, and society at large.  (This same principle can be applied to other life issues, such as euthanasia.)

Issues of family and marriage are also fundamental to a healthy conception of community.  It has become a trope of the pro-same-sex marriage movement that the legal recognition of such relationships will have no effect on the health and stability of traditional marriage.  And yet in redefining marriage from the conjugal union of biologically complementary persons to whatever emotional/sexual relationship the state decides to bless, marriage is legally transformed from a vital social institution, the natural end of which is children and family, to a simple contractual relationship between any two adults from which children (and thus the nuclear family generally) proceed merely accidentally.  The end of marriage would be institutionally transformed from the bearing and rearing of children and the creation and preservation of families (and thus of communities) to individual emotional and sexual gratification.  The degradation of this fundamental social institution into an atomistic contract of convenience and the resulting change in social attitudes toward marriage cannot but impoverish current and future marriages.

One might object that all the problems of atomization associated above with the legal recognition of same-sex “marriages” are also associated with liberal divorce laws.  And one would be correct.  Indeed, if one has any doubt that social attitudes toward (and thus the actual practice of) marriage can be radically altered by changes in the law of marriage, one need only look at the instability of modern marriage in the wake of “reforms” that initiated the process of degradation.  And so a truly community-based conservatism must make the case against the atomization caused by the undermining of marriage on all fronts.

Although economic issues are usually considered (particularly from a “conservative” perspective) merely in terms of efficiency and growth, the manner in which individuals interact with each other and with the economy has important social consequences.  An example of the contribution of economic issues to social atomization is the consolidation of burgeoning consumer culture in enormous commercial centers isolated from residential communities.  Rather than integrated communities in which transactions occur among friends and acquaintances with common interests and values, modern consumerism splits society into individual consumers and enormous, impersonal corporate marketplaces.  The transfer of goods and services, rather than being based on relationships founded in mutual trust and community accountability, are defined by mutual suspicion and exploitation, as both parties seek the greatest financial advantage from the relationship.

This should not be read as a total condemnation of American-style consumerism or even capitalism.  The growth of companies like Wal-Mart has brought innumerable economic advantages by increasing the efficiency of delivering goods to market and thus reducing the cost to the consumer, and curbing such companies would certainly diminish those benefits.  This progress, however, like all economic growth, should not be considered an unmitigated, or even a fundamental good.  If, as I have briefly argued, such consolidation is indeed harmful to healthy integrated communities, and thus even to the moral well-being of individuals, then it would be a grave error to privilege, either in argument or in policy, financial benefits over moral considerations.

But how can conservatives pragmatically take up a cause, no matter how founded in principle, that patently restricts some economic innovation.  The key, it seems, is to change the way we talk and argue about economics.  Current economic discourse is baldly utilitarian and materialist; conservatives are often particularly guilty of this when business and finance are defended seemingly by rote.  And even when morality is brought to bear, it is usually on the topic of distributive justice and remains committed to an impoverished conception of human good.  Conservatives, then, using the language of community, must reinvigorate economic discourse with moral content, reminding a people so accustomed to utilitarianism that economic structures and decisions have social and moral consequences (and not just in some far away time and place, but in the way we think about and experiences ourselves and our communities today).

It should be briefly noted that this does not imply that government should take an increased role in the economy.  Quite the opposite, what makes this sketch fundamentally conservative is that it disavows big government solutions which are inherently atomizing.  The social and cultural (and thus economic) encouragement of small, local businesses is indeed a strong check against governmental involvement.  The government may have a role, however, in making our physical communities conducive to social and economic communion.

Certainly the idealistic vision sketched above cannot be simply dropped on the American public, although the atmosphere is ripe for an expression of profound skepticism toward unbridled business and (particularly) the wealth-for-wealth’s-sake world of finance.  Some specific points of policy that conservatives could use to introduce this community-based vision to the American people are in the realms of design and infrastructure.  Conservatives can and should commit themselves to affordable and efficient public transit and the design of pedestrian-friendly communities, thus decreasing reliance on the atomizing (and energy-burning) automobile.  These two proposals work in tandem to encourage social and economic interactions among members of communities, promoting the development of local, integrated, and interesting communities that attract people and organic economic growth.  For a far more comprehensive explanation of the importance of transit and design for strong communities, see David Schaengold ‘07’s essay of April 17, 2009, in the online journal Public Discourse entitled “Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit.”

These relatively uncontroversial proposals can prime the pump for a larger offensive against the socially destructive effects of atomization.  They would remind people of what is given up in the world of big-box stores and gated “communities.”  They would make localities suitable again for precisely the small-scale entrepreneurship that conservatives claim to long for.  And they would produce extremely desirable communities that would provide a substantial buffer to government meddling and undercut (although not destroy, which is a good thing) the domination of impersonal, socially destructive commercial titans.  The best way to convince people that strong local communities are a social and moral good worth making a focus of our politics is to take steps toward creating those communities and let them speak for themselves.

This is, as I’ve repeatedly stated, only a sketch of a new, comprehensive conservatism.  Its focus on localism and communities has implications for many other politically important issues that could not possibly be covered in this space.  Most interesting might be the implications for foreign policy.  What does a renewed commitment to individual flourishing and the strong communities that make it possible mean for America’s adventures abroad?  I don’t have a precise answer to that question (and there likely isn’t a single perfect answer), but if conservatives can reorient political discourse in the way described above, then promising answers can be discovered, discussed, and debated.

Fifteen months ago I described the “blank slate” with which conservatives were presented after the election of Barack Obama.  Today, in my last article for the Tory, I am proposing a new vision to fill that void.  It is based on the fundamental premise that strong communities are crucial to the individual flourishing of their members and thus to social well-being.  It is the responsibility, then, of conservatives to reject the trend of social atomization that has dominated at least the last century of American political and social development, on the understanding that true and robust individual liberty (rather than the superficial freedom of atomization) is only possible in the context of strong, responsible communities.

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