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Twilight of Conservatism

“War and the military are, without question, among the very worst of the earth’s afflictions,” an American conservative of distinction once wrote, “responsible for the majority of the torments, oppressions, tyrannies, and suffocations of thought the West has for long been exposed to. In military or war society anything resembling true freedom of thought, true individual initiative in the intellectual and cultural and economic areas, is made impossible—not only cut off when they threaten to appear but, worse, extinguished more or less at root. Between military and civil values there is, and always has been, relentless opposition. Nothing has proved more destructive of kinship, religion, and local patriotisms than has war and the accompanying military mind.”

That was Robert Nisbet in 1975. In The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945, George Nash identified Nisbet, along with Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, as one of the three most noteworthy of those intellectuals he identified as traditional conservatives. Of the three, Nisbet probably remains the least known among modern conservatives—a shame, and one that we can hope Brad Lowell Stone’s very good biography of Nisbet may help to rectify.

Robert Nisbet was born in Los Angeles in 1913, and spent much of his youth in the Golden State. He did his graduate and undergraduate work at Berkeley, whose faculty he joined in 1939; he would later teach in both the history and sociology departments at the University of Arizona and Columbia University. By the time of his death in 1996, he had written 17 books and gained a reputation (in the words of his biographer) among “his admirers and detractors alike as one of the most original and influential American social theorists of his generation.”

Throughout his life, he managed to travel in a variety of conservative circles. He spent 1978-80 at the American Enterprise Institute, and enjoyed adjunct scholar status there well into the 1980s. His articles occasionally appeared in neoconservative periodicals like Commentary.

How could an anti-militarist have maintained such connections? As well as being an exceptionally personable figure, Nisbet was a man of enormous influence. In addition to his other achievements, he was the social-science editor at Oxford University Press, and it is said that when he received the Albert Schweitzer chair at Columbia he was the most highly paid professor in America. (It is probably also true to say that both AEI and Commentary were better and less ideologically rigid institutions a quarter century ago than they are now.)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority, long considered something of a minor classic, and it is from that book that most of Nisbet’s words that follow have been taken. Most interesting are three things: Nisbet’s warnings about the ongoing growth in executive power, his prescient critique of American conservatism, and his skepticism and caution about the growth of the warfare state that has long since vanished from establishment conservatism.

Nisbet’s 1953 classic The Quest for Community argues that for the most part, every major modern political philosopher in the West, from Hobbes to the present, has taken as his starting point the idea of a unitary, all-powerful central state ruling over an undifferentiated aggregate of individuals, and which is legally and temporally prior and superior to all subsidiary associations. This became the model for political association throughout the West since the French Revolution. Every competing center of authority—family, local community, church, or any number of others—was increasingly subordinated to the central state.

Part of the reason that totalitarianism enjoyed such triumphs during 20th century, Nisbet suggested, was that deracinated men, stripped of the traditional social identities that these intermediary associations had once provided, longed for something to put in their place. That sense of belonging was fulfilled, for some, in the totalitarian state, which developed upon the ruins of those very associations and which offered men both a source of meaning and a sense of belonging, thus serving as a crude substitute for the social identities that smaller associations, suppressed or marginalized by the massive bureaucracy at the center, had once forged for them.

Much as he deplored the centralization of power that continued apace in the U.S. during his lifetime, Nisbet would never have confused his country with a totalitarian state of the sort with which the last century was riddled. Still, Nisbet noticed analogous trends toward the centralization of power in Washington—and in the hands of the president in particular—at the expense of smaller and more immediate associations. The conservative movement today, on the other hand, convinced that one of its own is in the White House—even those conservatives who have something critical to say about the president always wind up rallying to him as soon as Ted Kennedy utters an unkind word—has exhibited no discernible concern over the growth in executive power.

The modern-day cult of personality that surrounds the president probably originated with the ebullient and idiosyncratic Theodore Roosevelt, whose great variety of interests along with his sheer energy attracted the rapt attention of so many Americans. In addition to these accidents of personality, TR also brought with him a full-fledged philosophy of the presidency, not entirely dissimilar to that of his supposed archenemy, Woodrow Wilson.

TR contended that the burden of proof was on those who would restrain presidential power; for him, it was enough that a proposed presidential action was not prohibited by the Constitution. He described the executive branch in general and himself in particular as the unique spokesman of the entire American people, since he alone occupied an office in whose election all Americans participated. (John C. Calhoun, on the other hand, had memorably observed that, strictly speaking, there was no such thing as “the American people,” since such an aggregate had no place in our decentralized order of self-governing states.)

These principles, combined with TR’s anxiousness to have a hand in everything, led to a dramatic elevation in the vigor and visibility of the presidency. For instance, TR once convened a conference at the White House to discuss how rough play in college football might be addressed. We would think nothing of such an incident today, and of course in the grand scheme of things it is of no importance at all. But in 1903, the fact that the president would involve himself in a matter so trivial, a matter that until that time all Americans would have assumed fell to the organs of civil society to resolve, was of no small significance.

It is no coincidence that the number of executive orders issued by the president exploded under TR’s watch, since they comported so well with his philosophy of the presidency. Presidents Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield had each issued none. Chester Arthur issued three, Grover Cleveland (first term) six, Benjamin Harrison four, Cleveland (second term) 71, and William McKinley 51. In his nearly two terms in the office, TR issued 1,006.

At least some conservatives were heard to complain when the Clinton administration’s Paul Begala, speaking of executive orders, gleefully squawked: “Stroke of the pen, law of the land. Kinda cool.” (Clinton once described Teddy Roosevelt as his favorite Republican president.) But the number of conservative critiques of executive power run amok that we have heard since the accession of Bush 43 can safely be rounded off to zero. Whatever the explanation for this silence, it is probably not this president’s scrupulous restraint and modesty in his exercise of presidential power.

Nisbet deplored this. But what particularly disturbed him was the almost grotesque mystique that had come to surround the American president. “Not only what the President thinks on a given public issue,” Nisbet wrote, “but what he wears, whom he dines with, what major ball or banquet he may choose to give, and what his views are on the most trivial or cosmic of questions—all of this has grown exponentially in the regard lavished by press and lesser political figures upon the presidency during the past four decades.” There were monarchical pretensions in all this, he said, for the first care of royalty “is that of being constantly visible, and naturally in the best and most contrived possible light for the people.”

Nisbet likewise spoke of “a regard for the monarch that makes him virtually sacred in presence, that thereby gives his person a privileged status in all communications and that creates inevitably the psychology of constant, unremitting protection of the President not merely from physical harm but from unwelcome news, advice, counsel, and even contact with officers of government.” Apart from the last point, which may be a reference to the special relationship Nixon had with Kissinger when it came to foreign policy decisions, the resemblance of Nisbet’s description to the reality of the Bush presidency is too great to escape notice.

In case comparing the president to the kings of yore seems overwrought, Nisbet invites us to consider the nature of the official iconography, ceremony, and architecture that has come to surround the American presidency. He quotes the New York Times’ Russell Baker: “[The Rayburn Building] dwarfs the forum of the Caesars. Mussolini would have sobbed in envy. … [But] the Kennedy Center nearly succeeds for bare-faced oppression of the individual spirit. Poor Lincoln, down the road a piece in his serene little Greek temple, would be crumpled like a candy wrapper if the Kennedy Center could flex an elbow. The Pentagon of the warlike forties is matched by a monstrous new Copagon, home of the FBI, astride Pennsylvania Avenue. The vast labyrinths bordering the mall would make a minotaur beg for mercy.”

“My misgivings are not about the wretched architects,” continued Baker, “who must give Washington what it pays for, but about their masters who have chosen to abandon the human scale for the Stalinesque. Man is out of place in these ponderosities. They are designed to make man feel negligible, to intimidate him, to overwhelm him with the evidence that he is a cipher, a trivial nuisance in the great institutional scheme of things.”

In 2005, Baker would be dismissed as an incorrigible America-hater, but Nisbet, a genuine conservative, replied with sympathy. “It has always been thus,” he began. “Merely compare the public architecture of Greece before and after the rise of Alexander; of Rome, before and after Augustus, and before and after the eruption of, first, Renaissance despots in Italy and then divine right monarchs. The change in American government that has taken place during the past several decades is almost perfectly evidenced by the change in the style and character of its buildings in Washington.”

Writing in the wake of Watergate, Nisbet took note of “a good deal of resentment against royalism in the White House.” He knew it would not be permanent. “There are too many powerful voices among intellectuals—in press, foundation, and elsewhere—that want a royal President provided only that he is the right kind of individual.” He feared that the only lessons that had been learned from Watergate were “to avoid such idiocies as tapes and illegal, unwarranted break-ins. … I would be astonished if the real lesson of Watergate—the Actonian principle that all power tends to corrupt, absolute power absolutely—were other than forgotten utterly once a crowd-pleasing President with the kind of luster a John F. Kennedy had for academy, press, and the world of intellectuals generally comes back into the White House.”

For much of the Left, Nisbet explained, a strong president as a unifying force was too central to their idea of the American polity to be dispensed with just because a Republican had disappointed them. “There are those, such as Arthur Schlesinger, who argue indeed that only a strong and richly visible President can hold the fabric of democracy intact, that the President is the only vital symbol of unity and consensus.” (That these words of a center-left social democrat might just as easily have come from practically any neoconservative is not without its significance.)

Nisbet also argued that it wasn’t just executive power that conservatives showed little interest in limiting; it was federal-government power in general. “The prospects for conservatism are hardly bright,” he concluded in 1975. “It became great by virtue of its fight against power, which now is being converted into a fight for capture of power, central power.”

Eleven years later, in Conservatism: Dream and Reality, that bleak assessment had not improved:

    The Far Right is less interested in Burkean immunities from government power than it is in putting a maximum of governmental power in the hands of those who can be trusted. It is control of power, not diminution of power, that ranks high. Thus when Reagan was elected conservatives hoped for the quick abolition of such government ‘monstrosities’ as the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and the two National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities, all creations of the political left. The Far Right in the Reagan Phenomenon saw it differently, however; they saw it as an opportunity for retaining and enjoying the powers. And the Far Right prevailed. It seeks to prevail also in the establishment of a ‘national industrial strategy,’ a government corporation structure in which the conservative dream of free private enterprise would be extinguished.

Some people were not prepared to render quite so harsh a judgment in 1986. But apart from Nisbet’s perhaps misleading use of the term “Far Right,” if the experience of five years of George W. Bush and the lukewarm-to-nonexistent conservative opposition to the greatest budget-buster since LBJ doesn’t begin to vindicate him, what would?

We also see in the work of Robert Nisbet far more caution about the warfare state than can be found in just about any mainstream conservative organ today. There was, first of all, a connection between war and the growth in executive power that we have already seen him deplore. “The day is long past,” he warned, “when this phrase [‘national security’] was restricted to what is required in actual war. As everyone knows, it has been, since World War II under FDR, a constantly widening cloak or umbrella for governmental actions of every conceivable degree of power, stealth, and cunning by an ever-expanding corps of government officials.”

    As we now know in detail, the utilization of the FBI and other paramilitary agencies by Presidents and other high executive department officers for the purposes of eavesdropping, electronic bugging, and similarly intimate penetrations of individual privacy goes straight back to FDR, and the practice has only intensified and widened ever since. Naturally, all such royalist invasions have been justified, right down to Watergate, under the name of national security. The record is clear and detailed that national security cover-up has been a practice of each of the Presidents since FDR …

Of all the misapplications of the word “conservative” in recent memory, Nisbet wrote in the 1980s, the “most amusing, in an historical light, is surely the application of ‘conservative’ to … great increases in military expenditures. … For in America throughout the twentieth century, and including four substantial wars abroad, conservatives had been steadfastly the voices of non-inflationary military budgets, and of an emphasis on trade in the world instead of American nationalism. In the two World Wars, in Korea, and in Viet Nam, the leaders of American entry into war were such renowned liberal-progressives as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. In all four episodes conservatives, both in the national government and in the rank and file, were largely hostile to intervention; were isolationists indeed.”

It would be difficult, said Nisbet, to imagine a combination more at odds with traditional conservatism than military adventurism and ideological crusading.

Nisbet could find much to disturb a traditional conservative even in the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan: “President Reagan’s deepest soul is not Republican-conservative but New Deal-Second World War Democrat. Thus his well noted preference for citing FDR and Kennedy as noble precedents for his actions rather than Coolidge, Hoover, or even Eisenhower. The word ‘revolution’ springs lightly from his lips, for anything from tax reform to narcotics prosecution. Reagan’s passion for crusades, moral and military, is scarcely American-conservative.”

Nisbet recalled that contrary to popular opinion, the political Left for the most part had not opposed war per se. Hard leftists have historically found much revolutionary potential in war. “Napoleon was the perfect exemplar of revolution as well as of war, not merely in France but throughout almost all of Europe, and even beyond. Marx and Engels were both keen students of war, profoundly appreciative of its properties with respect to large-scale institutional change. From Trotsky and his Red Army down to Mao and Chou En-lai in China today, the uniform of the soldier has been the uniform of the revolutionist.”

War, argued Nisbet, is “by nature revolutionary in its impact upon a people. … Its values … are antithetical in the extreme to the values of kinship-based society with its consecration of tradition, conventionality, and age or seniority.”

Nisbet suggested further that the revolutionary and the military man both possessed a disdain for “traditional civil society, its privileges, immunities, and conventional authorities.” For both, this society, particularly in its modern capitalist form, “can seem egoistic, venal, needlessly competitive, often corrupt, and fettered by privilege unearned. Careful reading of the memoirs of the great generals in history will, I am sure, reveal as much distaste for all this as one finds in the memoirs of revolutionists.”

Less extreme leftists have been no less enthusiastic for war’s potential to transform the home front, Nisbet added. Leftist intellectuals were practically unanimous in favoring U.S. entry into World War I since they understood the opportunity it presented for institutional change at home. Wartime economic planning, they were convinced, would help to erode Americans’ conservative beliefs in the limits of government and the inviolability of private property.

The experience of wartime planning never entirely faded from the national consciousness, and certainly not from that of the Left. When the Depression came, the Left jumped at the chance to revive the spirit of government planning it had so assiduously cultivated during the Great War. The rallying cry was “We planned in war”; now, therefore, we shall plan in peace. War symbolism was ubiquitous in the imagery adopted by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. “In terms of frequency of use of such symbols by the national government,” wrote Nisbet, “not even Hitler’s Germany outdid our propagandists.”

Needless to say, this was no anomaly. “[I]t is in time of war that many of the reforms, first advocated by socialists, have been accepted by capitalist governments and made parts of the structures of their societies,” Nisbet pointed out. “Equalization of wealth, progressive taxation, nationalization of industries, the raising of wages and improvements in working conditions, worker-management councils, housing ventures, death taxes, unemployment insurance plans, pension systems, and the enfranchisement of formerly voteless elements of the population have all been, in one country or another, achieved or advanced under the impress of war.”

Nisbet, therefore, as even this brief survey reveals, was altogether different from the interchangeable automatons and mediocrities who pass for conservative commentators in 2005. Among the worst aspects of the collapse of traditional conservatism is that my children will grow up in a world in which vulgar and belligerent nationalism will be presented to them as the alternative to leftism. Nisbet would not have been surprised at this unfortunate situation. But he would surely have continued to employ his talented and incisive pen against it, reminding his fellow Americans that in the midst of the right-wing noise machine there still existed, if somewhat chastened and neglected, a humane and principled conservatism to which civilized men could repair.


Thomas E. Woods Jr. is the author, most recently, of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

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