Senator Josh Hawley is right when he says that America needs to renew its attention to “the middle.” The quibbling of Democrats’ debates, and the historic dysfunction of Congress, show that most of our governing class is simply ignoring the demands that half of the country expressed by electing President Trump. We have had more than our fill of postmodern chaos and excuses from a governing class that is fleeing from responsibility for average citizens. All generations, not least the hounded Millennials and the forgotten elderly, have heard too much about an “epidemic of loneliness” and “death by despair,” and not enough about reasons to hope. …
While rebuilding a community requires reorganizing power, there is much more to it. It is not enough simply to urge people to rejoin their church or a baseball league. As Robert Putnam and his colleagues demonstrated in Making Democracy Work, communities are built around shared traditions and norms―the “social capital” of the people. A local community has a character that distinguishes its people and place, one that gives the community an identity that its residents can relate to, negotiate with, and absorb into their own personalities. The social capital of a community is not merely an asset for its current residents: it also affects the welfare of future generations and the community’s attractiveness to newcomers. Public policy must therefore take it into account.
There is always the danger that emphasizing social capital and tradition can quickly lead a community to oppress or unjustly exclude some people. The entire political tradition of the Enlightenment can be seen as a resistance to unthinking, oppressive traditions that were thought to underlie the Leviathan states that existed before and during early modernity. But the American communities that we are considering are much smaller in geography and population than the nation-state, and therefore the dynamics of interaction are different; as a shared language for face-to-face social engagement and events, knowledge of tradition can be essential to individuals’ free participation in dialogue within their community.
Moreover, not all appeals to tradition are sincere. Niccolò Machiavelli urged leaders to pay lip service to traditional themes in their public statements in order to give their progressive policies a more appealing ideological mask. We see the same deception at work today as the dual forces of elite centrism and relativism use the language of family, peace, and religious sincerity as a convenient decoy while they in fact promote a culture of impulsive consumerism. By contrast, the tradition and common sense of America’s small communities authentically uphold faith and family as ballasts against the chaos of postmodernity.
Because of the importance of passing on tradition, a flourishing community requires active communication among citizens. The members of the community must engage, debate, and cooperate in the social and political processes that govern the community’s operations. But that cooperation can happen only if each citizen identifies so closely with his extended neighborhood that that identity expresses itself spontaneously in his action. In other words, true citizenship is a process of dialogue between the individual and the whole, and such citizenship is at the core of what defines any community. As Rudolf Steiner declared: “A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when, in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.”
That being said, we should add that one kind of community, the two-parent family, is founded on natural bonds that go deeper than the members’ self-identification with the group. Families are the bedrock of well-being for their individual members, both children and adults. They give their members financial security, healthy emotional growth, and the life experience that imparts spiritual and practical wisdom. For children in particular, living a happy family life teaches them that the larger world—of which their family is an image—is good, a lesson that children carry all through their lives. Moreover, families act in the larger social dialogue in ways that individuals do not, through inter-couple relationships, collective parenting networks, and intergenerational support. Flourishing communities are as much defined by the engagement of families as of individuals.
All of this ties in with Philip Halfacre’s vision of genuine friendship.