Web Essays

One For All

A sociologist's plea for the common good

By Steve Lagerfeld | September 24, 2019
Rob Mercier/Flickr
Rob Mercier/Flickr

Reclaiming Patriotism by Amitai Etzioni; University of Virginia Press, 232 pp., $19.95

[Book available for free download here.]

Amitai Etzioni is not a quitter. In a career stretching back to the 1960s, he has published dozens of books on topics ranging from foreign policy to bioethics and countless articles in an unflagging campaign to create a new “communitarian” politics.

Communitarianism grew out of a reaction in political philosophy to the rise of radical individualist thinkers such as John Rawls and Robert Nozick. But in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions, it took a more practical turn when Etzioni and other scholar-activists began working together to devise policy proposals that tilted away from individual rights and toward a more community-based ethos. With Etzioni (head of the Communitarian Network and the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, where he is also a University Professor) as their impresario, the communitarians achieved their greatest influence during Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms. Clinton launched his 1992 presidential campaign with a call for “opportunity, responsibility, and community” and embraced the communitarians’s call for national service, though the program that emerged was quite modest, and they endorsed his welfare reform as a necessary rebalancing of personal and collective responsibilities.

Etzioni’s new book, Reclaiming Patriotism, is in many ways a natural capstone to his career. No form of community matters more in his view than the nation. Love of country is the spring from which all other good things flow, from faith in democratic institutions to the spirit of compromise. It creates a sense of shared values and commitments that elicits self-sacrifice and devotion to the common good, an antique-sounding term that Etzioni, to his credit, does not shrink from sprinkling liberally through his book. It is the opposite of the often virulent nationalism abroad in the world today. Charles de Gaulle put it succinctly in a sentence Etzioni takes as his epigraph: “Patriotism is when love of your country comes first; nationalism when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

This kind of patriotism is obviously in short supply in our polarized society, and Etzioni does not think it can be revived through ordinary political means, or even a third political party. What is needed, he believes, is a new social movement, akin to the civil rights and other transformational movements of the past. This “patriotic movement” would open “moral dialogues” about issues such as immigration, trade, and individual rights in order to create what Etzioni (who has an unfortunate weakness for acronyms) calls “shared moral understandings” or SMUs. We would not necessarily reach consensus, but the process would bind us together. New social norms would be the central benefit, while new laws and regulations could also result. Public smoking bans, for example, quickly became an accepted part of the public fabric.

A year of national service for all young Americans tops Etzioni’s list of preferred goals for the patriotic movement, followed by enhanced civics education in public and private schools and a “Welcome English” program for immigrants that would bring citizen volunteers into direct contact with newcomers. He decries the power of special interests as the single greatest threat to American democracy, and suggests that the only remedy, given the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to limit corporate free speech, may be to redefine in law what constitutes a quid pro quo so that it’s easier to charge those who seek favors from congressmen with bribery. In 1994, for example, Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Harkin co-sponsored a bill that classified dietary supplements as food rather than drugs, freeing them from safety testing and other regulation. Hatch, a conservative Republican, and Harkin, a liberal Democrat, had little in common except an unusual ability to attract campaign contributions from the makers of dietary supplements. In Etzioni’s scheme, campaign giving linked to substantial material benefits of this kind would leave the donor open to criminal prosecution. How the recipients are to be treated is a matter best left to Congress, Etzioni says.

The patriotic movement will need to define the issues for itself, however. Etzioni sees his moral dialogues as bipartisan “big tent” affairs, but there doesn’t seem to be much room for the conservative thinkers and activists who share many of his concerns about community, whom he barely discusses. His call to community won’t be universally acclaimed on the left either, even though he embraces the standard liberal agenda—affordable health care, eliminating poverty, protecting the environment. Liberal advocates of individual rights won’t easily warm to a vision of the common good that requires trimming some of their most cherished principles, such as privacy. It is “self-evident “ to Etzioni, for example, that the government must retain the ability to tap into individual’s mobile phones in order to protect national security. And while Etzioni tries hard to draw identity politics under his big tent, promising that he is not on “a quest to end identity politics,” he lays down conditions that make that virtually impossible. Those “who see one particularistic identity as defining them” would be required to subordinate those identities to their American identity and to abandon some of their deepest beliefs. Those who believe that America is not just in need of reform but is so deeply stained by racism and other sins that it is in need of radical transformation don’t have a place under Etzioni’s big tent.

To sketch out these difficulties is only to acknowledge the seemingly insoluble problems that weigh down anyone who tries to see a path to a greater common good. Etzioni doesn’t imagine that his ideas can overcome all obstacles. He sagely hopes that they can set in motion a set of centripetal forces to balance the raging centrifugal ones that are pulling America apart. That’s a start. Who else has a better way forward?

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