The quest for community and the appeal of identity politics

Ross Douthat writes in his most recent New York Times column:

Liberal societies have always depended on an illiberal or pre-liberal substructure to answer the varied human needs — meaning, belonging, a vertical dimension to human life, a hope against mortality — that neither John Stuart Mill nor Karl Marx adequately addressed.

These included family, religious communities, and a common American culture and patriotism. He continues:

Each of these foundations often manifested illiberalism’s evils: religious intolerance, racism and chauvinism, the oppressions of private and domestic power. But they also provided the moral, cultural and metaphysical common ground that political reformers — abolitionists, Social Gospellers, New Dealers, civil rights marchers — relied upon to expand liberalism’s promise.

Much of post-1960s liberal politics, by contrast, has been an experiment in cutting Western societies loose from those foundations, set to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No heaven or religion, no countries or borders or parochial loyalties of any kind — these are often the values of the center-left and the far left alike, of neoliberals hoping to manage global capitalism and neo-Marxists hoping to transcend it.

Unfortunately the values of “Imagine” are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer.

Like Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community, Douthat ties the weakening of traditional notions of community with the rise of larger-scale, less personal communities.

It’s interesting that Nisbet, writing in the 1950s, was mostly concerned with the decline of smaller-scale, traditional communities in favor of membership in the abstract national communities of modern states, most obviously in the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century. If Douthat is right, then cosmopolitanism on the left is having the effect of eroding nationalism, the previous beneficiary of the erosion of smaller-scale communities.

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3 comments

  1. Interesting perspective on Douthat’s article (which I thought was excellent).

    A professor of mine at BU did some related sociological work on church communities that applies to any sort of communities: the clearer the commitments of the group, the smaller it shall be, but the more intimacy it shall have, because its members won’t need to negotiate tacit assumptions and protocols and whatnot, whereas the fewer and less clear the commitments, the larger it can be, but the less intimacy it shall have.

    • Yes, those observations make sense. Synthesizing other’s thoughts and my own, as the communities get larger, the lack of intimacy means people relate through impersonal procedures like lawsuits, complaints to college administrators, or torching someone on social media. We can easily make our enemies into abstractions who are totally evil and must be totally defeated, rather than neighbors to be loved even in disagreement.

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