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The Communitarian Constitution

, 288 pages
August 2006



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The Communitarian Constitution

Bowling Alone, the title of Robert Putnam's 1995 article (later a bestselling book) perfectly captured a sense of national unease: Somewhere along the way, America had become a nation divided by apathy, and the bonds that held together civil society were disappearing. But while the phrase resonated with our growing sense of atomization, it didn't describe a new phenomenon. The fear that isolation has eroded our social bonds had simmered for at least two decades, when communitarianism first emerged as a cogent political philosophy. Communitarianism, as explained in the works of Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, Amitai Etzioni, and others, elevates the idea of communal good over the rights of individuals.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, communitarianism gained popular and political ground. The Clintons touted its principles in the '90s, and the two presidents Bush make frequent references to its central tenets. In its short life, the philosophy has generated plenty of books, both pro and con. Beau Breslin's authoritative and original examination, The Communitarian Constitution, contributes to the debate from a wholly original standpoint. Existing critiques focus on the debate between liberalism and communitarianism—in other words, the conflict between individual rights and the communal good. Breslin takes an entirely different stance, examining the pragmatic question of whether or not communitarian policies are truly practicable in a constitutional society.

In tackling this question, Breslin traces the evolution of American communitarianism. He examines Lincoln's unconstitutional Civil War suspension of habeas corpus and draws on Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments, pegging the Anti-Federalists as communitarians' intellectual forebearers. He also grounds his arguments in the real world, examining the constitutions of Germany and Israel, which offer further insight into the relationship between constitutionalism and communitarianism.

At a moment when American politicians and citizenry are struggling to balance competing needs, such as civil rights and homeland security, The Communitarian Constitution is vital reading for anyone interested in the evolving tensions between individual rights and the good of the community.

Beau Breslin is a professor and chair of the department of government at Skidmore College and a specialist in constitutional law and civil liberties.

"A significant contribution to the literature on constitutional theory. Breslin's careful discussion of the similarities and differences among the various strains of communitarian thought provides a thorough introduction for those who are only vaguely familiar with communitarianism and its challenge to liberalism."

"A worthy analysis of the ever-present dilemma in constitutional governments—individual rights in tension with the public good."

"A laudable project that... generates a fresh perspective on the communitarian-liberal debate... Provides some excellent critical material."

"Comprehensive and sympathetic understanding of communitarian theory."

"Breslin's book will stir up some dust and provoke academic controversy in a highly productive way. His strongly stated and well-argued thesis—that communitarianism cannot sustain a constitutional vision—will surely garner great attention among political theorists and students of public law. Everyone who reads it will come away with a new understanding of the power, complexity, and problems of communitarian ideas."

"Breslin develops a provocative critique of communitarian political theory. His central claim is that communitarian thought is anti-constitutionalist because it elevates the will of the community over objective, clearly discernible constitutional limitations. The Communitarian Constitution succeeds admirably in sharpening debates over fundamental matters of constitutional design."

"This work is sure to add insight... even as it revitalizes longstanding debates in political theory."

"[A] concise and lively treatment of constitutions and their functions."