To the editors:

I read with great interest Harold Henderson’s excellent piece on communitarianism (July 17). The appeal of a communitarian approach that carefully weighs the costs and benefits of public policy stands in deep contrast to a doctrinaire individual rights approach. The limits of a pure individual rights position are powerfully captured by the ACLU’s campaign against roadside checkpoints intended to deter and apprehend drunk drivers.

The article was equally good at capturing the African American community’s ambiguity about this new approach to public policy. The debate over the Chicago City Council’s recent antiloitering ordinance illustrates this tension well. On the one hand, there is an earnest desire to contend with the terrible effect that drugs and crime have on the public communal space of the sidewalk and street. If crime and drug peddling prevent neighbors from interacting and building trust, the hopes of organizing disadvantaged citizens to take back their streets and get their fair share remains slender.

On the other hand, these ordinances allow police harassment of African American youth. In doing so, black leaders reasonably fear that the values and the prejudices of the white community, frightened as it is of young black men, are being codified into law. With the history of de jure segregation and racial oppression in this country, institutionalizing police power to disperse blacks on the street corner should give one pause. Community can easily repress minorities in the name of “greater” community values.

However, the article misses its stride when it attempts to capture where communitarians are as a movement. Based as they are out of universities and public policy schools, e.g. the eminent sociologist Amitai Etzioni, communitarians have spent their time attempting to convert the politicians and bureaucrats that shape public policy. They have most assuredly had their hearing at the southern white boys club of the Democratic Leadership Council. From here the communitarian contagion has spread right into presidential politics. Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech before the Democratic Party’s nominating convention in New York City demonstrates just how far they have gotten in this effort.

To begin with, the name that Clinton gives to his approach, the “New Covenant,” harkens back to the old covenant of the Bible with its divine revelation and a community–the people of Israel–accepting commandments. More modestly, Clinton’s New Covenant calls for mutual responsibility between citizens and government. The responsibility of citizens seems to be to “do the work, pay the taxes, raise the kids, and play by the rules.” Clinton’s New Covenant rhetoric revolves around the idea of giving new choices intended to foster and fulfill these older, middle-class American values. In doing so, the Democratic nominee makes a transparent appeal to the new majority in suburbia.

Clinton’s address made the most communitarian noise about the issues of work and kids. For those languishing outside of the labor market and subsisting on government entitlements, Clinton aims to give them the opportunity to “liberate” themselves to work through training, education, health care, and child care. On raising children, the acceptance speech retained their similar communitarian vein, for those fathers that are not meeting their child support payments, Clinton states, “Take responsibility for your children or we will force you to do it. Because governments don’t raise children; parents do.”

Finally, in an unusual statement for a man nominated by the Democratic Party, Clinton spoke the following words, “We offer our people a new choice based on old values. We offer opportunity. We demand responsibility. The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican. It is different. It is new . . . ” What it is, quite frankly, is communitarian.

Yet, the same difficulty that communitarians have in convincing African American leaders to accept antiloitering ordinances may also apply to Bill Clinton and the New Covenant. The problems of the inner city seemed to fade from the foreground in Clinton’s acceptance speech. Bill Clinton eschewed talking about policies to help our cities believing that this language is the hallmark of big government liberalism. Yet, by not doing so, he leaves unresolved whether African American citizens of the city–whose votes he also needs–will turn out for him on November 3.

Blacks’ lack of trust comes from the fact that the community values of those who work and pay the taxes has been flight to homogenous enclaves in the suburbs to escape the day-to-day monetary and social costs of their less well-off urban neighbors. If white suburbia’s community’s values and interests are enshrined by the Democratic Party, why should black city residents come round? This is one question that Bill Clinton and his New Covenant have to answer. Moreover, the Democratic nominee will have to do it in a way that simultaneously bolsters his appeal in the suburbs. This is a difficult, though not impossible task. It requires a more specific discussion about who are the members of the community and what our collective community values are. Still, all in all, communitarian thinking and policies have garnered greater influence than Harold Henderson’s article suggests, indeed, they may find themselves in the White House by early next year.

Bruce I. Friedland

N. Bosworth