As a sympathetic but also sometimes skeptical observer of the “Front Porch Republic” style of conservatism, I think the distinction suggested here — between a philosophy of rootedness and a philosophy that just stresses “place” in general or idolizes the rural life in particular — is central to Porcherism’s ability to offer a realistic response to the ills of contemporary American life. A communitarianism that just suggests that everyone should find their own St. Francisville is obviously unresponsive to the reality of a post-agrarian society, but a communitarianism that just tells people to “stay put!” more generally, whether in cities or suburbs or exurbs, is likewise insufficient … because to a surprising extent, Americans are already doing just that.
Drawing on Census data indicating that declining mobility is not resulting in a closer-knit society, Ross sharpens the point:
We are staying put more than we did in earlier eras, and yet outside of the upper class it isn’t translating into the kind of personal and familial stability that communitarians want to cultivate.
So they/we need a story of what’s going on here.
This is all important and necessary. Here’s my guess at what’s going on.
Just because you accept the limits of place doesn’t mean that you accept limits. I have not found divorce statistics for my parish, but what I could find is not encouraging. Louisiana has one of the lowest outmigration rates of any state (meaning Louisiana people tend to stay put relative to other Americans), but one of the highest divorce rates. Granted, there are other factors that make Louisiana a place that ranks low on typical indicators of social stability — e.g., a relatively high poverty rate, a high percentage of African-Americans (who have lower marriage rates, and higher out of wedlock childbearing rates). I think it is also likely the case that recent relative immobility is not a matter of choice, but rather something imposed on people by the poor economy. People who don’t move because they choose to stay in place have a different mindset from those who don’t move because they cannot afford to.
Besides, just because you live in a place doesn’t mean you automatically involve yourself in the community, and build social and communal bonds. About 20 years ago, I visited my folks back in Starhill, and observed that they spent much less time with their friends than they had when we were kids. What seemed to be happening was that after everybody’s kids were grown and gone, the empty-nesters retreated into chronic TV watching. Satellite dishes were fairly new, and the overwhelming number of channels occupied a lot of time that had been spent socializing in the past. I don’t think it’s still that way with them at all, but that’s what I observed back then.
The point is, it’s really easy to live in a small place and to remain isolated, if you choose to be. There’s simply not a cultural pull towards communal engagement. As David Brooks’s column this week indicated, we have undergone a tectonic shift in American culture towards an individualist mindset. When I was a child, many of the dads I saw belonged to the Lions Club, the Jaycees, or some other kind of fraternal or social service organization. That just doesn’t happen as much anymore in America, period. The idea that there’s a geographical cure for rootlessness and the decline of community is simplistic. It would be madness for someone to remain in a place that was culturally toxic, especially to one’s children, simply to make a point about stability.
So yes, Ross is right that staying in place isn’t sufficient. Yet you have to start somewhere. Placelessness isn’t just a material condition for Americans, but a spiritual, emotional, and psychological one. One’s place may not be where one was born. But everyone needs a place. To believe that one should settle somewhere, that the good life for most people doesn’t involve constantly moving, is countercultural in today’s America. If you start to think why it matters to have a place, and to be a part of that place, much else follows, including a politics.