Wisdom at the Heart of America

Community is the seat of civilization, made genuine because it is personal. It is in our local communities that we engage one another face to face, cementing trust, tending to needs, learning patience and responsibility. And, here among friends and neighbors we can find the confidence to envision the future and look forward from the disorder of the present.

Our strength comes with diversity and our readiness to rise above our differences to build a vibrant, welcoming and free-spirited society. This is the essence of our heritage, our humanity, and the source of the nation’s greatness.

Trust and responsibility don’t just appear by good fortune. They are formed in the trials of necessity and hardship, and inspired by vision and purpose.

Like marriage, a commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people – emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Perhaps this is why so many avoid participating fully.

There are, however, other reasons for pledging ourselves to local responsibility. Beyond the boundaries of family, community is that place where immediate needs present themselves and must be resolved.

Americans have abdicated personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time, and we have done so at our peril.

It was not always thus. Prior to the American Revolution, and for close to 100 years afterward, Americans gravitated easily, even impulsively, toward decentralized local governance and an independent frame of mind. We managed our own affairs in cooperation with our neighbors and accepted regional autonomy as a natural condition.

Civil society flourished in nineteenth century America, a vibrant force documented admiringly by Alexis de Tocqueville in his two volume commentary, Democracy in America. Americans created an immense variety of civic organizations to address every conceivable interest and social need. Citizens did this on their own initiative, inspired by their sense of belonging and the spirit of the times. There were few restrictions or restraints.

An American return to community, both in spirit and as a practical matter, is as important today as it has ever been. It can only be in direct engagement with our neighbors, and in all the spheres of problem-solving, that we will learn the skills of living and working productively with one another.

As Americans, we have been here before and we can do it again.

There are those who argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal to which we should aspire. Indeed, this is an attractive vision. Yet, I think it should be apparent for all to see that there must be a balance struck between a nation of fully engaged local communities and a competent and trustworthy central government that respects the primacy of local responsibility.

At the present juncture, as I wrote last week, it is difficult to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are prepared to protect both our freedoms and our security. But, that is what we need. Without law there can be no freedom.

Rejecting centralized governance as something impossible to limit implies tremendous trade-offs. I believe that a valid and well-reasoned vision of limited government can come from local communities, the seat of wisdom at the heart of America.

How will this happen?

We can only accomplish this by means of a severe discipline anchored in a community-based culture. It will take courage and vision. Those who understand trust, moral responsibility, and constructive action – and who recognize the very high stakes involved – will build the foundations for an American renewal.

The best and the brightest will be leaders who serve with humility and little recognition.

It will be a gradual process that depends on each of us to reach out across differences of tradition, politics, and culture to influence hearts and minds, to form friendships and to truly understand one another.

It will take time because we will be initiating transformative change close to the heart of America, a profound influence on our cultural identity that partisan politics will be powerless to resist.


Next week: When big is not better.