Of Politics and Platitudes : THE GOOD SOCIETY<i> By Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan,Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton (Alfred A. Knopf: $25; 347 pp.) </i>

<i> Scialabba, a free-lance writer, lives in Cambridge, Mass. </i>

Six years ago Robert Bellah, a noted sociologist of religion, and four younger colleagues--now co-authors of “The Good Society"--published “Habits of the Heart.” A widely discussed portrait of contemporary American civic psychology (which they called “moral ecology”), it reported self-revelations about values and motives, expectations and experiences.

The authors concluded that most Americans’ inner lives are stunted by an inability to conceive any goal larger than individual achievements, possessions or experiences. Moral traditions that once supplied broader, more impersonal allegiances--biblical religion and “republicanism,” or the early American ideal of citizenship--are losing their influence, and nothing is taking their place. But the exclusive pursuit of self-interest, however enlightened, cannot sustain a complex, interdependent society. Where there is no civic virtue and no vision of the common good, they reminded us, the people perish.

“Habits of the Heart” identified an urgent cultural need, and many of its readers no doubt hoped that the authors’ next book would fill this need, or at least make a strong start. “The Good Society” makes a weak start. It is bland and vague, when it needs to be sharp and specific. Still, to fall short of immense expectations is no disgrace. A weak start is better than none.


“The Good Society” is a wide-ranging survey and critique of contemporary American institutions, from our economy and foreign policy to our courts, schools and churches. The authors’ thesis is that “Only greater citizen participation in the larger structures of the economy and the state will enable us to surmount the deepening problems of contemporary social life,” and that “We must create the institutions that will enable such participation to occur, encourage it, and make it fulfilling as well as demanding.” This is a vital truth.

Unfortunately this worthy message, like any other, does not become more compelling through mere reiteration, however rhetorically skillful. What’s needed are trenchant analyses and cogent proposals. These are largely (though not entirely) missing from “The Good Society.” Principle without program, as Bernard Shaw once remarked, is an excellent short definition of “platitude.” “The Good Society” is long on principle, short on program.

To give Bellah et al their due: They emphatically advocate democratizing the economy; they propose a new, more flexible conception of work and career, which would allow for both responsible child-rearing and professional success; and they boldly (if wrongheadedly) call for restoring the influence of political parties. Useful recommendations all, though this virtually exhausts the list.

But Bellah et al also are due a box or two on the ear. Their understanding of the obstacles to “people power” in America seems to me lamentably deficient. “It is odd,” they write, “that in what many conceive as the world’s greatest democracy, a vigorous democratic politics is absent from our public life.” Hardly: Every time “the people"--farmers, artisans, industrial workers, consumers, students--have tried to create parties, newspapers or other participatory political institutions, ruling elites have mobilized their vastly superior resources to defeat, if not destroy, their efforts. It happened to the Populists, the Socialists, the Old Left and the New Left. Undoubtedly it will happen in the future to any sizable group whose vision of the common good challenges the prerogatives of corporate and financial elites, especially their control of the state.

The authors’ understanding of American foreign policy also is distressingly superficial. “The architects of American foreign policy in the post-World War II world rooted that policy deeply in American ideals of freedom and responsibility,” they claim. Would that it were so. As even George Kennan has acknowledged, American policy has been motivated chiefly by a desire to exploit American economic superiority and to maintain effective control of, or at least favorable access to, as much of the world’s resources and investment opportunities as possible.

These reservations about “The Good Society” are not, perhaps, fundamental. But another is. As far as one can make out from their exasperatingly ambiguous prose, the authors endorse John Locke’s “conviction that belief in God is essential for the existence of any society,” and that of “the founders of the American republic . . . that religious belief made an essential contribution to the formation of a responsible citizenry.” Moreover, “biblical religion,” which they appear to recommend or at least think very highly of, involves belief in “a God who created heaven and earth, all that is, seen and unseen, whose dominion . . . transcends not only private life but the nations themselves.”

This last claim is, to put it mildly, fraught with significance. If it were true, then the problem of finding a secure basis for a vision of the common good is obviously solved. It’s disappointing, then, that the authors refrain from declaring, much less defending, their own beliefs. Their evasiveness on this score will hardly make for fruitful moral dialogue with their fellow citizens, whether believers or unbelievers.

“We must love one another or die,” Auden wrote. Why should we love one another rather than take our chances on cheating death? Invoking “biblical religion” will persuade some people, but not enough. Anyone who hopes to help heal contemporary American society had better have other, secular answers ready as well.