All for One

06.30.13

Obama’s Shift Toward Communitarianism

The Obama years have been marked by a sharp turn toward anti-individualist, anti-authoritarian philosophy. Gregory Ferenstein on how the president is transforming what it means to be a Democrat.

Barack Obama was never going to be a champion of civil liberties; he leads a very old and quickly growing strain of the Democratic Party that prioritizes the collective good over individual rights. This coercively inclusive worldview feels that every business, government agency, country, and citizen has an obligation to contribute to the greater good.

Obama will mandate universal health coverage, but let private insurers run the programs; he'll maintain Middle East wars, but work with Russia on global nuclear disarmament; expand the education budget, but give more resources to unionless charter schools; and build online tools to monitor stimulus spending while collecting phone records of every American.

While this fiercely anti-individualist, anti-authoritarian philosophy goes by many names, political scientists generally refer to it as "communitarianism," named after the decentralized yet collectivist orientation of communities. "In the my wildest dreams, during 18 years of championing communitarianism, I did not expect a presidential candidate to be as strongly identified with this political philosophy as Obama is," gushed George Washington University professor of philosophy Amatai Etzioni.

"He is a communitarian," said former Obama adviser Van Jones in an interview with Breitbart News. "I think we’ve overbalanced the individualistic direction, and I think he’s trying to rebalance toward communitarianism."

Established liberal institutions have always worried that communitarian optimism was blind to the damage government agencies and big business could exact on society's most vulnerable. The civil libertarian–communitarian internal battle reached its height following the expansion of the security state after 9/11.

"Should we have a new balance post-9/11, and I think the answer to that is absolutely not," said former ACLU president Nadine Strossen in a series of debates with Etzioni in the 2001 ramp-up to the Patriot Act.

Eztioni, in lockstep with Obama 12 years later, had argued that the FBI's new email snooping programs were most justified: "The key issue is not if certain powers—for example, the ability to decrypt email—should or should not be available to public authorities, but whether or not these powers are used legitimately and whether mechanisms are in place to ensure such usage."

Communitarians generally don't fear invasions of privacy, so long as there's sufficient public involvement and oversight.

"For communitarians, public safety generally comes first," University of Southern California professor Brian Rathbun wrote to me in an email. “A key element of Obama's personal philosophy is on the merits of cooperation, that collective enterprises yield greater gains than individual action.”

The obsession with mass collaboration largely explains much of Obama's failing civil-liberties record across the board. All the way back in 1999, a young, higher-pitched Obama called teacher unions "a barrier to change."

As president, he's been an unqualified proponent of experimental charters, which reject the job stability of traditional schools. "In return for this flexibility, we should expect high standards and accountability and make tough decisions to close charter schools that are underperforming and not improving," Obama declared in in a 2013 proclamation for National Charter Schools Week.

To be sure, Obama is no privacy-ignoring, union-suppressing political snowflake. Just a short train ride away, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has distinguished himself as a collaboration and drone-happy public servant. "We’re going to have more visibility and less privacy. I don’t see how you stop that,” he admitted in a candid radio interview, where he endorsed blanketing the city with spy drones. "What’s the difference whether the drone is up in the air or on the building? I mean, intellectually I have trouble making a distinction."

Bloomberg has also shown a willingness to crush unions that stand in the way of innovation. He reportedly threatened to "fucking destroy" the taxi industry, which staunchly opposes car-sharing technology startups such as Uber that allow people to use their own cars as cabs. "It's the old entrenched industries that try to use the shield of regulation," Bloomberg told me during a press conference in San Francisco, "to protect them from the kind of competition that benefits society."

Closing the door on civil liberties, however, has opened up some exciting opportunities for novel, bipartisan policymaking. For instance, Obama supported a little known "waiver for state innovation" in the Affordable Care Act that exempts any state from the new law, so long as they can cover just as many people without increasing costs. This coercive form of mass collaboration admits that the federal government doesn't always have the best ideas, but keeps vulnerable citizens from being left without care.

“In the my wildest dreams, during 18 years of championing communitarianism, I did not expect a presidential candidate to be as strongly identified with this political philosophy as Obama is.”

Already Obamacare's requirement that private insurers disclose their costs has lead to dramatic cuts in Oregon health-care prices.

Obama also championed new forms of national service, tripling the number of young volunteers in the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 to 250,000. Additionally, his newly appointed chief technology officer, Todd Park, convinced major technology firms to volunteer a total of a million new student mentors by 2020, which could dramatically increase minority-student involvement in science, technology, engineering, and math.

In international relations, Obama broke George W. Bush's streak of stalling nuclear-weapons disarmament with an ambitious multilateral proposal to slash American and Russian stockpiles by 30 percent, hopefully putting us on the path to a less apocalypse-threatened world.

As this political philosophy begins to displace traditional liberals, it should be known that communitarians are a fairly easy bunch to spot—just look for notions of interdependence and global citizenship.

"For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people. If there's a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child," Obama said in his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, which should have tipped off civil libertarians that their age-old communitarian rivals were coming back.

It's also quite easy to spot communitarians based on whom their deep-pocketed Silicon Valley donors are backing. While the Bay Area gave more to Obama than either Wall Street (New York) or Hollywood (Los Angeles), they are exceedingly selective with the Democrats they support—and rarely give money to the party itself.

Newark Mayor and Senate candidate Cory Booker is a Silicon Valley favorite and has focused the $100 million education donation he got from Mark Zuckerberg on controversial charter schools. It should be no surprise that the unionless, privacy-skittish social network is itself a communitarian totem.

Legally, Facebook has aggressively fought regulations to deny its ability to automatically enroll users in new products ("opt in"). Facebook has argued that if users had been required to opt in to the Newsfeed, the initial privacy hysteria would have blunted adoption of a tool that is now a staple of social networking. Just like in a community, participation and sharing are the default assumption; privacy and isolation are left as inconvenient, antisocial options.

Together with their friends in Silicon Valley, communitarians are becoming a dominant force in society. To the extent that readers optimistically believe that cooperation between foreign governments, big business, and everyday citizens can yield collective prosperity, the growing power of the communitarian Democratic Party is a welcome change. For those who fear that we live in a zero-sum world between the powerful and weak, communitarians are blindly leading us into an unequal, rights-free society.

Regardless of whether you love or hate them, communitarians are here to stay.