The case for community

by William Bornhoft


In present day America, we tend to categorize problems in one of two ways: either it’s a problem the state should take care of, or it should be up to the individual to solve (or avoid) it on his own.

Take the problem of binge drinking, for example. Last year, Milwaukee Public Television hosted a discussion among a panel of experts on how to “crack down” on the culture of binge drinking and drunk driving in the state of Wisconsin (the Badger State ranks number one in the country for binge drinking). When asked what to do about the problem, the panel basically divided into two sides; one advocating for more regulation, and one that advocated against regulation. 

Both sides were well versed in listing the grave social and economic tolls binge drinking takes on families and local communities, but neither did much to involve those social entities in their solutions.

It’s very unfortunate that society’s answer to most problems is either to take some form of government action or to take no action at all and chalk it up to “individual freedom.” More often than not both of those turn out to be rather pathetic solutions.

What might seem paradoxical is how the “individualist” and “collectivist” solutions emerged together roughly in the past century. While they seem like incompatible philosophes, the two share a symbiotic relationship.

As local institutions and associations weakened, or died out, the need for one unitary, centralized authority grew. Freed from the ties of family, class and church, individuals were no longer a part of local communities capable of governing themselves, and thus a more centralized power emerged.

This largely is the thesis developed by the late sociologist Robert Nisbet in his book “The Quest For Community” published in 1953. Nisbet might best be described as the modern-day Edmund Burke, which in the modern day probably means nothing. Nevertheless, his critique about the alienated, community-deprived society and where it was headed were prophetic. Nisbet could see the collapse in social capital taking place way back in the 1950s, a time most Americans think of as the golden age for neighborhood and family life. A half-century later, the Harvard professor and political scientist Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone” (2000), which provided statistical confirmation of the decline in the number of people participating in groups and associations. The title of the book was derived from the finding that more Americans are bowling than ever before, but there are less bowling leagues.  

While an abstract argument, the effects of the state-individual advancement and the death of intermediate communities and associations can be seen today. The growth of the national debt, as well as the indifference to the death of locally owned businesses at the hands of big box stores like Walmart, can both be attributed to the need for a bigger entity to serve a population alienated from each other.

Despite this alienation, the “quest for community” continues in new, arguably less fulfilling ways. For the many seeking membership through politics, political parties and social activism can indeed foster a sense of belonging and purpose. However, even the most ardent supporters of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign will now admit that the spiritual, almost messianic ascendance of the young candidate to the national stage, lead by celebrities and pop stars singing “yes we can,” was inevitably going to be followed by disappointment.

In an almost perfect parody, the election of President George W. Bush was thought to be a watershed moment for Evangelical Christians hoping to shift the dynamics of the culture war. However, the Bush years will probably be remembered as a high point for social conservatives, who have since been put on the defensive even within their own party.  

What might be beneficial is, instead of candidates encouraging people to get involved with their local communities for political purposes (door knocking, voter registration drives, presidential debate watch parties), they would encourage it for the purpose of simply making better, more vibrant communities, where neighbors can tackle problems together locally.

It would also be good if conservatives stopped talking about economic liberty as if it’s the only thing necessary to make a good society, and if liberals acknowledged that the state’s capacity to solve social problems is severely limited.

Ultimately, the debate over bigger or smaller government, between “individualists” and “collectivists,” only serves as a distraction. The shaping society in a way that is just and ordered, where the poor are taken care of and the lonely can feel included and a sense of self-worth, will only happen when individuals feel a duty to take care of more than just themselves, and have the means to do it through more than just government and politics. That’s simply not happening in this day and age because we’re more likely to feel an attachment to the people on reality TV shows than our own neighbors.


William Bornhoft

Welcomes comments at [email protected]