As I see it, the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and in Europe can be attributed to no small extent to the profound misunderstanding globalists have of community and communitarian values. Globalists tend to view society as composed of freestanding individuals, each of whom has his or her own individual rights and is keen to pursue his or her own self-interest. As a result, globalists assume that, given the proper information, their fellow citizens will see that their aging societies are refreshed by immigration, that free trade raises the standard of living for everyone, and that individual rights outweigh tribalism.
The trouble with this liberal view of society is less what it claims and more what it leaves out: namely, that people are also social creatures, whose flourishing and psychological well-being depend on strong, lasting, meaningful relationships with others and on the sharing of moral and social values. These relationships and values are found in national and local communities (including families, which are micro-communities). By definition, communities are circumscribed rather than all-inclusive and are inevitably parochial rather than global. Still, the values of communities can be reconciled with globalist values.
If the goal of progressives is to reduce right-wing populism, violence, prejudice, and xenophobia, then communities must be nurtured as they are urged toward equanimity, the rejection of unfounded fears, and above all tolerance. These goals cannot be achieved by denigrating parochialism. Rather, globalists must understand that parochialism can be reconfigured but cannot, and should not, be eliminated.
Above all, globalists ignore the effects of free trade on people’s essential communitarian needs. Economists often fail to understand people who are reluctant to move from West Virginia to Montana, say, when the coal industry is declining but the gas industry is growing. They do not sufficiently consider that people lose their communal bonds when they make such moves. People leave behind the friends they can call on when they are sick or grieving and the places where their elders are buried. Their children miss their own friends, and everyone in the family feels ripped away from the centers of their social lives: school, church, social club, union hall, or American Legion post. A reliable evaluation of the benefits of trade should take into account the destructive effects on communities of churning the labor force. We should at least feel the pain of the casualties of free trade rather than denigrate them as redneck boors who just don’t get it.
Globalists favor the free movement of people across national borders. They strongly support the Schengen Agreement, which removes border controls among many members of the European Union. They cheered Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, for welcoming millions of immigrants to Germany. And they view Trump’s call for building a wall on the Mexican border and restriction on immigration from Muslim countries as typical right-wing, xenophobic, reactionary policies.
However, the well-known social psychologist Jonathan Haidt views mass immigration as the trigger that set off the authoritarian impulses of many nations. He concludes that it is possible to have moderate levels of immigration from “morally different ethnic groups”—so long as they are seen to be “assimilating to the host culture”—but high levels of immigration from countries with different moral values, without successful assimilation, will trigger an authoritarian backlash. Haidt suggests that immigration policies ought to take into account three factors: “the percentage of foreign-born residents at any given time; the degree of moral difference [between the] incoming group [and the members of the host society]; and the degree of assimilation being achieved by each group’s children.” Globalists do not approve of this approach.
Progressives are sure to continue to favor a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. But they’d better pay more attention to the further acculturation of this large group than many globalists do. To favor unlimited immigration—whatever the numbers and the cultural differences—is possible only if human rights outweigh all concerns about the value and importance of communal bonds, shared moral understanding, and a sense of identity, history, and fate. Adding a sizable number of people who are indistinguishable from its current members will stress a given community. Adding a large number of culturally distinct people is very likely to engender social tensions. The answer is not to draw up the bridges or build walls but to adopt realistic sociological strategies for absorbing immigrants into their new, host communities.
Even a global community, if one can be forged, would have to be constructed on top of local, regional, and national communities, rather than as a single independent entity composed of more than seven billion individuals, each with individual rights but no social bonds or set of shared values. Thus, universalism and parochialism can be combined, but attempts to maximize either position are sure to lead to troubling, socially disturbing results.
Communitarian sociologists have been pointing out that, for two centuries, the rise of modernity has threatened the communal bonds and shared moral cultures that are essential for a person’s sense of identity, emotional stability, and moral codes. Studies of the rise of Nazism show that communities serve as the best antidote to the mass appeal of demagogues. The kind of reasoned, self-governing, tolerant, civil person whom globalists favor is much less likely to be found among individuals outside the bonds of community than among people with stable social bonds, imbued with a proper moral culture. Hence, globalists have strong reasons to shore up communities.
Progressives should remember that nobody can bond with seven billion people, and almost everyone feels more responsibility toward those closest to them. People have profound needs for lasting social relations, meaning, and shared moral beliefs. Globalist values can be combined with nationalist, parochial ones—demanding that communities not violate individual rights while allowing them to foster bonds and values for their members in the ways that suit them best.
Local communities need to be nurtured rather than denounced, not only because they satisfy profound human needs but also because they anchor people to each other and thus help to dilute appeals to their worst instincts. Championing fair trade, fostering diversity within a framework of unity and shared values, and accepting many kinds of communities as long as they respect rights—all are positions that show understanding and even empathy for citizens who voted for Donald Trump and will go a long way toward making America as great as it can be.