Communitarianism as a group of related but distinct philosphies began in the late 20th century, opposing aspects of liberalism and capitalism while advocating phenomena such as civil society. Not necessarily hostile to liberalism in the contemporary American sense of the word, communitarianism rather has a different emphasis, shifting the focus of interest toward communities and societies and away from the individual. The question of priority (individual or community) often has the largest impact in the most pressing ethical questions: health care, abortion, multiculturalism, hate speech, and so on. . . .
Beginning in the late 20th century, many authors began to observe a deterioration in the social networks of the United States. In the book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam observed that nearly every form of civic organization has undergone drops in membership exemplified by the fact that, while more people are bowling than in the 1950's, there are fewer bowling leagues.
This results in a decline in "social capital", described by Putnam as "the collective value of all 'social networks' and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other". According to Putnam and his followers, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy.
Communitarians seek to bolster social capital and the institutions of civil society. . . .
Central to many communitarians' philosophy is the concept of positive rights; that is, rights or guarantees to certain things. These may include free education, affordable housing, a safe and clean environment, universal health care, a social safety net, or even the right to a job. To this end they generally support social safety programs, free public education, public works programs, and laws limiting such things as pollution and gun violence.
A common objection is that by providing such rights, they are violating the negative rights of the citizens; that is, rights to have something not done to you. For example, taking money in the form of taxes to pay for such programs as described above deprives individuals of property. Proponents of positive rights respond that without society, individuals would not have any rights, so it is natural that they should give something back to society. . . .
Communitarianism cannot be classified as being left or right, and many claim to represent a sort of radical middle. Liberals in the American sense or social democrats in the European sense generally share the communitarian position on issues relating to the economy, such as the need for environmental protection and public education, but not on cultural issues. Communitarians and conservatives generally agree on cultural issues, such as support for character education and faith based programs, but communitarians do not share the laissez-faire capitalism generally embraced by conservatives. . . .
Communitarianism and libertarianism emphasize different values and concerns. Libertarianism is an individualist philosophy, with a strong focus on the rights of citizens in a democracy. Communitarians believe that there is too much focus on these concerns, arguing that "the exclusive pursuit of private interest erodes the network of social environments on which we all depend, and is destructive to our shared experiment in democratic self-government". They believe that rights must be accompanied by social responsibility and a maintainence of the institutions of civil society if these rights are to be preserved, but libertarians believe that government actions to promote these ends actually result in a loss of individual liberty. . . .
Some people have argued that communitarianism's focus on social cohesion raises similarities with communism or authoritarianism, but there are substantial differences between communitarianism and authoritarianism.
Authoritarian governments often rule with brute force, accompanied with severe restrictions on personal freedom, political and civil rights. Authoritarian governments are overt about the role of the government as commander. Civil society and democracy are not generally characteristic of authoritarian regimes. Communitarians, in contrast, emphasize the use of non-governmental organizations in furthering their goals.
The Communitarian Network is a hub for promoting these ideas on the web. A discussion of a distinction between a "hard" and "soft" communitarian is found here. And, some of my prior thoughts on this political philosophy are found here. An outsider's view that looks at the history of the movement is also worth reading.
I'm not necessarily a communitarian, but it is a philosophy that has something to add to a political discussion that has overgrazed on more established political philosophies. Sometimes it provides a new dimension to explaining why a policy I favor is right, and at other times it provides a more intellectually satisfying argument in favor of a policy that I disagree with than the ones I usually hear from the right wing. It is worth the effort to spend some time looking at old issues through communitarian glasses and seeing what you learn.