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The New Conservatives

Twilight of Authority

by Robert Nisbet
Oxford University Press, 287 pp., $10.95

The American Commonwealth, 1976,”

Tenth Anniversary Issue
The Public Interest, No. 41 pp., $3.50


Robert Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority is the most recent illustration of the perplexities of conservatism in America. The difficulty for theoretically minded conservatives is to find the appropriate categories for identifying continuities in a society so passionately dedicated to change that the only consistent conservatives may be the conservationists. The difficulties are compounded for the conservative when, like Nisbet, he perceives the society as radically corrupted in its culture and values, deranged in its institutions. Then the conservative is apt to find his conservatism an embarrassment. For, as Nisbet argues, nothing less than “a fundamental change” can reverse the forces of decay.

Why has it been so difficult for theorists to develop a theory of American conservatism? Does the problem lie with America or with the type of ideology that theorists have sought to foster?

Tocqueville made an observation which seemed both to furnish a natural basis for conservatism and to give it a distinct identity:

Two things are astonishing about America, the great changeableness of most human behavior and the singular fixity of certain principles…. Men living in democratic societies…are forever varying, altering, and restoring secondary matters, but they are very careful not to touch fundamentals. They love change, but they dread revolutions.1

One might interpret this observation as defining the historical tasks of liberalism and conservatism in America. Liberalism’s task would be to articulate the forces of change, while the conservative would seek to preserve fundamental forms and principles.

From the beginning, however, this division of labor did not work so neatly. For one thing, those Americans of the revolutionary era who could be loosely described as liberal or conservative shared a common political outlook. Jefferson and Adams, Paine and Madison, for example, subscribed to the values of liberty, property, security, individualism, and limited government based on the consent of the governed. The classic formulation of these ideas was Locke’s Two Treatises. In the eighteenth century these notions became most closely associated with the revolutionary ideology of liberalism. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were testimony to their widespread acceptance in America. As Louis Hartz argued several years ago, the American consensus evolved as a distillation of Lockean liberalism. As a result, American conservatism was drawn to the defense of liberal principles and practices.

While this confluence of liberals and conservatives produced a “mainstream” of American politics, it left conservatism in something like a permanent identity crisis, without a distinctive idiom or vision. The occasional efforts of such figures as Fisher Ames, Noah Webster, or Calhoun to stake out a conservative preserve in defense of privilege, talent, racial inequality, and regionalism had little effect on a society where badges of distinction were resented, property easily available, and opportunities too plentiful.

If political and social ideals are to be forces in the real world, they require some group, class, or movement whose interests or objectives make them a natural carrier and whose behavior is exemplary. In this respect, the natural allies of conservatism proved a perpetual source of embarrassment. Early on, conservatives had placed their hopes on the propertied classes, believing that those with a “stake in the community” would be the most likely group to support existing political and legal arrangements. But, as the Federalist Papers reveal, the new constitution was designed not only to protect property but to encourage its expansion and diversification. The conservative image of the property-holder as a sturdy yeoman intent on nurturing and defending his piece of turf was dissolved by the reality of the property-holder as innovator, as the tireless engineer of change, the creator of urban, technological America, the wizard who persuaded his countrymen that corporations were legal “persons,” entitled to the same protections as individual property but not to the same liabilities.

If there was any one man who, by word and deed, exploded the agrarian ideal and set before his contemporaries and posterity a conservative vision of the course of power in America it was Alexander Hamilton. His Report on Manufactures (1791) rendered archaic the view that agriculture was the natural foundation of both economy and polity, as well as the natural school of social and civic virtue. Manufacturing, he argued, supplied a more dynamic basis for society, not only increasing employment, productivity, and emigration, but furnishing “greater scope for the diversity of talents and dispositions which discriminate men from each other” and creating “a more ample and various field for enterprise.” Manufacturing was a new form of power, “an artificial force brought in the aid of the natural force of man.”

Hamilton’s expansive view of economic power was matched by an equally enlarged conception of government. Rejecting the growing sentiment for laissez-faire, he insisted on the need for “a common directing power” and then, in his proposals for the assumption by the federal government of the debts of the state and for a national bank, he supplied practical illustrations for his vision of a strong centralized government. His political views were rounded out by a constitutional theory which proposed to measure governmental authority not by “the powers specially enumerated” in the Constitution but by “the whole mass of the powers of the government and the nature of political society.”

Power in America has mainly taken the Hamiltonian form of expansion: the frontiers were pushed west; then in the Spanish-American War power was first extended abroad; and now it has become interstellar in its scope. The organization of power has been centripetal, tending always toward centralization and concentration. The Constitution, which established a political center at the expense of state and local autonomies, was the first step. Under the guidance of a great conservative, Chief Justice Marshall, the national system of power was given a legal rationale which was reaffirmed in the Civil War. The same pattern of concentrated power was followed by business enterprise and, more slowly, by agriculture.

With the emergence of corporate power a dialectic took hold and cemented these patterns. The “excesses” of big business required big government to regulate corporate practices and so, beginning with the Interstate Commerce Commission (1887), new forms of bureaucracy were introduced to permit governmental power to keep pace with the power of trusts and monopolies. The ensuing controversy over corporate power and monopolistic practices found the conservatives championing growth and expansion, the liberals defending limitations and even, as in the case of Brandeis, extolling the virtues of small enterprise. The result, however, was that both governmental and corporate power increased while the old adversary relationship of the trust-busting era gradually eased into a fitful marriage; occasional acrimony has been tempered by the knowledge that neither government nor corporation would flourish unless both survived. Who does own Glomar?

The progress of power in America has had a special piquancy for the conservative. While conservative politicians composed hymnals to individualism, localism, Sunday piety, and homespun virtues, conservative bankers, businessmen, and corporate executives were busy devitalizing many local centers of power and authority, from the small business and family farm to the towns and cities. They created the imperatives of technological change and mass production which have transformed the attitudes, skills, and values of the worker; and erased most peculiarities of place, of settled personal and family identity; and made men and women live by an abstract time that is unrelated to personal experience or local customs.

The one living tradition nurtured by the groups and classes which form the power base of conservatism is a peculiarly modern tradition of rationality. It conceives the world as a domain to be rationalized into orderly processes which will produce desired results according to a calculus of efficiency. Its mode of action is “rational decision-making”; its ethic is enshrined in cost-benefit analysis; its politics is administration. The romantic conservative, who yearns for Georgian manors, Gothic gardens, and Chartresque piety, has need of a special insensibility if he is to plead for a status quo so devoid of sentiment, tradition, and mystery or to ally himself with those whose profession requires that the world be objectified and abstracted of its human and historical idiosyncrasies before the decision-makers can make sense of it.

A traditionless society that conserves nothing; ruling groups that are committed to continuous innovation; social norms that stigmatize those who fail to improve their status; incentives that require that those who move up must move away: such a society presents a formidable challenge to the conservative imagination. Although it is possible to identify particular American writers as conservative in outlook—A. Lawrence Lowell, Randolph Bourne, Irving Babbitt, Santayana, Faulkner—no distinctively conservative idiom has appeared, no powerful theory that could analyze and explain the corporate and technological society which emerged in the twentieth century, no conception of a praxis connecting politics with the values symbolic of a conservative view of society.

The missed connection between conservative theory and American reality was most evident in the New Conservatism of the immediate postwar years. The most prominent writers of the group were William Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Clinton Rossiter. There was no ambiguity in their efforts to discriminate conservatism from liberalism. Liberalism was attacked as a pale facsimile of communism and excoriated for its rationalism, materialism, secularism, collectivism, and egalitarianism. They defended private property, free enterprise, individual freedom, local autonomy, patriotism, God, and elitism.’ While some of these ideals could only arouse amused tolerance in the executive boardrooms, it was the more general features of the New Conservatism that appeared most alien to its natural allies. The New Conservatives were acutely self-conscious about style. They aspired to be literate, graceful, patrician, erudite; to be, as Kirk put it, “beyond the dreams of avarice.” Consequently, they failed to come to terms with the business ethos or to make much sense of the technological and scientific culture which formed so crucial an element of corporate capitalism.

One of their contemporaries had. James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution (1941) had underscored the technical and scientific character of the modern economy. It proclaimed the emergence of the managerial elite as the new ruling class and as the embodiment of a new and scientific ethos. While the New Conservatives welcomed Burnham for his anticommunist fervor and his contempt for liberal humanitarianism, they avoided his teaching about the nature of contemporary power and preferred more genteel models.

Although the parallel may be more generous than accurate, Burnham, like Hamilton, was a prophet spurned by the ideological spokesmen of the political and economic interests he was trying to promote. Burnham remained too much the former Marxist, concerned with where power really lay, impatient with the pretty anachronisms cultivated by his fastidious allies. The New Conservatives preferred aristocrats like Tocqueville, writers like Coleridge, liberal Catholics like Acton, or genteel ironists like Santayana.

Above all, they had an unqualified passion for Edmund Burke, the Vergil of antirevolutionary politics. Although Burke had supported the American Revolution, mainly on the grounds that the colonists had been defending the same rights which Englishmen had secured by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, what established the canon of modern conservatism were the writings and speeches which he delivered against the French Revolution. Burke’s defense of feudal values, including inherited privilege, a traditional ruling class, political power based on landed property, a cozy intimacy between church and state, might have made brief sense in a society like Britain’s where reminders of the past lingered on. It was, however, a ludicrous model for a society which, as Tocqueville noted, had no feudal past.

  1. 1

    Oeuvres complètes, edited by J.P. Mayer, Vol. I (2), pp. 262, 264.

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