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.
Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority is another feudal exercise, only more determined. To diagnose the American condition he uses not the feudalism of the ancien regime but the original feudalism of the Middle Ages. Unlike his recent predecessors, however, Nisbet believes that conservatism itself is moribund, a victim of recent events. In part, Twilight of Authority is an epitaph on conservatism; in part, a reactionary tract which, surprisingly, makes frequent contact with recent radicalism. Its mood is almost unrelievedly pessimistic. Little in American life seems to him worth conserving. Like Jeremiah he surveys the scene and pronounces it a desolation: littered remains of authority, political community, family, religion, moral values, and cultural excellence. Presiding over this wasteland is the giant political apparatus of the modern state, part war machine, part welfare apparatus, complete bureaucracy. Greased by the lust for power and aided by corruption, it produces conquest abroad and dispenses material benefits at home. Nisbet’s tirade echoes virtually every criticism voiced by the left during the past decade: from the Vietnam war to Watergate; from the attack on militarism to the diagnosis of alienation; from the corruption of academia to the lament over the decline of human intimacy.
While there is little novelty to Nisbet’s indictment, and much, as we shall see, that is overstated to the point of perversity, one would have hoped that a writer of his learning and eminence could offer a perceptive explanation of our predicaments, or perhaps a characterization of our situation that might cast some illumination on the possibilities still open to us. Nisbet does not lack for characterizations of the contemporary condition. We are living in a “twilight age” of the kind prophesied by Tocqueville and Spengler. Respect for authority has all but disappeared; “political community” is on the wane. The “heart of the problem” lies in the perverted relationship which has developed between the state and certain nonpolitical institutions like the family, local communities, social classes, and the church. These “traditional social authorities” had served as buffers to state power, preventing it from encroaching upon the pluralism of social life, mediating and blunting its play upon the individual. At the same time, these social agencies provided integration and meaning to human existence, a shelter against alienation.
The problem, then, is defined as a distortion of the relationship between state and society caused by the weakening or destruction of intermediate “communities.” The centralization of power in the state and its unchecked extension have resulted from the decline of these smaller centers of authority, affection, and morality. When we ask why and when these developments have come about, it becomes evident that Nisbet offers not an explanation but a series of myths.
The first myth posits an idyllic America that existed sometime between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I. Then there was no Leviathan-state; localism and pluralism flourished; the values of family, work, and the “sacred” were respected; political parties were models of vigor and ideological fervor; and our wars were “proper” ones. It is, of course, a credible myth if one overlooks the fact that this period witnessed the corporate revolution, the corruption of the Republican Party during the Grant era, the bitter industrial conflict represented by the Pullman Strike, the emergence of imperialism during the Spanish-American War, the reimposition of racial servitude in the South, and the maturing of interest-group politics.
It is not so much the suppression of history that matters as the irrelevance of Nisbet’s categories for understanding the nature of American pluralism. As we shall see, Nisbet conceives groups and associations in pre-industrial, pre-scientific, and predemocratic ways. His ideal of pluralism is explicitly medieval, which means, among other things, that groups are to be understood in terms of hierarchical authority, moral norms, inequality of membership, and stationary existence. As a result, the three most salient characteristics of American pluralism, the preoccupation with material interests, the expanding and dynamic quality of group activity, and resentment of the kind of preferential treatment which hierarchy and inequality entail, are missing.
The fundamental presupposition of American pluralism, the basic condition which has supported both intense group rivalry and a general acceptance of the “rules of the game,” has been an expanding economy. The dominant economic groups of business, finance, agriculture, and, later, labor accommodated themselves to rules which they had the power to change; while excluded groups were pacified by the surpluses periodically available or their more “advanced” elements were absorbed. The irony is that this system has produced its own version of the values touted by Nisbet. Corporate structures, labor unions, agribusiness, universities are resplendent examples of authority, hierarchy, inequality, and status. Nor, despite some recent setbacks, do these groupings lack a legitimating belief. They embody the authority of science—natural, social, and economic—the most powerful miracle-producing belief-system since the Middle Ages.
These realities of American politics and society, which would make good sense to a Hamiltonian conservative, are either ignored or given only perfunctory attention by Nisbet because they cannot be accommodated to his second myth. Pluralistic America was subverted by a combination of power-hungry leaders, a “political clerisy” of intellectuals, and the left. “The West’s first real experience with totalitarianism—political absolutism…with a kind of terror waiting always in the wings—came with the American war state under Woodrow Wilson.” Roosevelt’s NRA “was America’s first experience with Fascism.” Both the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations promoted militarism and socialism, and laid the foundations for today’s “new despotism” and “new equalitarianism,” a purposeless system dedicated solely to power.
Nisbet believes that in large measure the responsibility for warfare, welfare, and Watergate lies with the left and, more heavily, with the intellectuals or “political clerisy” who have been sapping the political and moral foundations of the nation since the days of Woodrow Wilson. Between them the two components of the left-liberal clerisy have promoted an invidious “transpolitical” doctrine that sanctions any action or means so long as it promotes the ends approved by the clerisy. Nixon’s erasures and Ellsberg’s disclosures were two sides of the same coin.
Although there may be recognizable elements of truth in Nisbet’s sweeping generalizations, they do not add up to an explanation. Too much that was important is left unaccounted for: the growth of corporate power, the reluctance of conservative administrations to reverse liberal trends, the dependence of the domestic economy on a world-wide system, etc. Above all, Nisbet attributes to a “political clerisy” what really is a function of the crucial role that systematic knowledge plays in our society. Every major activity is now related to organizations which are founded upon explicit bodies of knowledge and which dispense products (cars, health, education, entertainment, “defense,” etc.) that knowledge has made possible. In so far as “clerisy” and “intellectual” are meant to imply a calling or commitment to the life of the mind, their existence in America has been tenuous and without much political significance.
On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to corrupt practical knowledge: it begs to be used. Woodrow Wilson’s friend Baruch, the brains-trust of FDR, Kennedy’s best and brightest were not like Plato’s philosophers, incorruptible because their deepest loyalties were to a realm of knowledge beyond politics: instead, they were, in the literal sense, sophists, purveyors of instrumental knowledge.
The curious feature of Nisbet’s condemnation of contemporary America is that, by his own account, it is a wasted effort. In his opinion, the decline into modernity was visible before America was settled. It set in during the Renaissance when Italian humanists promoted the “worship of political power” and “ethically unlimited warfare.” The humanists also sought to “escape from culture”—a charge that seems puzzling in the light of the revival of classical learning at the time; but Nisbet makes it clear that by “culture” he means medieval culture in general and the culture of the Catholic Church in particular.
In Nisbet’s portrait the church stands out with admirable lack of ambiguity. It was the defender of “rights” and “liberties” against the state, never the arrogant pretender to both secular and spiritual swords, as it was under Innocent III, never involved in real estate or the practice of simony, never hunting down heresy or free thinking. The truth is that for all of his talk about “community,” Nisbet’s main passion is for authority; and it matters less to him how authority is used than whether it is reverenced.
This is best illustrated by his treatment of the Protestant Reformation. He accuses the Reformers of having destroyed “the sense of visible community in religion” and of being “sterile” in the creation of new social forms. While the early Protestants may have banished icons and reduced the number of rituals, they surely inspired some of the most extraordinary efforts at founding new types of community. Similarly, while Nisbet is hypersensitive to all contemporary forms of bureaucratization and centralization, he seems unaware that it had been these characteristics of the Roman Church that had inspired the criticisms of Luther and his allies.
Nisbet’s vision of the future is harmless, both to his allies and to his enemies. He tells us that, despite his pessimism, there will be a revival of a pluralist society. His hopes are based on a curious assortment of elements: the current revival of “ethnic nationalism,” “fundamentalist religion,” “the commune,” “kinship and localism,” and what he calls “the still-enigmatic role of the multinational corporation.” Without pausing to tell us how these elements are to be translated into “a new laissez-faire” society, he lists the principles of the pluralist philosophy. First, there should be autonomy for the “major functions” in society. These include family, school, economy, religion, and “other great spheres of society.” Second, there is to be decentralization and the revival of local institutions. Third, he would want hierarchy and stratification or inequality to be instituted, but not in such a way as to consign “any ethnic, economic, or regional segment to perpetual servitude [sic].” Fourth, tradition rather than law should rule.
In so far as Nisbet champions voluntary associations, local initiatives, smaller scales of living and work, his view of the general form that future society ought to take makes sense. In so far as he contends that these future forms require odious inequalities, ill-defined “reverence” for authority, and obeisance to some obscure element called the “sacred,” he is trying to palm off, in the name of pluralism, the system which Kant called “tutelage.” What is intended as the solemn wisdom of the ages comes out too often as merely condescending and fatuous, as when he commends “inherited class attitudes” for having “restrained” the masses from “indulging” their appetites for material goods or higher status; or criticizes intellectuals for having systematically destroyed the cult of “heroes,” thereby depriving the masses of their right to hero-worship; or asserts that “culture” is “inherently feudal” and requires that the many pay deference to the few.
Nisbet supports these principles by a long attack on the idea of the “political” and on related notions such as the “public” and the “citizen.” These are, he argues, the pernicious products of a long line of étatist-minded, militaristic, and egalitarian theorists, beginning with Plato and ending in John Rawls. The monument to their theories is the contemporary Leviathan. He believes, however, that there is another tradition of theory, one that is “conservative…far more interesting and also valuable.” It includes, inter alia, Aristotle, Aquinas, Burke, de Maistre, Tocqueville, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Weber. These writers, according to Nisbet, defended the “social” against the political and placed their hopes on voluntary associations and various non-political groups. Armed with a number of convenient interpretations, Nisbet comes out four-square for the values of privatism: private enterprise, private rights, and the sanctity of the family.
Nisbet is justified in his loathing for the centralized and bureaucratic state; but to identify this perversion of power with the “political” is not only wrong-headed but self-defeating. Throughout most of the history of political theory, the political has not been a synonym for the state but for the common life and fate shared by those who were members of the same collectivity. The greatest threats to political community were, as Nisbet’s two favorite whipping-boys, Plato and Rousseau, both recognized, its over-extension in space and its uncontrolled increase in population. Since it is Nisbet’s hope that in the future many of the functions currently performed by the state will devolve upon groups and associations, there would be more pressing need than ever for public values to counter group egoism.
Notwithstanding his sketch of the future, Nisbet’s mood is pessimistic. The “emerging conservatism” of the postwar years, he believes, “was dealt a possibly fatal hammer blow” by Water-gate. The social sciences, whose historical resources might have been used to spark a conservative renewal, are in the grip of “the political clerisy.” But at this darkest hour, when it seemed he was doomed to defend the fortress of conservatism singlehandedly, there appears a fresh contingent of self-proclaimed “new conservatives,” ready to renounce their former liberal heresies and to save the republic from democracy. They have rallied their forces in a recent issue of The Public Interest devoted to the theme “The American Commonwealth, 1976.”2 Nisbet has doubtless followed a Burkean maxim about prudence in joining an alliance that includes distinguished representatives of the “political clerisy” he deplores in his book; they include one writer, Samuel Huntington, who, several years ago, commended West Point as a model that might save the democracy from its sloth and flabbiness; another who, contrary to Nisbet’s nostalgia for keen ideological contests, welcomed the “end of ideology”; and still another who urged a vigorous exercise of national “will” to discourage the black-mailing policies of the Arab countries.
What is the new conservatism about? Certainly it is not a call for decentralization, dismantling the bureaucracy, the revival of localism,3 an end to imperial adventures, or a return to the “sacred.” Not a single article is devoted to these themes, except for one dealing with, of all things, the “imperial judiciary.” The unifying mood is one that could be called somber Hamiltonianism. To a man the Public Interest contributors appear to have been traumatized by the Sixties. They perceive the decade as a period of agitation and violence that threatened to destroy the universities and the public order. It has left a legacy of two demands, for more extensive participation and greater social and economic equality, which have made it nearly impossible for our rulers to rule.
Unlike Nisbet, the other contributors fear that our government has too little power to meet its domestic, military, and international responsibilities. The two-party system has broken down, primarily because reformers have tried to make it a vehicle for broader participation and for egalitarian social policies. The presidency is collapsing under its multiple responsibilities and the excessive expectations of the electorate; the bureaucracy has developed clientele relationships (both with private interests and with state and local governments) that enable it to escape political control and redirection; and “a majority of intellectual voices” is hostile to the Constitution. It all adds up, in Bell’s epitaph, to the end of American “exceptionalism,” the belief in a unique American destiny.
“Very well, then,” Daniel P. Moynihan asks, “what have we learned?” Most of the essayists, it would seem, have learned two things about the American commonwealth. The first is that American politics has suffered and continues to suffer from a surfeit of “moralism.” Hardly a page can be turned without encountering a reference to the national vice of perceiving politics in starkly opposed terms of good and evil; of being deluded by the faith that political means can improve the human condition; of being quick to judge foreign regimes by their conformity to our democratic ideals. Moralism not only hampers our rulers and experts in their efforts to bring dispassionate judgments to bear on complex problems; it gives rise to well-intentioned, meliorative policies that eventually overload the “system.”
The second lesson is that the citizenry has become “ungovernable.” Huntington diagnoses this condition as “the democratic distemper.” His arguments amount to saying not that we have become ungovernable but that we have become unmanageable. We demand too much “responsiveness” from government, expecting it to produce policies to match our rising expectations, grievances, and moral outrage. Or we are being ungovernable when, in the face of a complex world and a labyrinth of bureaucratic structures, we clamor for the right to participate. The lesson, then, is that government has to be saved from the people.
The first thing to be said about what these new conservatives have learned is that their sense of irony has failed them. For while they have been lamenting the demise of American “exceptionalism,” they have been busy lambasting what may be its unique quality. To belittle moralism is to weaken one of the main restraints on power and to deny to politics one of the few means to redeem its otherwise shabby bargains and frequent violence. It is not easy to see how one can attack moralism and then hope, as Daniel Bell does, that future “leadership” will regain “moral credibility” and practice “simple honesty and openness.” His confusions, however, are minor compared to the monumental muddle created by Seymour Martin Lipset on this issue.
Lipset has discovered the existence of a latent reservoir of moralism underlying American history; periodically it comes to the surface and causes Americans to respond to events simplistically. It insists on making its presence felt, irrespective of the side it supports. Thus moralism erupted in the cold-war anticommunism crusade of the Fifties and in the ecology movement of the Sixties; moralism led Ellsberg to disclose the Pentagon Papers and Ehrlichman to finger Ellsberg. The choicest example is how moralism entered the Vietnam war. That was “the first war waged by the American political elite which did not include a moralistic crusade designed to gain total victory.” But precisely because our leaders carefully avoided turning the war into an anticommunist crusade—LBJ’s harangues apparently don’t count—there was “an unengaged morality” that remained frustrated for want of an outlet. Not to be denied, it “shifted to the side of the anti-war forces….” Small wonder that with his vivid imagination Lipset should express contempt for the tepid conspiracy theories of the moralists.
There is, as well, irony that this issue commemorating the bicentennial of the American Revolution should be devoted in large measure to lecturing the citizenry on their ungovernability. Presumably a passive citizenry is required if the system is to endure, a citizenry whose lowered expectations would enable the governors to proceed undistracted by the grievances and hopes of the governed. According to Huntington, “the public develops expectations which it is impossible for government to meet…. [This] gives to dictatorships…a major advantage in the conduct of international relations…. A government which lacks authority and which is committed to substantial economic programs will have little ability, short of a cataclysmic crisis, to impose [sic] on its people the sacrifices which may be necessary to deal with foreign policy problems and defense.” Despite the lavish praise bestowed on the Federalist Papers by most of the essayists in this collection, none seems to have pondered the second part of Madison’s dictim in Letter 51: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The prominence given to “ungovernability” and “expectations” raises the hope that at least one essay would try to explain the causes of these phenomena. Is it possible that the citizenry was encouraged by the rhetoric and reality of corporate power to believe that America had a capacity for infinite economic growth? Could it be that political leaders, fired by the vision of an American imperium, conveyed to the people a sense of participating in the greatest power in the history of mankind? These possibilities and others are never posed in this collection of essays. This silence is, I believe, connected with the distrust and hostility toward democracy, equality, and participation that is evidenced throughout. Both are a way of shifting the major responsibility for the present political crisis.
The low ebb which we have now reached in terms of public confidence in our political institutions and leadership reflects the historic failure of a form of political rule which emerged from World War II and reached its maturity during the various administrations of the Sixties. For the first time in its history America was not only ruled by elites, but elitism itself was openly proclaimed and elaborately legitimated. During the Sixties, for example, it was a rare book or article in the scholarship of American political and social science that did not adopt the premise that American politics was to be understood mainly by studying the “behavior” of elites. The same premise governed the understanding of other major institutions. A complex technological and administrative order, it was said, demanded expertise.
What is important is that elitism has not only failed but failed spectacularly. Those who controlled this country had at their disposal the most awesome political, military, technological, economic, and scientific system ever assembled. Now much of it is a shambles. An elite which squandered power so prodigally must surely put to shame the most extravagant proponent of egalitarian social policies.
In the light of this failure, the widespread loss of confidence in our political institutions and leaders, the lack of respect for authority, the alienation from the official values of the society, even the revulsion against politics—all of which have been duly noted by Nisbet and the essayists of The Public Interest—appear as sensible responses to the debacle accomplished by those in authority. Ungovernability may be our last but it is surely not our best hope. Our best hope, paradoxically, is in the pessimism of the present, in our disillusionment. It may signify that as a nation we are finally ready to abandon childish fantasies of collective omnipotence and overflowing abundance, that we are repelled at having made legitimate the corpulent powers that now govern us and at having accepted gratefully their tawdry benefits.
Unlike the revolutionists of 1776, who strove to recover their natural rights, the Americans of today sense that they have been deprived of the sense to put their skills and energies to dignified use, that they have been forced to live lives devoted to private advantage in order to defend themselves from complicity in the grotesque public purposes of their governors. If disillusionment is not to deepen into despair, political thinking and practical skill must turn to the task of finding new forms of living that will elicit the energies, competencies, and “moralism” of individuals.
New forms would mean not only new relationships of cooperation, but new locations, ones that will be centered around places where people actually live, work, and learn. They cannot be conceived administratively, that is, as decentralize “units”; they must be conceived politically, but not in the outworn modes of elections, mass parties, or final decision-making authorities. It must be a politics grounded in everyday life, in the reality of working places, living places, and learning places, in the reality of people doing and depending.
A radical reorientation of this kind cannot be accomplished in a moment. Its success would depend upon a slow and gradual change in habits, outlooks, and skills. It would be, at the same time, a hazardous course to follow in a world full of threat and danger. The harsh fact is that, at present, conduct of American foreign policy and military planning is premised upon the power of the very institutions which stifle the possibilities within our society. That many of these institutions are now visibly weakening and hence are less capable of blocking radical change does not lessen the external dangers. Consequently, there is a cruel task awaiting the true politician: he must defend a weakened society in a dangerous world while attempting to encourage a transfer of human capacities from the old set of social forms to newer ones.
This means, in turn, that the idea of new forms must be conceived in ways different from those current in recent radical literature, that is, as offering an escape from politics or a sanctuary for indulgence. New forms must not only meet the test of encouraging human capacities for shared activity but offer a reasonable prospect of revitalizing power.
February 5, 1976
Oeuvres complètes, edited by J.P. Mayer, Vol. I (2), pp. 262, 264. ↩
The contributors are: Nisbet, Martin Diamond, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Samuel P. Huntington, Seymour M. Lipset, James Q. Wilson, Aaron Wildavsky, Daniel Bell, and Daniel P. Moynihan. ↩
One exception would be Glazer’s argument against desegregation by court orders and for local control of schools. ↩