In a way not seen since the 1930s, the public realm in America faces a crisis both of confidence and definition. After nearly six decades of continued expansion, governmental institutions command increasingly little support among the public that they are designed to serve. Technologies, businesses, and workers achieve ever higher levels of efficiency while many of the institutions most connected to the public realm—schools, regulatory institutions, and the judiciary— seem ill-suited to cope with the development of the information-age economy, or with the globalization of our society.
To some extent, the problem lies in defining the nature of the public realm. In sharp contrast to both the ancient and early republican experience, where religious, ethnic, or familial institutions shouldered much of the responsibility for shaping the public arena, contemporary public policy, in study and practice, has assumed an increasingly legalistic and technocratic character, with particular emphasis on the federal apparatus. This conflicts with a strong sense among the public that Washington, through regulatory mandates as well as through the federal judiciary, has become ever more intrusive in regulating some of the most private aspects of our communal existence.
As we enter the twenty-first century, perhaps one way of addressing our uneasiness would be to reintroduce into the public sector timetested concepts and values that grow from traditions of morality, civic community, and family. These values have underpinned most republican societies since antiquity, and they constituted core concerns for our nation's founders.
This approach does not imply an endorsement of either of the two great traditions that have dominated public philosophy throughout this century—progressive liberalism or conservatism. Each, in its origins, drew deeply from the same historic and philosophic wells, albeit with sometimes strikingly different uses for the moral and social wisdom that was found therein. Our purpose here is not to argue for one side or the other, but to re-center the argument about public policy upon those values that upheld the formation of this republic and that can today serve as beacons as we navigate the great unknown that is the future.