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Gary Dorrien

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Obama's Communitarianism

Posted: 03/ 4/2012 7:15 pm

Barack Obama is a liberal-leaning, moderate, pragmatic communitarian. His thought was shaped in the 1980s and early 1990s, when debates over liberalism versus communitarianism re-energized the field of political theory. There are conservative forms of communitarian theory that place a high value on authority and social cohesion. There are progressive forms that emphasize social justice and environmentalism. And there are moderate forms that emphasize "responsibility," usually defined as the political middle ground, wherever it happens to be.

Obama is skilled at bending communitarian thought to the middle ground, where every national election is decided. Always he upholds the signature moderate communitarian emphasis on balancing rights and responsibilities. But since the debt ceiling debacle of July 2011, Obama has gotten clearer that he cannot have a successful presidency if he does not push harder for equality and the common good.

The communitarian revival in political theory began with Michael Sandel's landmark book of 1982, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, which skewered the "unencumbered self" of liberal theory. Three years later Robert Bellah and five co-authors popularized a progressive version in their bestselling book, Habits of the Heart. The new communitarians criticized the egocentrism of American life, contending that conservatives and liberals, in different ways, lifted individual rights and success above the common good. Both of America's dominant political traditions eroded the connections between individuals and their families, communities, and nation. Both traditions rationalized the assaults of global capitalism on communities, mediating institutions, and the environment.

Communitarians resurrected John Dewey's understanding of democracy as a "great community" of shared values and his conception of politics as the project of continually re-creating the public. Progressive communitarians stressed that America's accelerating inequality shredded American democracy. A good society, the Bellah group argued, would subordinate private interest to the common good. It would reduce the punishments of failure and the rewards of success. It would resist the relentless capitalist drive to turn labor and nature into commodities. It would expand opportunities for socially useful work and promote economic democracy by expanding the cooperative and community-development sectors. It would recognize that commercial society is at war with the world's natural ecology and its social ecology.

This vision of a good society outflanks, to the left, anything that Obama has advocated. But Obama is a communitarian of a mostly progressive sort. He is devoted to a deliberative politics of the common good that helps communities build a good society. The civic republican language of identity, pragmatic engagement, civil society, and communities of faith is second nature to him. It was the basis of his work as a community organizer.

Community organizing is about creating structures of power that help communities
attain solutions to their problems. It makes gains toward justice and community-building by organizing people and money around a common vision. Doing that requires building up broad-based organizations that unite block groups, parent associations, unions, religious congregations, and civic groups. When Obama was a community organizer, he urged that every obstacle to building such organizations is a reason why they are needed. Community organizations gain voice and power for the needs of communities, breaking the crippling isolation that makes people believe that there is no solution. Democracy is the work of continually renewing society.

Obama can be faulted for believing too much in a milquetoast version of communitarian politics and his own powers of persuasion. He has spent much of his presidency trying to accommodate an obstructionist opposition that cares only about taking him down, and he is still not sure that campaigning aggressively for the common good will succeed politically. Some of his advisors
would rather run on "morning in America" optimism, refashioning Reagan's re-election campaign of 1984.

But that would be insulting to tens of millions who cannot find a job or afford to retire, or who have lost their homes. There is no reason for the U.S. not to make large-scale social investments to build a clean energy economy and renew American society. The U.S. has underinvested in infrastructure, education, and technology for decades; the U.S. has low borrowing costs and the prospect of high returns; and it is far better to reduce the national debt through fiscally driven economic growth than by slashing Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public unions.

Republicans took an absurd position in opposing the economic stimulus of 2009, for which they were richly rewarded in the midterm elections. The latter absurdity has made the Republican Party crazier than ever. If Obama does not win a second term, a Republican administration will savage Medicare and Medicaid, enact yet another massive tax cut for the one percent, and try to privatize Social Security. The serious alternative is to renew American society by making aggressive investments in clean energy hardware, education, technological innovation, and a rebuilt infrastructure. Four years ago, it was exciting to anticipate what a former community organizer might do as president. It is not too late to get a good answer.

Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His 16 books include the forthcoming Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and the recently published The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective (Rowman & Littlefield).