The constitutionalist challenge to American communitarianism

William Bowker Breslin, University of Pennsylvania


For the past twenty years, communitarianism, as a theoretical alternative to liberalism, has grown steadily in popularity. In fact, interest in the communitarian movement is currently at such a level that even some of the most influential figures on the American political landscape are beginning to take notice. Yet communitarianism also has plenty of critics, most notably liberals who fault it for undermining individual autonomy and other liberal values. The liberal critique of communitarianism is by now fairly well-known, and the opposition of liberal and communitarian claims has reached something of an impasse. This work attempts to assess American communitarianism from a different vantage point--that of constitutionalism. It explores the question of whether it is possible to construct a communitarian polity that is also a constitutionalist one. The work begins by tracing the development of contemporary American communitarianism from its more theoretical roots in the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel and Michael Walzer, to the predominately prescriptive works of Benjamin Barber, Mary Ann Glendon and Amitai Etzioni. It then connects this communitarian tradition with the literature of constitutional theory. Utilizing the writings of Charles McIlwain, Carl Friedrich, Walter Murphy and others, I distinguish the modern interpretation of constitutionalism from its classical predecessor and conclude that the current conception of communitarianism can only adequately sustain the principles of the classical, or undeveloped, form. The study also explores the secondary question of whether the American constitutional structure in particular could support certain components of communitarianism. If the recent prescriptive communitarian movement is in fact less interested in a comprehensive embrace of the theory than in implementing specific changes in the American polity, this question becomes fairly clear. Can the more blatant elements of communitarian thought co-exist alongside the liberal aspects of the United States constitutional scheme? Because of the logic or pattern that characterizes constitutions, I conclude a mixed constitution of this sort, while perhaps desirable, may be more difficult to achieve than American communitarians presently recognize.

Subject Area

Political science|Law|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Breslin, William Bowker, "The constitutionalist challenge to American communitarianism" (1996). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9627889.