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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.