The Forgotten Communitarian
Why are Bill Clinton’s contributions to restoring the language of civic obligation so regularly and casually overlooked? A response to James T. Kloppenberg.
In “Restoring the Language of Obligation,” [Issue #24] James Kloppenberg laments “the ignorance of most Americans about the centrality of the concept of obligation in American history.” Yet there’s a gaping hole in his own synopsis of that history—the 1990s, when civic themes re-entered the nation’s political discourse in a big way.
Invocations of civic duty and the disinterested pursuit of the common good were touchstones of American politics from colonial days until around the 1970s, says Kloppenberg, when liberals “traded the language of duties for the language of rights.” He argues persuasively that the ensuing fixation with rights talk and identity politics sped the unraveling of the New Deal coalition, and, by eroding more expansive notions of social solidarity, abetted the rise of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government populism.
But there his recap ends, skipping the striking period of civic ferment that followed. In politics, for example, Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats” consciously sought to reclaim the civic-republican tradition. Concepts like mutual obligation, community, and national service, and balancing citizens’ rights with their responsibilities, were central to the nation’s political conversation in the 1990s, and even migrated abroad via the “third way” dialogue between Clinton, Tony Blair, and other center-left political leaders.
In announcing his candidacy in October 1991, Clinton promised leadership “that will provide more opportunity, insist on more responsibility and create a greater sense of community for this great country.” Thus was born the “opportunity, responsibility, community” mantra that would come to encapsulate the New Democrat governing philosophy. The New Dems rejected both the right’s “fend for yourself” logic of social abandonment and the left’s tendency to carve the commonweal into costly entitlements for favored groups.
On the stump, Clinton hit a nerve by promising “no more something for nothing” and calling on young Americans to “give something back” through national service. The late Charlie Moskos, a Northwestern University military sociologist, often observed that the federal government, by steadily expanding student aid while asking nothing in return, had unwittingly created a “GI Bill without the GIs.” New Dems (including me) conceived of national service as a “civilian GI Bill” that would reforge the severed link between public service and public benefits.
Clinton also saw national service as a way of pushing back against economic and political forces that were aggravating inequality and deepening the nation’s social cleavages. “I believe that this national service project has the capacity, anyway, to make us believe we don’t have anybody to waste, to make us believe we are all in this together, to give us a chance to reach across racial and income lines to work together,” he told Steve Waldman, author of The Bill, a 1995 book about how Clinton’s service idea became law.
At first, Clinton’s hard-boiled political consultants were mystified by his fixation with service. They’d never heard of the idea, hadn’t polled it, and didn’t see any organized interests that could be mobilized behind it. Eventually, though, they came around as they saw the strong visceral response it drew from audiences beyond the Beltway. In Congress, however, Clinton’s idea got a rough reception from both sides. Conservatives claimed it would force young Americans to “serve the state,” Soviet-style. Liberals objected that tying college aid to service would discriminate against the poor, who would be forced into service while rich kids went to school on their parents’ dime. In the end, Clinton managed to shepherd through Congress a whittled-down program in 1993, and AmeriCorps was born. More than 700,000 Americans have served in the corps, which was later expanded, and many popular service programs, like City Year, have long waiting lists.
The decade’s civic efflorescence was by no means confined to the political world. Volunteer and civic-enterprise programs like City Year, Hands on Atlanta, and Teach for America sprang up to offer young people a chance to serve communities. Nonprofit groups experienced “phenomenal growth,” reported Independent Sector, employing nearly 11 million people by 1998. The term “civil society” came back into vogue, as intellectuals across the spectrum rediscovered Burke’s “small platoons” and the Tocquevillian realm of voluntary associations.
In “Bowling Alone,” a seminal 1995 journal article, Robert Putnam drew attention to a long decline in associational life, which he argued had depleted America’s social capital. A cascade of books—Reinventing Citizenship by Harry Boyte, The Spirit of Community by Amitai Etzioni, The Essential Civil Society Reader by Don Eberly—highlighted the “third sector” as a vital sphere of social action and “public work” operating independently of both markets and the state. My own institute worked with scholars like DeWitt John to popularize the notion of “civic environmentalism,” which devolves decisions about how best to manage watersheds and natural habitat from Washington regulators to communities and individual landowners.
Scholars like Etzioni, Mary Anne Glendon, and William Galston organized the “communitarian” movement to push back against a radical individualism that denied communal rights and bonds. James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory found expression in a proliferation of “community policing” experiments that emphasized public order, quality of life issues, and foot patrols over the paramilitary approach to crime control.
Clinton paid close attention to these developments. In addition to national service, he applied the logic of civic reciprocity to another big innovation: welfare reform. “We should give people on welfare the skills they need to succeed, but we should demand that everybody who can, work and become a productive member of society,” he said in declaring his presidential bid.
Welfare reform explicitly balanced collective and personal responsibility. Saying that society had an obligation to “make work pay,” Clinton first got Congress to approve a vastly expanded federal tax subsidy for low-wage workers. Liberals loved this “work bonus,” but flinched from the “personal responsibility” side of the equation: making welfare temporary and requiring most recipients to work. Several quit the Administration when Clinton, after rejecting two harsh bills cooked up by the GOP House, signed a third one in 1996 that, among other things, ended the permanent entitlement to cash assistance.
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