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Clinton's AmeriCorps Values

Friday, March 1, 1996

The greatest achievement of the Clinton presidency has been to incorporate a message of personal responsibility and citizenship into the rhetoric of the Democratic Party. On the campaign trail in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton stressed "individual responsibility," sounding at times truer to conservative principles than George Bush. Clinton spoke eloquently of his efforts in Arkansas to preserve "the things we cherish and honor most about our way of life -- solid, middle-class values of work, faith, family, individual responsibility, and community." As president, he frequently invokes these Reaganesque themes.

But his conception of citizenship is deeply flawed. Clinton has used the rhetoric of citizenship to justify his efforts to expand the welfare state. He has contradicted his emphasis on personal responsibility by working to preserve bureaucratic federal control of social programs. The revival of citizenship requires a transfer of power from government to families, voluntary associations, and communities. The president has instead sought to reinvigorate civic life by trying to relegitimize government.

At first blush, President Clinton's language of citizenship seems a sharp departure from the McGovernite ideology that has dominated American liberalism for the past 25 years. This ideology sees crime, drug abuse, family breakdown, and other social crises not primarily as deviant individual behavior but as social pathologies caused by underlying inequities. Moreover, in the McGovernite view, these pathologies are so complicated that traditional institutions such as churches and voluntary associations cannot possibly address them. Only policy specialists trained in the delivery of social services -- therapeutic-state elites -- are up to the task. The growth of McGovernism was accompanied by a massive transfer of power and resources to government. City halls, state capitals, and Washington, D.C., were given greater power to administer the programs that, liberals promised, would solve America's social crises.

By the mid-1980s, it had become apparent, even to Democrats, that liberalism's faith in the social-welfare state was misplaced. A growing body of research indicated that the expanded social-welfare bureaucracy, more often than not, worsened rather than relieved the problems it tried to solve. These policy failures also had clear political consequences. The Democratic Party began to lose traditional blue-collar voters, its former bedrock of support, who had become ever more frustrated by the mounting failures and rising costs of the welfare state. The liberal principles that undergirded the McGovernite approach -- especially the effort to blame society for failures of personal responsibility -- were at odds with the values of middle-class Americans. After Walter Mondale's landslide 1984 loss to Ronald Reagan, Democratic activists such as then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, then-Governor Charles Robb of Virginia, and Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, banded together through the Democratic Leadership Council to bring Democrats back into the mainstream.

They called themselves "New Democrats," and much of their intellectual inspiration came from a school of political theory called communitarianism. Communitarians argued that man fundamentally is not a rights-bearing, property-seeking individual, but a social being who flourishes in stable associations and communities. Communitarians criticized both liberals for placing too much faith in bureaucracy and conservatives for stressing the power of the marketplace; they claimed that bureaucracy and the marketplace together had displaced the community as the locus of American life.

In the communitarians' view, 19th-century America offered the ideal model of community, with an active citizenry working locally to address shared concerns. Late 20th-century America, however, had witnessed the growth of big government and big business, which served to isolate and atomize Americans. The weakening of families and local community institutions, the communitarians warned, was beginning to erode fundamental elements of the American way of life.

According to the communitarians, the growth of bureaucracy, the instability of marketplace relationships, and an explosion of self-interested behavior -- increasing litigiousness is just one indicator -- all signaled a decline of the responsibility to community that is the essence of citizenship. Communitarians reminded us that it is civil society, not the marketplace or the bureaucracy, in which Americans interact and flourish. And it is civil society, they proclaimed, in which America's increasingly inaudible moral voice lies, for here is where the institutions that shape moral character are to be formed.

The Clinton Promise

New Democrats clearly were on to something. Republicans had only paid lip service to the importance of civic involvement and the essential role of local and nongovernmental institutions. President Ford's Office of Public Liaison, President Reagan's Private Sector Initiative, and President Bush's Points of Light program showed that Republicans were aware of the problem, but these programs were severely limited in scope. They fell far short of providing the cornerstones of a domestic policy designed to redefine the relationship between citizens and the central government.

Eyeing the presidency in the early 1990s, Governor Clinton pushed beyond these Republican initiatives by drawing on the ideas of the communitarian movement. He emphasized responsibility in his presidential campaign, and the rhetoric of community and citizenship resonated with mainstream voters. On election night in 1992, President-elect Clinton called for a New Patriotism, in which Americans were "interested not just in getting, but in giving; not just in placing blame, but in assuming responsibility; not just in looking out for yourselves, but in looking out for others, too." On Inauguration Day, President Clinton declared, "It is time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing from our government or from each other. Let us all take more responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families, but for our communities and our country."

Big Government Redux

Thus the Clinton administration began with an oft-expressed aversion to the mentality of entitlement and a keen recognition of the danger to community posed by big government. It soon became clear, however, that the policies of his administration bore no relation to the rhetoric of his campaign and inauguration. Consider the debacle of health-care reform, the would-be centerpiece of the president's domestic-policy legacy. The attempt to place nearly 15 percent of the private economy into federal stewardship was clearly at odds with a new ethic of personal responsibility.

After the conservative victory in the 1994 elections, the president and his advisers realized that the health-care debate had unintentionally provoked anger against big government. With his familiar pattern of rhetorical retrenchment and redirection, the president tried to coopt this anger by returning to the language of citizenship. In his 1995 State of the Union address, the president admitted that "we need to get government closer to the people it's meant to serve. . . . Taking power away from federal bureaucracies and giving it back to communities and individuals is something everyone should be able to be for."

Notwithstanding this conservative tone, the president's new approach did not signal the final surrender of big-government liberalism. Rather, Clinton sought to recast big-government programs as instruments of individual and community empowerment. If conservatives believe that government must be limited in order to revitalize civil society, the president argued that government can be expanded or reinvented to serve as a "user-friendly" tool for citizens and communities. No Clinton initiative has epitomized this "bureaucratic populist" approach more than AmeriCorps, the president's national-service program. And it is no coincidence that in his 1995 State of the Union, the President declared AmeriCorps to be "citizenship at its best."

Touted by the administration as a "Republican idea," AmeriCorps at first struck many as precisely the type of program needed to revitalize civil society. The president promised that the program would assist nonprofit organizations working in local communities. In addition to promoting community service, AmeriCorps would combat the entitlement mindset nourished by the federal student-loan program by encouraging students to perform community service in return for financial aid. Most significantly, the president claimed that AmeriCorps would prove that government could act as a partner with citizens, using its resources to leverage additional contributions from the private sector.

It quickly became apparent that in the AmeriCorps program, government overshadowed its "partners." More than one-fourth of AmeriCorps volunteers were placed in federal, state, or local government agencies -- where they would reinforce the bureaucratic state, not rebuild the voluntary sector. The program also drew criticism for channeling tax dollars to liberal advocacy groups and questionable activities, such as sex-education training and "self-esteem" enhancement projects. In retrospect, it is not surprising that such activities arose in a government-subsidized program; robust community groups that enjoy genuine grass-roots support do not need to seek federal grants. And the organizations that do seek out government support are generally those with their own in-house bureaucracies, accustomed to receiving federal social-welfare grants and contracts.

Finally, despite the president's statement that government could be used to leverage private resources, the General Accounting Office's audit of the first year of AmeriCorps activities found that only 12 percent of AmeriCorps's funds came from nongovernmental sources. The program's supposed ability to "leverage" private funds did not exist; if anything, AmeriCorps compounded the entitlement mentality that it sought to combat. Why would citizens support organizations that already received federal aid? In fact, public financing of AmeriCorps often led organizations to substitute the "blessing" of a government grant for the hard work of gaining and sustaining local support.

AmeriCorps reveals the administration's fundamental misreading of the components of healthy citizenship. The program provides government subsidies for voluntary activity at the federal, state, and local levels. By so doing, it conflates volunteering -- which nearly 90 million Americans regularly do -- with a federal-government jobs program run by a centralized bureaucracy. It is, in essence, a Great Society-style program trying to pass as a plan to reinvigorate citizenship and heal communities. But its very premise -- using federal resources to promote voluntarism -- contradicts the principle of self-government that lies at the heart of citizenship. AmeriCorps blurs the line between the problems and needs best addressed by individuals, voluntary association and localities and those best addressed by the federal government. Instead, it seems to suggest that social problems are the responsibility of the central government, and the federal bureaucracy must direct and improve local solutions.

The School Lunch Debate

For all the flaws of AmeriCorps, the administration's shrill opposition to moves to scale back the federal bureaucracy is an even clearer example of how the president misunderstood the relationship between big government and citizenship. The Democrats' success in slowing the passage of the Contract With America through the House of Representatives in early 1995 reached its apogee during the debate over Republican efforts to convert federal funds for school lunches into block grants to the states. The president's rhetoric -- once again contradicting his earlier paeans to citizenship -- contributed greatly to his success.

During the public debate, the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton challenged conservative reformers with an unqualified defense of the welfare state, evoking images of children starving because of Republican reforms. Rather than attacking the entitlement mentality responsible for unsustainable federal social-welfare spending, the administration fought desperately to save the status quo. The welfare bureaucracy was portrayed as a selfless agent of good. Ignoring successful local and privately run lunch programs, Clinton argued that the bureaucratic state -- described almost literally as a national nanny -- was the only entity that could be relied on to feed hungry schoolchildren.

They quickly expanded their criticism to include all aspects of the Republican drive to roll back the welfare state. In a defense of welfare spending in the Los Angeles Times (March 14, 1995), Mrs. Clinton called conservative welfare reform a "mean-spirited attack on nearly every government program designed to help poor and disadvantaged children," and concluded, "There is no such thing as other people's children." Implicit in Mrs. Clinton's defense of big- government liberalism was the belief that individual responsibility for one's own children is fundamentally inadequate_and the only responsible adult is the nanny-state. It followed, then, that Americans could not be trusted with the broader, self-governing responsibilities of citizenship: to make decisions for themselves, their families, or their communities. The solution, the Clintons argued, was government in loco parentis, to save our children, the elderly, the poor, and perhaps not coincidentally, to protect the political interests of the welfare state.

The Clinton view of citizenship is thus based on universalized interests and responsibilities, not genuine familial and social attachments. By arguing that "there is no such thing as other people's children," Mrs. Clinton denigrates the motivating force that flows from obligation to family and loyalty to good friends and conscientious neighbors. Self-interest, a heightened attachment to our own property and loved ones, is essential to citizenship; through self-interest, we learn to be responsible for ourselves and our families, and to work with others to improve our communities. A detached altruism that makes everyone's children our own undermines the fixing of parental responsibility for nurturing and raising each child. This is communitarianism taken to extremes.

The president's ill-fated defense of the school-lunch program, moreover, exposed his shallow commitment to returning power, responsibility, and resources to local officials. If we are truly to revitalize citizenship, Americans must be allowed to take more responsibility for public safety, education, and assistance to the poor. And restoring this responsibility to citizens and communities will almost certainly produce many different paths to sustaining healthy family and community life and to helping the disadvantaged. With such efforts, the bureaucratic state's platform of regulatory and entitlement-based equity will be broken. Individual and community choices will have much greater responsibility for the lives of citizens. Circumstances will not be better everywhere, but they will be better where citizens work to make them better.

President Clinton's communitarian-inspired vision lacks a credible model for rebuilding America's communities and voluntary associations. These institutions have been weakened by overreaching government and the deeply rooted liberal dogmas that created and sustain such government. Citizen apathy -- and citizen anger -- are the result, not the cause, of these forces.

To revitalize citizenship, Americans should forge a consensus on a new separation of powers - - getting the federal government and even large state and local bureaucracies out of those areas of public life that citizens can and should direct themselves. The Clinton administration has failed to distinguish between the problems that Americans are responsible for solving as individuals and those, far more limited in scope, that properly involve government. By restoring authority and resources to citizens and the institutions they control directly, we will also restore the central place of middle-class values in our community and political life.

The Clinton administration's use of federal resources to promote voluntarism and its unwillingness to trust states, localities, and parents in the fight over school lunches reflect a larger problem: the inability of welfare-state liberalism to recognize its proper limits. More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noted:

"Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people's reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions, a nation may give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of liberty."

Liberty, members of the citizenship movement must keep in mind, entails both failure and success. The risks are great -- but so is the opportunity to teach the self-reliance and independence that is the essence of the American character.

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