The Failure of Political Community

As far as opening lines go, the first paragraph to Robert Nisbet’s 1975 classic Twilight of Authority ranks high on the list of dourly memorable intros:

Periodically in Western history twilight ages make their appearance. Processes of decline and erosion of institutions are more evident than those of genesis and development. Something like a vacuum obtains in the moral order for large numbers of people. Human loyalties, uprooted from accustomed soil, can be seen tumbling across the landscape with no scheme of larger purpose to fix them. Individualism reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance. Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective is commonplace. There is a widely expressed sense of degradation of values and corruption of culture. The sense of estrangement from community is strong.

As the title and opening lines suggest, Nisbet sees in the late twentieth century a world in decline. Institutions as longstanding sources of communal value are crumbling. He spends the next 250 pages explaining the decline and offering—I cannot say hope, that is too strong a word—potential sources for a change in direction.

Twilight centers on the same theme as Nisbet’s 1953 classic, The Quest for Community: the decline of community in the modern West. Twilight is not a recapitulation of the arguments of Quest, but a sequel. Quest is concerned with understanding the major historical and theoretical causes of the present structure of political power, which plays the central role in the decline in traditional sources of community. In Twilight, Nisbet traces a further development: the way in which the political community is failing to maintain the order it promised when it deliberately eclipsed all other sources of community.

From Church to State

The first two chapters, “The Political Community at Bay” and “The Crumbling Wall of Politics,” get at this theme directly. The first explains how the state has become the central form of community in Western society. We seldom speak of community besides the political community. In this way, it is “the successor…of the church as the major arena of man’s hopes, devotions, and aspirations.” Where Western man had historically been concerned with piety to prove his relation to the central community of the church, now he pursues patriotism to prove his relation to the central community of the state. Just as the church had a vast intellectual class concerned both with extending the power and reach of the religious community and with justifying that power in a moral sense, so the state developed its own political clerisy.

This new clerisy is found in government at all levels, of course, but also in journalism and especially in academia. “[The new clerisy] is as vivid a reality in modern democracy as it ever was in any Renaissance monarchy: as vivid, and vastly larger.” It too seeks to justify the power and reach of its community. But where the medieval clerisy argued for the power and reach of the church, the modern clerisy argues for the power and reach of the state. Where the medieval clerisy argued that universal redemption was found in religious institutions, the modern clerisy argues that universal redemption is found in the state. The exercise of political power will solve all social ills from poverty to crime to workplace inequality.

As with Quest and much (although not all) of Nisbet’s work, there is an eerie prescience. Like Tocqueville, perhaps the closest nineteenth-century equivalent to Nisbet, he sees far and he writes things that still, nearly a half-century later, strike close to home. Nisbet describes the “specter of lawlessness that hovers over all Western populations at the present time.” The mayhem of the summer of 2020 and the riot at the Capitol in 2021 reminded me immediately of this comment. While crime declined through the 1990s and early 2000s, some of us maintained a curious unease, as if something sinister was simmering just beneath the surface. The promise of the political community at least since Hobbes was precisely that it avoided this mayhem, indeed, that it was the only way to avoid this mayhem. But it is precisely the basic good of order that our political community seems incapable, for all its trillions, of delivering to its citizens.

Widespread distrust in government is the result of the political community’s basic failure to deliver on the fundamental good of social order. Such distrust is rampant in all institutions, but especially political institutions. Our elected officials in Congress are routinely the least trusted officials in the least liked institution in the country. One of the primary reasons for declining trust is what Nisbet calls “Government as Deception.” President Franklin Roosevelt lied routinely, as did President Eisenhower. But the deception of the American people was only warming up when Leave it to Beaver was broadcast to the nation.

Nisbet describes President Nixon’s administration as “the greatest single program of outright lying—in foreign and domestic matters—that any government of the United States had ever known.” Watergate was hardly the only episode of government deception to come out of that administration. Nixon and his minions lied about American actions in Vietnam and they lied about economic and civil conditions in America. “Sober journalists have estimated that not more than about 50 percent of the American people will now believe any utterance from the White House, no matter who its occupant is, Republican or Democratic.” Little has improved in the last few decades. The lies emanating from the Bush administration to justify the war in Iraq and from the Obama administration to drum up support for the Affordable Care Act are not the only recent examples of presidential mendacity that have cost the American people trillions.

Disillusion with political institutions has grown alongside the democratic royalism of the president. The massive motorcades, ostentatious security, and pomp and circumstance are fit for an ancient despot, not the chief executive of a republic. Nisbet names FDR the first democratic royalist who, like Augustus, ruled as emperor while paying lip service to republican principles. Of course, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon did the same. We can look to our recent presidents and see that this trend has not abated in the slightest. Reagan was roundly criticized for the Hollywoodization of the White House. Both Obama and Trump relished in their enormous entourages.

Where once conservatism, liberalism, and radicalism had meant something substantive, by the 1970s they had all become so many strains of power-seeking.

Democratic royalism, though, refers not only to the pomp and circumstance surrounding presidential escapades, but also to the creation of a White House Court, full of loyalists answerable and accountable to the person—not the office—of the President. The progressive argument that the President is the only unifying figure in the country lends itself ineradicably to the development of democratic royalism. Both parties play this game, merely disagreeing over whether it is a Bush or an Obama, a Trump or a Biden who deserves our fealty.

Democratic royalism is but one development of the growth of the political community. Corruption, the enriching of one’s followers, also follows. As does the eradication of democratic forms and barriers to the exercise of political power. Much like Renaissance monarchs could claim the excuse of national security to cut through the rule of law and traditional buffers between political power and the private realm, so our purportedly democratic leaders do the same today. Nisbet was writing bitterly in the aftermath of the Nixon administration, the debacle in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal. Can we say anything different after the failure in Afghanistan, revelations of NSA wiretapping, the storming of the Capitol, and the manifest technocratic incompetence of our Covid regime? The first quarter of the twenty-first century is deja vu all over again. Nisbet is as relevant as ever. He writes,

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.

President Obama, anyone?

One of Nisbet’s most interesting observations is what he calls the “Obsolescence of Ideology.” Where once conservatism, liberalism, and radicalism had meant something substantive, by the 1970s they had all become so many strains of power-seeking. Conservatism no longer sought to protect the realm of traditional authority residing in church, family, local community, and the like, but merely to win office and deliver the goods to constituents, albeit conservative goods to conservative constituents. Liberals likewise did not seek to protect the autonomy of the individual, but to champion individualism at the expense of taxpayers. Radicalism had gone from a systematic critique of society to a flight from reality into subjectivism and nihilistic violence.

Cracks in the Foundation

Just as the hold of the religious community began to fracture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, so the hold of the political community is beginning to fracture, its walls crumbling all around us. Just as the religious community endured a twilight age in the sixteenth century, when its power was eclipsed by that of the national state, so the national state is now entering its own twilight age, to be eclipsed by we know not what—at least not yet. Nisbet calls it the “nemesis of politics.” Many in the 1970s were calling for “a strong presidency—in proper hands, of course—and an active, responsive Congress coupled with a national grass-roots type of common cause or populism…[to]restore faith in politics and its distinctive kind of power.” But, Nisbet responds, “I cannot agree…even in the best light, [it is] hardly more than a use of combustible materials in putting out a fire.” Did the “hope and change” of the Obama administration or the populism of the Trump administration do anything to shore up trust in political institutions? Or to make them more competent and trustworthy? Or was the net result of these presidencies even more polarization, even less trust?

The central problem for Nisbet is the relation of the state to non-political institutions. These other institutions, attenuated by the growth and intrusions of state power, once were the walls that hemmed in political power. They are now reaching their nadir. The political state grew in power at the expense of these traditional institutions. It fed on them parasitically, sapping each of their vitality as it centralized their authority—distributed across a plethora of institutions—in the political state alone. Nisbet describes this as “a kind of built-in, endemic process of annihilation of traditional social and moral institutions. The centralized, potentially collectivist nature of the sovereign power claimed by its philosophers and protagonists for the modern state made such annihilation inevitable in the long run.” 

Despite two centuries of the growth of state power, a vast array of social groups retained their autonomy and thus the allegiance of their members. Thus, ironically, they provided stability to the political order even as the primary political authorities drained them of their social vigor by undermining and coopting their authority. This was not to last. Nisbet writes, “It is the failure of traditional social authorities, allegiances, and their embedded autonomies to endure to our century that, above anything else, is responsible for the intolerable strains which have been placed upon the traditional political community and for its present malaise.”

A major theme in Nisbet’s work—one evident throughout Twilight—is the process of politicization, the way in which nonpolitical aspects of society from art, to learning, to economics, to friendship, become bound up with political values and meanings. This process is socially enervating; it drains these institutions of meaning and significance. Nisbet discusses this process in the post-war university, which sold its soul for billions in government subsidies. As a result, the university lost its traditional authority as a realm of learning if not separate from, then above, politics. The student revolts of the 1960s were really a sign that the university had already jettisoned its authority. He explores this theme in greater depth in The Degradation of the Academic Dogma (1976).

 “There is seldom a major attack on institutions and values until well after processes of decline and erosion have begun,” Nisbet observed.

By a strange law of social behavior, decline actually causes attack. Let a government, economic enterprise, or church reach a certain point of enervation, the result of random causes or tidal forces of history, and it is virtually certain that some kind of assault will be mounted on it.

This is true of the family, which had its main functions outsourced and coopted through various political and social changes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such that the feminist assault of the middle and late twentieth century owed little to the philosophical merits of the position. The vicious attacks owed much more to the functional weakness of the institution, which was reduced to a psychological retreat from the stresses of the real world. The same could be said of the local community and religion. The economic import of neighborhood and religion were replaced by the state’s social safety net. Their functional irrelevancy invited sneering contempt.

“The greatest single revolution of the last century in the political sphere has been the transfer of effective power in human lives from the constitutionally visible offices of government…to the vast network of power that has been brought into being in the name of protection of the people from their exploiters.”

Robert Nisbet

The third and fourth chapters were the ones I found at first to be the least plausible, and only in recent years has my horror grown with the now-all-too-familiar feeling: Nisbet is right! “The Lure of Military Society” describes how war serves as a compelling source of community. Historically, the community of war is the first to arise apart from the kinship communities that dominated human existence for millennia. In the circumstances of war, the plural structure of kinship authority is inept. It features a plethora of filial authorities making claims and counterclaims upon individuals, and typically prioritizes seniority over merit, preventing it from meeting a crisis with energy and dispatch. Thus, the war community is born out of necessity. In the time of war, the authority of the war chief eclipses that of the patriarch and matriarch when a social crisis reveals the traditional communities, beginning with the family, to be inadequate to the task. “Always, it would seem, the onset of widening perceptions of breakdown or corruption in the non-military areas of life is followed by the enhanced position of the military.” This is true of ordinary people looking for communal refuge and it is even more true of “intellectuals fascinated by the uses of power in times of crisis.”

The structure of the war society mirrors that of political society. In times of war, the command of the war chief is absolute. In times of peace, the authority of the political state is sovereign, absolute. Nisbet describes “the vital affinity between war and the Western state. The state is born of war and its unique demands.” Thus, the political state has a tendency to either start real wars or to “declare war” on various social ills. Wars, whether real or metaphorical, demand obedience and justify the violation of political and even democratic norms. In this way, war is inherently revolutionary. It usurps traditional authorities and upends traditional ways of doing things in the name of necessity.

The fourth chapter, “The New Science of Despotism,” follows. Here Nisbet outlines the way in which political power has seduced many of the great intellectuals of our time. The power of the state in the twentieth century has grown exponentially even in liberal democracies. It has intruded into every aspect of our lives. Further, this is justified by the purportedly moral purposes of the regulations. Nisbet writes, “The greatest single revolution of the last century in the political sphere has been the transfer of effective power in human lives from the constitutionally visible offices of government, the nominally sovereign offices, to the vast network of power that has been brought into being in the name of protection of the people from their exploiters.” Central to this scheme is a new conception of equality: equality of condition. This new equality is enforced through a vast state bureaucracy. The state and its unelected apparatchiks take on a religious tone of redemption. They will save us from our social travails and inequalities. And they will do so by ever-increasing intrusions into the private spheres of our lives.

This scheme of power has attracted a great following among the learned classes, especially in academia. Here Nisbet returns to the theme of the political clerisy. These people have “made the political state the temple, so to speak, of their devotion.” Nisbet sees the spirit of Rousseau as the underlying force of the political clerisy. It is their holy ghost that drives their obsession with establishing the General Will of the people against their particular wills, of forcing democratic citizens to be free. Just as Augustine made the church central to his thought, so Rousseau made the state. Who can deny that in the nearly half-century since Nisbet wrote Twilight, the power of the political clerisy has only grown? We find them not only in government and academia, but in non-profits, think tanks, corporations, schools, and even churches and seminaries.

One criticism of Twilight is that it reads more like an extended essay than an academic book, even though it was originally published by Oxford University Press. But the great theoretical superstructure of Nisbet’s argument regarding politics, war, and pluralism is discussed in much greater detail in a now largely forgotten book, The Social Philosophers, published in 1973, two years before Twilight. There Nisbet attempts to do for social thinkers what Robert Heilbroner did for economic thinkers in his classic The Worldly Philosophers (1953), with much less popular success, unfortunately. This is true of much of Nisbet. If you read something in Quest or Twilight or The Present Age and wish he would elaborate, he probably did. Search his oeuvre and you will almost certainly find a fuller explanation.

Nisbet concludes Twilight with a meditation on “The Restoration of Authority.” Make no mistake, Nisbet sees “no reason to believe optimistically that we are reaching” the end of our critical age. Our institutions will probably continue to decline. But those of us interested in renewal are left with several items upon which to work. First, is a recovery of pluralism, by which Nisbet means social pluralism, centering around securing the functional autonomy of groups. He emphasizes the importance of ideas. “Man is what he thinks!” We need a philosophy of pluralism to counter the philosophy of political power which has shaped our thinking for the past several centuries. A philosophy of pluralism will prioritize social groups over political power. Relatedly, we need to rediscover the social and renew social initiative so enervated by political intrusion and cooption. We also need a renascence of kinship, a revival of localism, and a philosophy of the voluntary association. Make no mistake: Nisbet sees little sign that these movements are afoot. But they are needed if we are to bring about an end to our twilight age and the dawn of something better.