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Friday, October 08, 2004

Us (National Service/ Greatness/ Community) Nobodies

Chris Lawrence was pretty emphatic a few days ago: "nobody wants a draft." Which is, strictly speaking, untrue: Paul Glastris wants there to be some sort of draft. And Charles Moskos. And E.J. Dionne. And John McCain. And possibly John Kerry (as long, of course, as we're not talking about that kind of draft). And me. Of course, I'm playing a little fast and loose here; the above examples of national service advocacy range from thoughtful considerations of military conscription to simply wanting to beef up the budget of AmeriCorps. When most people hear the word "draft" they assume (rightly) that it is the former that's being discussed, and insofar as that goes, Chris's general point is clearly correct: no major political figure running for office in America today is talking about drafting men and women to fight in Iraq or anywhere else (despite Jonathan Alter's warnings about how irresponsible avoiding such talk is). Seeing as how the most recent political action taken in regards to a possible military draft resulted in a 402-2 blowout vote, it's probably also right to say, as Chris did, that the people keeping it alive as an election issue right now are mostly just engaged in scaremongering. But I'll still insist that there are people out there who ought to be recognized as proponents of the draft--if only to keep the whole idea of national or civic service and obligation on the table.

Of course, I'm well aware that my particular left communitarian/social conservative/progressive Christian political perspective is an unpopular one; that's nothing new. But when you look at this in light of the debate over national service, or the draft, or just the whole idea of civic obligation, it's clear that the "nobody" charge, while technically accurate, covers over a much larger, amorphous, multifaceted body of thought. It is, as Michael Walzer said of communitarianism in general, a "recurring critique"; you see it amongst Republicans, Democrats, socialists of various stripes, Greens and more. Since communitarian thought is really more a matter of philosophical anthropology or ontology than ideology, perhaps it is to be expected that it'll take numerous different forms and suggest numerous different alliances--but that's no reason to dismiss it as an argument without partisans. You just have to look harder for them, and link them together (sometimes against their will) when you do.

As always, it is the libertarians (who make up for what they lack in political savvy with intellectual rigor) who are the quickest to see these links. It was Jim Henley (with an assist from Dave Trowbridge) who called my attention to Marshall Whitmann latest doings. Whitmann, a former aide to Senator McCain and a self-described "progressive Bull Moose conservative," has endorsed Senator Kerry and signed on to the Democratic Leadership Council and the Kerry campaign, writing in an essay published in the DLC's magazine that the effort "to forge a new politics of national greatness....[including] an energetic federal government that would implement a foreign policy advancing American interests and human rights, along with a domestic policy that would promote national service, and an economics focused on benefiting the middle class," is now, in his judgment, a far more likely possibility under a Kerry administration than another under George Bush. Of course, "national greatness" used to be what the Republican party of The Weekly Standard and David Brooks was going to be all about (and he still talks as if it's true, sometimes). But as Josh Marshall cogently puts it, "[when] 9/11 came along....most of those who'd classed themselves with the McCainiac/National Greatness clique decided that as long as Bush could rack up the votes that they could live with Karl Rove, Texas-style conservatism and plutocracy just fine. And with that, there just wasn't much need for National Greatness Conservatism any more." So the conservative iteration of this general concern with civic and progressive values collapsed, and its leading lights moved on--to Kerry.

Of course, as Josh also notes, Whitmann's nationalist/civic concerns weren't necessarily "conservative" in any deep sense; if anything, they were closer to Cold War liberalism. Well, of course they were--because the liberalism of FDR and Harry Truman was (for the most part, anyway) culturally sensitive and civic-minded as well as egalitarian. But when the liberalism of the Democratic party evolved away from that, you suddenly had the "Reagan Democrats" flocking to the GOP. Were they well-served by the Republicans? Not especially--but then, in a society where conservatism is incoherent and liberalism has (mostly) lost its class concern, where any serious (as opposed to merely formal) talk about national obligations and civic virtue gets you labeled, as I've complained ad naseum before, an "authoritarian", you take what you can get. No, we're not going to get a draft, or probably anything like it, any time soon. But maybe we'll get Kerry, and America and the cause of community could certainly do a lot worse than that.

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