This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
Communities are the foundation of a democratic way of life. This idea is known as communitarianism, a school of thought that envisions “a richly American narrative of strong families, of vibrant communities, of people taking care of themselves and each other,” in the words of the American Project’s “A Way Forward” document.
Communitarianism is stirring again. For instance, under the leadership of Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Congress’s Joint Economic Committee launched the Social Capital project, which investigates the nature and importance of “associational life” in American society. The work of the Woodson Center parallels its efforts, challenging a “victimhood mindset” that inadvertently disempowers low-income communities. Bob Woodson promotes community revival from “the inside out and from the bottom up.”
Communitarianism is cross-partisan. Consider Wellbeing in the Nation (WIN), a diverse network of community groups that includes many progressive members. As the WIN Digest puts it, “People need fulfilling relationships and social supports to survive. They need to feel part of community … social support from friends, family, and other networks helps us navigate challenges and reinforces healthy behaviors.”
Why this renewed emphasis on community? The American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin suggests an explanation: “Many of our struggles seem rooted in relational problems. Loneliness and isolation, mistrust and suspicion, alienation and polarization … are the characteristic maladies of this era … fall[ing] into the blind spots of our individualist culture.”
Communitarianism offers hope for an American civic revival. It can be strengthened by the policy and practice of public work.
Unlike governments emerging from the distant past, the government of the United States was founded on the agency and authorship of its people — a principle expressed by the Preamble of the Constitution in its phrase “We the People.”
This now famous phrase was, at the time, tied through usage to the term “commonwealth.” And the concept of a commonwealth, in turn, grew out of the experiences of those European settlers who built congregations, schools, and governments in North America. As historians Oscar Handlin and Mary Handlin describe it in their classic book “Commonwealth”: “For the farmers and seamen, for the fishermen, artisans and new merchants, commonwealth repeated the lessons they knew from the organization of churches and towns … the value of common action.” John Adams proposed all states be commonwealths.
Public work was neither altruistic service nor narrowly self-interested. It was down-to-earth and practical, a mix of self-interest and civic engagement. Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron Club in Philadelphia summed it up as, “doing well by doing good.” David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, has described the public work tradition in the 19th century as “a sweaty, hands-on, problem-solving politics.” “Settlers had to be producers, not just consumers.” They joined forces to build schools and other collective goods. “Their efforts were examples of ‘public work,’ meaning work done by, not just for, the public.”
The commonwealth concept inspired Americans of all stripes, from small farmers and craftsmen to suffragists and those who struggled against slavery and segregation. “The great problem to be solved by the American people,” wrote African-American poet Frances Harper in 1875, “is this: whether or not there is strength enough in democracy, virtue enough in our civilization, and power enough in our religion to have mercy and deal justly with four millions of people lately translated from the old oligarchy of slavery to the new commonwealth of freedom.”
The term “commonwealth” was also used by Theodore Roosevelt. “The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth,” he said in his “New Nationalism” speech, drawing on Lincoln’s free labor philosophy.
Public work in the 20th century
Public work takes place in communities, but there are many examples of government-facilitated public work. The cooperative extension system through land grant colleges is an extraordinary example. With county agents in every county in the nation, extension is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as state and local governments.
Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell, chaired the Country Life Commission, which helped create the land grant college extension system. Bailey worried that experts would erode the vitality of rural life if they simply tried to fix things from the outside. Accordingly, he saw the graduates of Cornell’s Agriculture College as what can be called “citizen professionals,” part of “a great public work,” grounded in respect for and development of farmers and rural communities’ civic agency. “The farmer,” argued Bailey, “is a citizen, a member of the commonwealth.” The key to the extension system was increasing civic capacities for self-directed action: “The re-direction of any civilization must rest primarily on the people who comprise it, rather than be imposed from persons in other conditions of life.”
Mary Mims of Louisiana State University put such ideas into practice in more than 1,000 poor communities, Black and White. Mims believed that extension agents should be a “leaven” for community. “So-called ‘social workers’ cannot hammer a community into shape,” she argued in her book “The Awakening Community.” “If a community grows, it must do so from the inside.”
This view of community agency gained wide currency. Ransom Baldwin, director of Michigan’s extension system in 1934, put it this way:
“The program of Extension work … has been based on the policy of personal participation on the part of farm people in the analysis of the economic, social, and other problems and in the carrying out of the solutions to them … Through these experiences they have discovered and developed their own capacities for learning and leadership. Studying, thinking, and acting together has stimulated growth, nourished initiative, and inspired self-dependence.”
Public work today
The idea of work with public purpose can help to shift the focus of American life back to We the People, rather than just governments and individuals. Public work highlights institutional anchors as potential civic sites, from workplaces to congregations, libraries, schools and colleges.
This idea has bipartisan appeal. In his book “The Once and Future Worker,” conservative author Oren Cass calls for “productive pluralism,” in which educational systems develop highly diverse pathways to different kinds of jobs and careers. The idea is for “people of diverse abilities, priorities, and geographies” to “become contributors to their communities.” In a 2018 speech in South Africa, President Barack Obama expressed a similar view: “It’s not just money that a job provides; it provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose.”
A recent study in Harvard Business Review found that nine in 10 Americans were willing to earn less money to do work that contributes to the public good. Today’s business leaders also invoke the commonwealth idea. For instance, in August 2019 the Business Roundtable called for a new social compact based on “stakeholder capitalism,” rather than “shareholder capitalism,” stressing the need for businesses to regrow civic roots.
A public-work policy called Cooperative Education could addresses these issues. This approach combines academics with practical work experience for which students earn academic credit. Pioneered by Herman Schneider more than a hundred years ago, Cooperative Education embodies a philosophy that stresses connection of education with the world of work and also emphasizes the purpose and meaning of work.
From 1965 to 1996, colleges received federal funding for Cooperative Education programs, with bi-partisan support. Lois Olson, director of Cooperative education at Augsburg College (now University) in Minneapolis, described the approach as akin to recreating “the local pool hall” in a small town, where “conversations intertwined citizenship, politics, religion and economics.” Unfortunately, the Clinton administration abolished Cooperative Education in 1996. But now is the time to bring it back.
To weave our clashing narratives into what my Braver Angels colleague John Wood calls a new “shared identity,” we need to put the work of We the People back at the center of the story.
Harry C. Boyte is Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg University.