The Next Conservatism #19: The Public Space

Posted: Feb 13, 2006 1:07 PM

If the next conservatism is to be the guide the conservative movement needs, it ought to talk about some new issues as well as the old standards. Sometimes, some of these new issues may strike people as unimportant. But it is hard to know what will prove important in the future we are trying to address. In this column, I want to talk about an issue that is not yet on many voters’ radar screens but I think may come to be: the public space.

What is the public space? It is the space outside our homes, schools or offices where people intermingle. It is streets with sidewalks, where people not only walk but stop, talk and listen. It is malls and town commons. It is restaurants and stores, churches and movie theaters, trains and buses and even airports. Essentially, it is anyplace where we do not control who we might meet.

Why is it important? Because if we are to be citizens of a republic and not mere consumers in an administered state, we need to both have and want contact with our fellow-citizens. When life is privatized, lived largely or almost wholly behind walls, doors and security control points, society withers. We come only to care about ourselves and those who share our private space. What happens to the rest of the society is not our concern, so long as we are OK.

There is no question that American life is being privatized this way. If you go to Europe, you will see that people there spend much more of their time in the public space. The same used to be true in this country. Even the front porches of old houses, where families often spent their evenings before air conditioning and television, were part of the public space.

I do not think that the loss of the public space in America is part of any kind of deliberate effort. There are many reasons for it. I already mentioned air conditioning and television. Other causes include the increasing coarseness of dress, manners and behavior; when the public space is filled with people who look bad and often behave badly, people avoid it. Noise is another factor. Blaring boom-boxes were bad enough, but just as that curse seems to have faded somewhat, cell phones have come along. Too often, if you are in the public space, you find yourself having to listen to one-half of a private phone conversation. Many people now dread the prospect of cell phones on airplanes.

Whatever the reasons for it, the destruction of the public space should be recognized by the next conservatism as not a good thing. It happened in Rome, too, towards the end of the Empire. People stopped going to the forum and other public spaces, while private life became much more opulent. When that happens in any society, it makes it easier for those who want power to grab it, because people only care about their private lives.

I have talked in several previous columns about some things that could help revitalize the public space and draw Americans back into it. The New Urbanism can help, because it makes cities into places where people want to go. High quality public transportation can help (in most cases that means rail transit, not buses), because it both takes people to public spaces and is itself a public space.

Probably nothing would help as much as the return of good manners and decent dress. Should both perhaps be part of the next conservatism’s agenda? They have nothing to do with politics. But as I have pointed out over and over, culture is more powerful than politics, and the next conservatism must be at least as much a cultural as a political movement.

Developing the next conservatism is not just a matter of offering new answers to old questions (re reminding people of the old, right answers which have been forgotten). It also requires asking some new questions. One of those questions needs to be, is restoring the public space important to the future of our republic? If we are in fact to be a republic, I think the answer is yes.