An obvious question is whether the transformation that the authors envisage would link the citizenry in an idealistic new concern for the commonwealth or simply create or energize special interest groups (regional, economic, religious, occupational) and conflicting, divisive coalitions. The ideal is easy to embrace; the practical consequences, hard to foresee.
For all that, "Habits of the Heart" is, rare among works of scholarly origin, an outspoken and even emotional plea for attention to an argument, and a danger. Its power is in the passion of its analysis, the vision of us, in Matthew Arnold's lines:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
"The globe," the authors say, "is divided between a liberal world so incoherent that it seems to be losing the significance of its own ideals, an oppressive and archaic communist statism, and a poor, and often tyrannical, Third World reaching for the first rungs of modernity. In the liberal world, the state, which was supposed to be a neutral night watchman that would preserve order while individuals pursued their various interests, has become so overgrown and militaristic that it threatens to become a universal policeman."
Yet the transformation has to come, the authors say, not from a changed consciousness in certain individuals (they would be powerless) nor from the state (which would be tyrannical), but from collective action that might begin by restoring "the dignity and legitimacy of democratic politics." The transformation might proceed by narrowing the gap between the inordinate rewards of success and the not less inordinate punishments for failure, in economic terms, in the society. That, the authors say, might in turn reduce the pressures of conspicuous consumerism that seem always to work against the individual's serenity and indeed his sense of community.