The importance of community

I just finished an interesting read: “Our Divided Political Heart” by E.J. Dionne. I would like to share one of the more enlightening insights from his book.

When one asks the question, “Why did Latter-day Saints in the western United States turn towards conservatism in large numbers after 1970?”, there are many answers. I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, and remember well one of the answers to this. The more extreme version of liberalism in the Sixties was very self-centered. “Do your own thing” was the motto. The growing counter-culture movement, combined with the anti-war protests, made people feel as if their communities were under attack. (Forgotten is the fact that one of the main targets of the radical liberals was the mainstream Democratic Party: reference Chicago 1968.)

The appeal of Nixon was chiefly that he promised to restore a sense of security and cohesion to our communities. This has been a traditional role for conservatism. As Robert Nisbet wrote, “Conservatism, as a distinguishable social philosophy, arose in direct response to the French Revolution. Standing in reaction to the individualistic Enlightenment, conservatives stressed the small social groups of society.” Conservatism’s foundation was built on the idea that these small social groups – and not individuals –was society’s “irreducible unit”.

That balance of community and individualism continued in conservatism until recently. Certainly Ronald Reagan had a strong sense of community in his philosophy. George H.W. Bush talked about the “thousand points of light” and his son, George W. Bush, ran on “compassionate conservatism”, which despite criticism was more than empty promises, as evidenced by his faith-based initiatives, expansion of Medicaid to include prescription drugs, and his heroic support of the battle against AIDS in Africa.

As E.J. Dionne points out, all of that changed with the Tea Party. The balance in conservatism between individualism and community was lost. In a curious way, the Republican Party is the modern heir of the Sixties liberal radicals; they are the ones preaching extreme individualism today. Where is their talk about community and common responsibility, concepts we heard so often from Reagan and his predecessors?  One can argue about the definition of community; conservatives have in the past championed the “smaller social groups” referenced above by Nisbet. But today, we’re not even hearing that. It’s every man for himself, with nary a word about common responsibilities.

This is not an ideology Brother Brigham would have been comfortable with.  One wonders if the Latter-day Saints will wake up to their heritage of concern for community and reject extreme individualism, whatever the source.

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