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William A. Schambra’s opening keynote address at the American Enterprise Institute conference on “The Social Breakdown.”

Below is the text of Giving Review co-editor William A. Schambra’s opening keynote address last week at American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conference, “The Social Breakdown: The Poverty of Family Community, and Religious Life in America.” The conference helped launch AEI’s new Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility. Schambra was Director of Social Policy Programs at AEI in the 1970s.


As I reflect on the early days of mediating structures at AEI in the 1970s, two images come immediately to mind.

One is a glimpse into the austere office of AEI scholar and sociologist Robert Nisbet. He’s the matinee idol version of the academic, sitting ramrod straight at his desk, wearing a tweed jacket and tie, typing out the first, and pretty much the final, draft of his next book. It will be a lament for the decline in the authority of our social institutions after centuries of assault by the political state, and a forlorn plea for conservatives to formulate some sort of response.

The other image also involves an AEI sociologist, in this case, Peter Berger. He’s sitting at one of our conference tables, quietly puffing a small, dry Dutch cigar. He’s listening closely to a presentation, not by scholars, but by a group of young men, clad in the latest urban chic, bearing names like Fat Rob Allen and Crazy Cat Mejias. With Robert Woodson’s prompting, they’re discussing their lives in urban youth gangs—not just the dangers, but also the profound sense of community the gang provides.

AEI’s mediating structures project emerged from the tension between these two dramatically different images. It was rooted in Nisbet’s somewhat despairing, backward-looking account of the decline of society’s intermediate associations. But it would arrive at Berger’s and Woodson’s tentatively hopeful look to a future where those associations have been revivified, though in forms we could not have imagined.

Little of this is apparent, however, from a glance at the ur-text for the project, Peter Berger’s and Richard John Neuhaus’s slim monograph To Empower People, published by AEI in 1977.

There, the central state and the intermediate association are presented, not as rivals or foes, but as potential partners. Within the first few paragraphs, we’re assured “that the modern welfare state is here to stay, indeed that it ought to expand the benefits it provides—but that alternative mechanisms are possible to provide welfare-state services.”

We’re all familiar with what those alternative mechanisms are—neighborhood, church, family, voluntary association—the institutions mediating between the private individual and the megastructures of society, especially government.

Nothing could seem more reasonable, Berger and Neuhaus suggest, than to have these still-trusted and familiar social structures deliver the welfare state’s goods and services, at a time when trust in government had fallen. It’s a win-win, as they say.

But Nisbet would have considered it highly unlikely that such a marriage of convenience would work out. After all, as he maintained in The Quest for Community, society’s mediating structures had been under relentless assault since the time of the French Revolution. After that cataclysmic event, and everywhere throughout the West, an all-encompassing centralized political power had been furiously dismantling the intermediate associations that obstructed its reach.

The primary instrument for this assault had been the propagation of individualism. Doctrines of personal liberation attacked the legitimacy of seemingly backward and oppressive mediating structures, leaving individuals atomized and alienated.

The political state, however, had a remedy for that: the great national community. The old partial and particular allegiances and loyalties that had once provided people their sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging would now be redirected to the state, where a far more glorious and powerful sense of belonging would be generated.

In Nisbet’s later writings, he came to identify this process more and more with American progressivism. From Woodrow Wilson’s downright authoritarian administration on, through the New Deal and the Great Society, he maintained, progressivism worked to shift citizen loyalty from mediating structures to the state.

The services that mediating structures had once provided would now be delivered instead by credentialed, professional state experts, whose training in the social sciences provided them a comprehensive, objective understanding of the public good.

At the apex of the federal pyramid would sit a powerful, articulate president, who would proclaim, as did Lyndon Johnson: “I see a day ahead with a united nation, divided neither by class nor by section nor by color, knowing no South or North, no East or West, but just one great America, free of malice and free of hate, and loving thy neighbor as thyself.”

Schambra at AEI’s “The Social Breakdown” conference

As a result of the assault on mediating structures, Nisbet argued, the West’s original and genuine intermediate associations—guilds, established churches, monasteries, walled cities, intricate structures of feudal obligations—had indeed been forever shattered by individualism and centralization.

But if that’s so, where would the mediating structures project turn to find new expressions of community? How do we go all the way from Nisbetian skepticism over to that group of young men talking about the sense of belonging and purpose they’ve found in gangs?

To appreciate that, it’s necessary to understand how the legendary William J. Baroody, Sr., managed the American Enterprise Institute some 50 years ago.

Not for him, today’s elaborate and detailed research proposals, staffed by lock-step conservative intellectuals, and tailored to attract support from ideologically attuned donors. Had that been his style, mediating structures would never have gotten off the ground.

Rather, he did all the fundraising himself, with grants going into general operating support. He launched million-dollar projects with a handshake.

But the central characteristic of Baroody’s management style was his willingness to allow policy proposals to emerge from the interplay of perspectives that were dramatically but fruitfully different, reflecting a variety of disciplines, walks of life, and political inclinations. 

Somehow, intuitively, he knew which combinations would mutually clash and spark and resonate until something new and thoughtful emerged. The telltale introduction for this process was always, “You know, sociologist X, I think you’d really benefit from a conversation with community activist Y.”

To understand AEI’s mediating structures project, then, one must look at the rich and varied list of scholars and practitioners Baroody gathered around himself to undertake the project.

For a free-market oriented conservative think tank, this was a strange and risky list indeed. Only Nisbet himself would have been considered a conservative. The rest of those contributing to the project had backgrounds far from AEI’s traditional economics orientation, and well to its left.

But they had one thing in common. They had witnessed the failure of the political state’s project of national community; they suffered under its efforts to replace the great variety of associational life in America with distant, alienating professional services; and they had begun to draw upon their own lives and histories to nominate alternative structures of communal meaning and purpose.

Berger and Neuhaus, for instance, had previously cooperated on a volume in 1970, but it was ominously entitled Movement and Revolution. From their mutual opposition to the Vietnam War and to racial discrimination, they were divided only by the question: do we need to transform the system altogether? But over the 70s, they came to realize that progressivism was determined to drive religion from the public square, and that they could not abide.

Neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and Les Lenkowsky were part of the project. Most of them were advocates of a “conservative welfare state.” But as Nathan Glazer put it, they had also come to appreciate the “limits of social policy.”

That policy started as an effort to relieve distress by replacing deteriorating mediating structures with professionalized services. But that only contributes to further deterioration. In an example of unintended consequences, as he put it, “our efforts to deal with distress themselves increase distress.”

Theologian Michael Novak had been a speechwriter for the McGovern-Shriver campaign in 1972. In The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, published around that time, he launched an attack on the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite that would have warmed the heart of any populist today.

Novak drew upon his Slavic roots to sketch out sources of purpose and belonging to be found in the long-forgotten and much-despised Central European and Catholic origins of millions of Americans. He hoped to refound the Democratic party on “the organic networks of communal life … family, ethnic groups, and voluntary associations.”

Finally, Bob Woodson was invited to join the project from the Urban League, after a career of community organizing on the left. But he had witnessed the failure of progressivism’s approach to youth crime.  In the AEI volume A Summons to Life, he held up as an alternative the model of Sister Falaka Fattah and her House of Umoja in Philadelphia.

In her own home, she supplied a healthy version of the urban gang’s sense of community, through her reimagination of the extended African family—hardly the typical conservative point of reference.

Baroody must have seen something of his own experience in the histories of those he recruited. Although he was from New Hampshire, he was hardly a typical rock-ribbed Yankee Republican.

Instead, he was the Arab-American son of Lebanese stone-cutters, the patriarch of a huge extended family, and a prominent lay leader in the small but ancient Melchite Catholic Church. None of this would have predisposed him to be a typical conservative intellectual. But it left him with a great reservoir of communal resources that suggested what might come next after the failure of progressivism.

From the conversation among these bewilderingly different scholars and activists assembled by Baroody came suggestions for a flood of distinctly non-traditional institutional forms that would become tomorrow’s versions of family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association.

Informal extended families based on ancestral patterns; neighborhoods and voluntary associations built around varieties of ethnic experience that had previously been held in contempt; forms of worship located not in cathedrals, but in old store-fronts, ringing with modes of worship that were fresh, exuberant, and spontaneous.

So what does this story about mediating structures’ origins suggest about today’s project on social capital? First, it should put our current despair about their fate into perspective. After all, when Berger and Neuhaus wrote, the progressive onslaught against mediating structures had been underway for seven decades in America. Nisbet would have insisted that it had been underway in the West since 1789.

When we tote up the reasons for the deterioration of intermediate associations in America, we tend to focus on social and technological shifts. When Robert Putnam first chronicled the decline of association in 1980’s Bowling Alone, recall, we thought the chief culprit was television.

But we often fail to note the not-insignificant fact that America’s predominant governing philosophy had been actively working to destroy mediating structures for decades. It’s amazing that anything was left of them at all.

In spite of that hostility, AEI’s work went on to inspire a bipartisan resurgence of interest in intermediate associations from 1980 to 2000, thanks not only to Baroody Senior, but also to his sons Bill Junior and Michael, who were strategically placed within Republican politics to advance the cause.

This found expression in Ronald Reagan’s private sector initiatives and his call for a “return to the human scale;” in George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light;” and George W. Bush’s faith-based and community initiatives. Indeed, Les and Bob played critical roles in the last of these.

These efforts laid the groundwork for the period’s most significant social policy development: an approach to welfare reform based on the centrality of family and community, as described in Lenkowsky’s, Novak’s, and Doug Besharov’s volume for AEI, The New Consensus on Family and Welfare.

So don’t count out mediating structures, no matter how besieged they seem to be.

The other lesson to be drawn from this brief history is that we have no idea what the next wave of mediating structures might look like.  

A Nisbet conservative might well have looked around in 1977, seen that the old sources of communal solidarity had long since been destroyed by progressivism, and simply despaired. In response, Baroody, Berger, and Neuhaus brought together an unlikely crew of activists and scholars animated by understandings of communal solidarity that were anything but traditionally conservative.

We must open ourselves to that possibility again. That will be tough. It will mean challenging our own ideological and methodological predispositions.

The last time I saw Peter Berger, I asked him whom he considered to be the chief disciple of his mediating structures work. He answered, without hesitation, Bob Woodson. I have to agree, and it’s related to this question of openness to the next generation of mediating structures. It’s why Bob Woodson’s work in particular is the final and fitting hopeful response to Nisbet’s historically oriented despair.

Woodson’s work in Philadelphia prefaced decades of further investigation of grassroots initiatives of all sorts around the nation. Where all the scholarly experts on poverty looked at low-income neighborhoods and saw nothing but desolation and dysfunction, Woodson had the eyes to see something else. 

He quietly sought out the barbers and beauty-shop owners and tavern keepers and asked questions like this: Who in this neighborhood do you turn to when things are tough? Who’s got the best advice about returning to sobriety, to finding a job, to dealing with a wayward child? 

Invariably, the neighborhood didn’t turn to professional service providers, but rather to a list of trusted, engaged local citizens who were building their own versions of mediating structures in boxing gyms and senior care facilities and storefront churches, based on their own painful but successful personal and communal efforts to reconstruct their own lives.

He found this especially in those modest churches. Woodson came to affirm that faith in particular drove most of his grassroots leaders, though this was not an explanatory variable that progressive analysts respected, and it was a fervent and exuberant mode of faith that was a bit much for staid and sober Nisbet conservatives.

In short, Woodson was absolutely open and available to what the neighborhoods were “doing for themselves,” to paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois. He recognized that grassroots leaders were working from a kind of hard-won wisdom that was completely closed and unavailable to the learned and the credentialed.

Bob and I have come to appreciate in particular James C. Scott’s description of this other kind of wisdom in his magnificent book, Seeing Like A State. The ancient Greeks, Scott said, described it as metis. It’s an entirely bottom-up, local, concrete, and particular kind of knowledge acquired through experience. It’s unlike most of our knowing today, which is top-down, abstract, theoretical and acquired through academic instruction.

If we are to recognize and welcome the next round of mediating structures, we have to understand that our methodological predispositions are likely to work against our openness to them. Our academic technologies can measure how badly eroded our largest social institutions have become. But largely undetected, and far beneath that massive, visible layer of decay, metis, and probably the Holy Spirit, are at work in the hearts and minds of grassroots leaders. 

They’re closest to the collapse of the old forms of association, they suffer most immediately its effects, and so they are most capable and determined to come up with solutions. That’s where the next generation of mediating structures will come from—not from think tanks and universities.

The solutions will look nothing like what we expected. But just as was the mediating structures project in 1977, we must be open today to that grassroots wisdom.

One final note: no one would appreciate this advice more than the luncheon speaker at today’s event, Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Like many other politicians, he’s written a book on the American founding. But unlike others, his account ventures well beyond the usual pantheon of Constitutional framers.

The title of the book is Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government. These include the Iroquois confederation leader Canasatego, who was a disciple of federalism; Mum Bett, one of the first African Americans to insist that the nation’s new commitment to equality applied to her as well; and Mercy Otis Warren, whose history of the American Revolution warned against the concentration of power in the central government. 

The Senator’s point is subtle, but clear: Yes, our founding principles endure. But in this new age, we need to find advocates who may little resemble the familiar figures we consider founders. So with mediating structures: they remain indispensable. But tomorrow’s versions may not look like we expect. We nonetheless must welcome them.

AEI has a notable history of this sort of openness, with scholars and fellows like Ryan Streeter, Yuval Levin, Howard Husock, Tim Carney, and Paul Ryan. With this new project on social capital headed by Scott Winship, we can expect a warm welcome here to the next generation of mediating structures.

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