Book Review: The Dangerous Wane of American Communitarianism


Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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20 Responses

  1. Avatar Murali says:

    Leftists should be better at explaining “that citizens in a free republic need a degree of economic security, independence, and self-sufficiency [in order] to carry out their civic duties and…participate fully in self-government

    What’s so great about self government?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

      Sorta cuts down on tyrannous excess. Outsourcing government is a bad idea. It was tried for a while and some people still yearn for the days of empire and colonialism, I suppose. Carrots and sticks, greasy little nawabs served by chaiwallahs in uniforms, those were the days, eh?Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I’m thinking something a lot milder. Something like Charter cities or something. Offer someone some kind of stock option (like some fraction of GNP) to bring poorly performing countries up to scratch.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

          Murali, top-down management doesn’t work with countries. You don’t get to fire the citizens. You can jail ’em and repress ’em but unless you’re ready to try some Final Solution or that sort of thing, those folks just won’t go away, heh heh.

          Charter cities are failing everywhere they’ve been tried.Report

          • Avatar Plinko in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Um. . . aren’t they 0 for 0?Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Plinko says:

              China’s tried a few of ’em. Failure on a colossal scale.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

                There are different conceptions of charter cities. In the U.S., a charter city is simply a city whose basic governing structure is defined by a charter, rather than by state law (the latter are called general law cities). Obviously this is not exactly what either Murali or Blaise are talking about, but it’s an important starting point, because the larger concept of a charter city is one that is allowed to run its own affairs, with little to no intervention from above. Bear with me here, I’ll come back to that.

                I’m not sure that China’s ghost towns are actually charter cities in that sense. The government of the PRC is building these cities from scratch, a Brasilia approach of the type criticized by James Scott in Seeing Like a State, as the “high modernist city,” a top-down city designed to meet an aesthetic/bureaucratic/governing ideal, not a city designed to attract real humans. Not being an expert on China’s ghost towns, I stand open for correction, of course.

                In this larger sense a charter city is a sort of entrepreneurial venture, as promoted by Paul Romer and Patri Friedman.

                Theoretically, needing to attract residents to make the necessary ROI, the true charter city should (if run by practical businessmen and not idealists) be designed to be more attractive to real life people than the high modernist city. Of course it could all turn out to be a pipe dream, all theory and no empirical success. But the first ones are just in the planning stages, so I think Plinko’s 0 for 0 is correct, for the moment.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

                Would someplace like New London count?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m not familiar with it.Report

              • Avatar Plinko in reply to Jaybird says:

                You mean as in Kelo v. New London?

                Or is it a fictional reference I’m not getting?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Plinko says:

                Yes, exactly.

                That struck me as a modern example of a kind of charter city.

                And, yes, yet another example of such failing.

                But I may be misunderstanding “charter city” here.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Plinko says:


                Maybe I’m being a bit slow here, but I’m not getting it. The city of New London condemned property so they could then hand it over to a developer, not to create an independent city in any sense, but with the expectation the developer would increase the value of the property, thus bringing in more tax revenue to the city than it was previously receiving from those parcels.

                If I’m missing your point entirely, let me know.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Plinko says:

                I guess there must not be as much of an overlap as I thought between the two.

                It’s cool.Report

  2. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    E.J. Dionne is a prince among writers.

    The evolution or more properly, transmogrification, of the American Right is not hard to sort out. The nation was founded by high-minded revolutionaries much enamoured of Liberty when it suited their purposes. By the time the Constitution was drafted, the smoke of Shay’s Rebellion still hung in the air. These men who had so proudly proclaimed the equality of man were in no mood for Liberty of that sort. They knew what they had done to the previous regime could be done by others. As a last-minute gesture of compromise they tacked on the Bill of Rights, poorly thought out and wretchedly drafted concessions which perplex us to this day.

    The contradictory threads of populism and elitism were always seen in the warp and woof of the nation’s fabric. The two ideas have never been reconciled. They are with us still. I love Dionne, but there never was a time when American Conservatism was able to square up those notions. Bill Buckley tried. While WFB was the Great Colossus, standing astride the mutually-distrustful wings of Conservatism, that Grand Panjandrum managed to keep a few of the elitists on board through generous applications of Foo-Foo Dust. It could not last.

    And it hasn’t lasted. The Tea Party is an ancient thing, a hearkening back to the era of the Jacksonian Democrats and long before them, to the Anti-Federalists. There never was a consensus unless there was a war blazing away. The Cold War attenuated the worst of the internal political divisions, though we saw a few eruptions, they were just the fires deep in the coal mine periodically bursting through cracks in the ground. The American Populist predates the founding of the nation and he will outlast it.

    If American Liberalism has made any strategic errors, strategy only asks four questions:

    Who are we?
    Who are they?
    What is the objective?
    What tools and resources are needed?

    The Liberals have never truly answered the first two questions with any authority. They fatuously believe their causes ought to be embraced by everyone. Their objectives are not clearly defined, though they have made considerable progress on the Rights of Man, if the recent victories on LGBT rights are any measure of progress.

    The Conservatives have badly embarrassed themselves over time, conniving with bigots and pandering to xenophobia and generally consorting with Taliban Types within the religious community. They let the Liberals do all the hard work on changing America’s mind on the Rights of Man, slandering them all the while. But when attitudes change, when Nigger Nigger Nigger is no longer tolerable campaign rhetoric, they’ll resort to other dog whistles. They always pandered to America’s worst instincts and always will. Lee Atwater the Boogie Man might have died but his cause goes marching on. There will always be an Andrew Breitbart or a James O’Keefe or a Matt Drudge or a Karl Rove or a Ann Coulter or a Rush Limbaugh to replace him, for these characters are interchangeable as Lego blocks. Fuelled by cheap outrage, they do not appeal to the individual but to the mob and here is where Dionne fails most grievously. A mob is a community and it is roused to action, not by a perceived threat from an individual, but by another community.Report

  3. Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark says:

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post.Report