The meeting place

Author: Jay Walljasper

Bill Kauffman stands out as a poster child for independent thinking about the political future of our country. His book Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front- Porch Anarchists was published by the uncompromising right-wing publisher ISI Books and endorsed by left-wing luminary Gore Vidal. A former aide to Democratic Senator Pat Moynihan and a former editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, Kauffman is now a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The American Conservative. (Not to mention a Notre Dame parent.)

In 1988, he convinced his Los Angeles-bred wife, Lucine, to pack up and move to his hometown of Batavia in upstate New York for one year. Then they moved five miles north to Elba, an even smaller town, where Lucine became coach of the high school tennis team. She is now a town supervisor while Bill is vice-president of the Batavia Muckdogs minor league baseball team. He’s never regretted dropping out of big-time politics and journalism to devote energy to sustaining his hometown.

Illustration by Santiago Uceda

“You vote for president every four years, but every day you vote with your heart,” Kauffman says. “Do you eat at McDonald’s or the local diner? Do you watch TV or go down to the bar to hear the local rock band? I love the America of 1,001 communities with their different cultures and feel and visions. If that is lost, then America is lost.

“The idiocy of Red America and Blue America completely ignores the great beautiful diversity of this land,” he adds. “To diffuse this big political divide we have, let San Francisco be San Francisco and Utah be Utah.”

And, most important to Kauffman, let Batavia be Batavia. “I know outsiders drive through here and think, ‘What a dull, flavorless dump this is!’ But to me every building, every block has meaning.”

Left and right don’t matter as much to him as what helps Batavia and Elba and what doesn’t. While he long opposed public funding of the arts on principle, Kauffman got involved with the local arts council to help decide how to spend government grants. “Real life is always more complicated than ideology,” he says.

“I’ve seen a gay person working with an Assembly of God member on a local project,” Kaufmann adds. “That’s because they got to know one another. They are not cartoons to each other.”

If you want to change the world, he counsels, “Make yourself native to the place you are. It doesn’t have to be your hometown, just a place you feel at home — a city neighborhood, a small town, a part of the suburbs. Get involved in the community; learn the local history, the flora and fauna. And don’t worry that this will make you provincial. Just the opposite. When you love your place, you truly understand how other people love their places.”

The bridge between Blue America and Red America

As America’s partisan furor deepens, the we’re-all-in-this-together ethos Bill and Lucine Kauffman embrace — a set of values called communitarianism — could become the bridge between Red America and Blue America. Political common ground may be found on the streets of Batavia and thousands of places like it from Birmingham to Berkeley.

While not a familiar phrase, communitarianism is an old idea rooted in the belief that community connections are just as important as personal freedoms in creating a good society. While rugged individualism gets the spotlight in U.S. history, community spirit may have played a more important role in shaping our nation. Trailblazers set the stage for community builders who pulled together to raise barns, found towns, start businesses, form churches and establish schools. The cowboy alone on his horse in Hollywood Westerns embodies the American character, but so do the sociable townspeople in Norman Rockwell’s paintings.

Communitarianism could emerge as a new political force to bust through our paralyzing partisan deadlock because it transcends both left and right. Liberals generally back communitarian ideals such as helping the poor and protecting the environment but oppose the equally communitarian belief that people’s personal liberties should be subject to social or moral limits in order to protect the common good. Most conservatives applaud communitarian restrictions on personal behavior involving sex or drugs but resist limits being proposed on economic activity or guns.

Many Catholics, who represent the largest bloc of swing voters in America, find themselves at home with communitarian thinking. While they tend to lean left on economic issues, they lean right on social questions. That’s because of the communitarian current that runs through Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on community participation, the sanctity and dignity of human life, social responsibility, stewardship of the earth, a preferential option for the poor, the rights of workers and the principle of “subsidiarity,” which means that decisions should be made on the level of organization closest to those affected.

Practically speaking, any candidates willing to step out of the confines of today’s conservatism or liberalism in the direction of a broader communitarian viewpoint would likely gain Catholic votes in such key swing states as Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Mexico, Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire, all of which are 20 percent Catholic or more. And making this break with Red and Blue party lines would no doubt bring in plenty of non-Catholic voters who agree with the Kauffmans that the future of their communities matters more than the latest cause du jour on Capitol Hill.

A new political brew

So what would a communitarian political platform look like? Bill Kauffman takes a shot at describing one. “Return political, economic, cultural power to the grassroots, which is parallel to the Catholic idea of subsidiarity,” he says.

The number one political priority, according to Kauffman, would be “a drastic scaling back of the defense establishment and scaling back of our military presence overseas.” He’s astonished anyone calling themselves conservative would want to maintain our high levels of military spending, which he says fosters centralized government control, fuels runaway federal spending, encourages rootlessness and separates families.

Kauffman has found a home for his all-over-the-map political views on the online site The Front Porch Republic, which states its mission in three simple words: “Place. Limits. Liberty.”

“Though there is plenty we disagree about,” the website says about its contributors, “we’re convinced that scale, place, self-government, sustainability, limits, and variety are key terms with which any fruitful debate about our corporate future must contend.”

Could this be the spirit in which many conservatives, liberals and everyone else could come together to articulate a vision for a happy, healthy society?

Many see these fond hopes for a communitarian kumbaya coalition as wildly unfounded. Acrimony, not community, seems the foundation of modern U.S. politics. But outside of Washington, D.C., communitarian refugees from both political camps, along with conscientious objectors who never chose sides, are seeking to uncover what they share in common.

This is not the “sensible center” we hear so much about in the media — a mythical place dreamed up by pundits where liberals and conservatives feel equally comfortable. In the real world, voters have booted moderate politicians out of office left and right for decades. It’s clear this mushy middle is even less appealing to Americans today than outspoken liberals and conservatives. Emerging communitarians are not trying to split the difference between Red and Blue but want to find entirely new political possibilities by exploring what matters most for their families and neighborhoods.

The greening of the Right?

Katherine Dalton, a contributing editor at the staunchly conservative Chronicles magazine and a writer for The Front Porch Republic, is working to help Kentucky family farmers stay in business. One strategy is to forge connections to the slow, sustainable and local food movements. As a board member of the Berry Center, co-founded by Kentucky writer, farmer and sustainability authority Wendell Berry, she is exploring ways to re-create the federal tobacco support program for food crops and to establish a liberal arts degree in Small Farming at Saint Catharine, a Dominican college in Springfield, Kentucky. Dalton notes that the tobacco support program, a New Deal creation, was one of the most efficient, economical agricultural policies ever devised and deserves another chance with a healthier crop.

Illustration by Santiago Uceda

“My place on the political spectrum has always been on the right — but I am a small ‘r’ republican, an anti-war republican, a community-minded republican. The big ‘R’ Republicans join the Democratic party in serving power and big institutions.”

Journalist Rod Dreher put forward a vision of outside-the-box conservatism in his book Crunchy Cons, subtitled How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).

The idea for the book hit him one day when he told a fellow editor at the conservative magazine National Review that he was hurrying home to pick up local, organic vegetables at his neighborhood co-op. “She made the kind of face I’d expect if I’d informed her that I was headed off to hear Peter, Paul & Mary warble at a fundraiser for cross-dressing El Salvadoran hemp farmers,” he remembers.

On the subway home to Brooklyn, Dreher mused about how many aspects of his life, from skepticism about consumerism to concern about ecology, seemed like “left-wing clichés.” Yet these things were important to him and other young conservatives he knew — people he came to call “crunchy cons,” meaning green-minded, community-focused conservatives.

Dreher, like Kauffman, has moved back to his hometown, St. Francisville, Louisiana, and is now a senior contributor for The American Conservative. “I don’t really think of myself as a political conservative any longer. I am a cultural and religious conservative,” he says. “The conservatives I admire the most are men like Wendell Berry, who would surely resent being called a conservative, and Joseph Ratzinger, the pope emeritus. Both of them have an organic vision of society and the need for roots, tradition and transcendence that runs counter to the individualism at the heart of American politics.”

Libertarians vs. social conservatives

Patrick Deneen, a political scientist who recently left Georgetown to teach at Notre Dame, suggests that we are witnessing a recurrence of tensions in the conservative movement which go back to the 18th century. It’s a rift between the intellectual descendants of English philosopher John Locke — who championed individual rights, property rights and limited government — and those of Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who stressed the importance of community over individualism in forging a good society. In today’s political vocabulary, Deneen says, Locke would be a “libertarian conservative” and Burke a communitarian “social conservative.”

What held these two contrasting conservative viewpoints together over the past six decades was their mutual revulsion of Communism and later, in the eyes of some, Middle Eastern militants. But now that the Berlin Wall is long buried and the bill for years of military intervention in the Middle East is coming due, ruptures are breaking out all across the right.

In Deneen’s view, Lockean libertarian conservatism is an oxymoron. He unequivocally favors the views of Burke, whose worldview he says fits well with Catholic social and moral teaching (even though Burke was a lifelong Anglican). “If you are Catholic you are suspicious of anything that emphasizes the primacy of the individual, such as capitalism in the economic realm or abortion and gay marriage in the social realm.”

This is the spot where hope for a detente between communitarian-liberals and communitarian-conservatives gets tricky. Americans’ views on social issues, especially abortion and gay marriage, are connected to their fundamental moral outlook and not open for much negotiation. Folks on either side are not likely to switch their beliefs any time soon, but Pope Francis’ recent remarks on Church teachings do remind us that these are not the only important issues.

Deneen, like Dreher, sees social conservatives now charting a new path less focused on politics. “A lot of us think in our hearts the answer is in our homes, families, neighborhoods and communities,” Deneen offers. “I don’t have much hope for a political savior.” He calls this the “front porch republic” strategy, the same name as the website where he is a senior editor.

The Left discovers small and local are beautiful

In his book Our Divided Political Heart, NPR and Washington Post political commentator E.J. Dionne (who is generally pegged as a liberal although he tells me he fits more closely with the Christian Democratic parties of Europe and Latin America), observes, “Conservatism became a creed devoted to low taxes and less business regulation — and little else. Conservatives of a traditionalist, communitarian and small-r republican leanings” — what Deneen calls Burkean conservatives — have been left out of today’s conservative movement.

“All this has had some very peculiar effects on American politics,” Dionne notes.

Historically, liberals pushed a top-down, centralized, one-size-fits-all vision of progress while conservatives championed what is small, local, traditional and community-oriented. Yet today you’re more like to hear liberals champion the cause of local communities than conservatives. A new openness to communitarian values has found its way into the liberal agenda. “Liberals and the left,” Dionne says, are “rediscovering the power of community.”

Vermont stands as the best example of this shift in the ideological spectrum. In 1936 it was one of only two states to reject Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal by voting for Republican Alf Landon. Today the state’s Congressional delegation and governor are all Democrats, and both houses of the state legislature are dominated by the party of FDR. This turnaround is usually explained by an influx of new residents from New York, Massachusetts and other liberal bastions. But it could be that American politics have changed more than Vermont, which still cherishes the local, small-scale, communitarian values once considered “conservative.”

Vermont is small — second smallest in population, sixth smallest in geographic area of all 50 states — and inherently suspicious of things that are big. In the 1930s that meant intrusive government programs which might be imposed on the state’s citizens with no regard for their particular traditions and customs.

Today the bigger threat is out-of-state companies that would undermine Vermont’s way of life. That’s why it was the last state to host a Walmart (today it has only four), the first to ban fracking and the first in the continental 48 to ban billboards. Today’s conservatives and the corporate powers they represent are out of sync with the Green Mountain State’s traditional values.

Come home to rebuild America

If you’re still dubious that any liberals and conservatives can come together for a new Front Porch vision of America, listen to what Allan C. Carlson has to say. Carlson is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. His right-wing credentials go long and deep: a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, publisher of the paleo-conservative journal Chronicles, professor at Hillsdale College (which refuses government funding in all forms). And today, he’s a leading advocate for family-centered economics.

Yet some of what he says now will infuriate activists on the right. “Unregulated capitalism can go too far,” he declares. “A conservative is someone who has a bias in favor of conserving things. There’s nothing conservative about big corporations.”

Indeed, his pro-family political agenda sounds distinctly communitarian, with some ideas that even dyed-in-the-wool liberals could cheer about.

These are some of his main points: increase income equity — “I’m a great fan of the 1950s,” Carlson says, “and one reason is that incomes were more equal”; reduce military spending — “The other side of big government is the national security state, but that’s a sacred cow to the Republican, conservative establishment”; and rein in big corporations — “They don’t operate on a free market.”

He would also like to abolish tax breaks for second residences; redirect subsidies from agribusiness to small family farms (with the proviso that they welcome visiting schoolchildren); extend credit at favorable rates to small family businesses and microenterprises; and impose a progressive corporate tax on large retail chains.

Carlson says his “fire-breathing conservative days” are over, and when he looks at today’s political battles, “I think the biggest problem is knee-jerkism. You can’t have an intelligent debate if people just have knee-jerk reactions.”

Bill Kauffman, who readily admits to being a “congenital optimist,” believes, “We are living in a moment pregnant with possibilities. My sense is there is a bit of a coming-home movement in America today. It doesn’t show up on any political radar, but there’s a widespread sense that we’ve drifted from what’s good about this country.”

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults widely about how to create better communities. His website: