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Conservatism is Dead: Long Live Liberalism? (Part III)

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Conservatism is dying on the vine [detailed here]; liberalism is not a mainspring of compelling and mobilizing ideas [here]. Obama draws heavily on -- and contributes much to -- a little known social philosophy known as communitarianism. It is centered around the importance of community, the common good, and service.

The nature of communitarianism is best illustrated by contrasting it with identity politics, the rejection of which is both a major theme of Obama's campaign, and is symbolized by his post-racial biography and personhood. Identity politics build on what differentiates us from one another: our racial or ethnic origins; our sexual orientations; our separate past social histories. Identity politics led to attempts to form a 'rainbow' coalition, composed of various groups who considered themselves victimized -- against the declining white, male majority. Other forms of identity politics pitted citizens against immigrants. Some of the more radical versions of multiculturalism also contributed to this kind of divisive politics.

Obama's conceit is the mirror opposite of this kind of liberalism. On the stump, he repeatedly stresses that we are not from red states or blue states but from the United States. His statement, reiterated time and again, that we are not black, white, Hispanic, Christian or Jewish, but members of one overarching community, is much more than a flurry of oratory: it is a major social philosophy that seeks to draw the best out of all of us and invest it in making a better life for all.

A revival of the American community requires us to spend much less of our energy and resources on fighting one another, and invest much more of it in the common good, in those goods that serve one and all. Hence, Obama seeks not only social justice for the poor, but decent work at decent wages for one and all; he harps less on the uninsured, and seeks a health care system that will encompass all Americans; he is as open to those with a strong faith as he is to those who embrace secular humanism.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama shows that he is well versed not only in the language of rights and entitlements but also that of obligations. He writes, "We value the imperatives of family and the cross-generational obligations that family implies...We value patriotism and the obligations of citizenship, a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of our nation."

Better yet, Obama used to stress that,

"in the end a sense of mutual understanding isn't enough. After all, talk is cheap; like any value, empathy must be acted upon." He recounted with pride that when he was a community organizer "[he] would often challenge neighborhood leaders by asking them where they put their time, energy and money." He put this key communitarian idea well when he stated: "If we aren't willing to pay a price for our values, if we aren't willing to make some sacrifices in order to realize them, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all."


Obama's international policies strike the same basic note. He is looking to work with our allies and to engage our adversaries in a dialogue, rather than force down our allies' throats policies the United States has generated and use our military power to forcefully change the regimes which adhere to values different than ours.

The nation is upon hard times. Its coffers are empty; creditors are at the gate; the military is exhausted and depleted; the regard with which America is held overseas is at an all time low; and major economic and security challenges pile up like so many storm clouds. The nation demands a prolonged period of restoration, one in which merely replenishing all that was squandered will entail raising taxes and keeping new expenditures under a tight leash. In plain English -- sacrifices. People will be willing to put their shoulder to the wheel only if they are convinced that their efforts are dedicated to the common good, and not to the service of one group or another.

A three-way combination of addressing climate change, environmental protection, and development of sustainable sources of energy is a model and leading common good. It is not tailored to serve any particular group or class, but to provide for all our lives -- and those of our children and their children. No wonder both liberal Gore Democrats and conservative Christian Evangelicals, the moderate left and the moderating right, can find purpose here.

Other Obama favored policies fit well into a communitarian agenda, such as dramatically expanding the opportunities for national service, drawing on faith based groups to participate in the delivery of social services, and fighting drug and alcohol abuse.

Returning the economy to a course in which everyone will be able to earn a "living wage" and all Americans will be able to gain and maintain their health insurance, two Obama goals, may sound like liberal themes. However, they are formulated as communitarian ideals because they do not call to serve only those most in need--the poor, the disadvantaged, the people of color--but all Americans. The same holds true for Obama's educational reforms. All together these amount to what Michael Kazin and Julian Zelizer called "a new social contract." (I would add paying one of the parents a wage during family leave from work when a new child is born. It is a very costly program; hence it must be gradually introduced. However, given that many European societies can afford it, it is hard to see that the United State--still richer--could not do the same).

One may argue that none of these communitarian themes are novel ones. Indeed, their echo can be heard in Bill Clinton's call for finding the common ground. Bush had a communitarian minute when he called on Americans to dedicate 4,000 hours to volunteer work during their lifetime, a noble idea he forgot as soon as the teleprompter was turned off. His compassionate conservatism lasted a few speeches longer, before it too was dumped. Much more importantly, environmentalists have long championed ecological responsibility. However, whereas in the past communitarian ideas were treated as part of a much large package, Obama makes them the main theme of his public philosophy.

Communitarianism is far from being a fully worked-out social philosophy. It is only beginning to develop its international side. It has a way to go before it is ready to reconcile its commitment not to divide the members of the community against one another and to promote social justice. However, it is a compelling social philosophy whose time has come. You can see in the faces of the millions who turn out to cheer Obama, and who may carry him -- and America -- into a new age that is neither liberal nor conservative but communitarian.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University. For additional discussion, see The New Golden Rule. Contact him at comnet@gwu.edu

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