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.
What is manifest is that "Habits of the Heart" arrives with perfect timing, in an age of increasing Angst. And the book could do well. Like other outstanding works of original observation of our post-De Tocqueville state--"The Organization Man," "The Lonely Crowd," "The Greening of America" and updatings of the Lynds' look at Middletown--it could reach a wide public consciousness as a single graspable thought if not as a detailed and coherent body of argument.
Politically, the book argues, the clash between Reagan's Neo-capitalism and a previous Welfare Liberalism should be viewed not so much as an either-or choice but as vectoring forces that must produce a third way in which gain and social responsibility both figure.
Collective action is, as the authors agree, far from totally extinguished. As anyone with connections to small towns knows, the Volunteer Fire Department and the Volunteer Ambulance Corps have often taken over as the focal points of community action. And yet in their field work, the authors kept finding gauzy and unspecific credos behind this action. The interviewees' "values" were much insisted upon but struck the interviewers less as the affirmation of a coherent set of beliefs than as a confused retreat to the idea of a simpler past.
In the end, what the authors seek is to pit a heightened and activated version of this sense of community against the rising tides of world poverty and a deepening malaise at home. The vision, they say, "is neither conservative nor liberal." The means to it remain amorphous. But "Habits of the Heart" states the case for it with admirable and persuasive eloquence.