A recent panel discussion at Georgetown’s Tocqueville Forum entitled “The Quest for Community in a Digital Age,” reconsidered the American sociologist Robert Nisbet’s powerful thesis in The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat cited Nisbet’s thesis as a powerful way to understand the continued growth in bureaucratic power in America. Nisbet’s ideas, however, are not conventional, and they challenge central components of the way most people think about centralization in the twentieth century and in our own.
First published in 1953, and recently republished by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2010, The Quest for Community offered an alternative understanding of the diminution of liberty by the modern nation-state. Rather than viewing the heroic, autonomous individual as the one under siege, Nisbet instead looked to the collapse of the “contexts of liberty” that man had formerly known. The reduction of various forms of community: religious, civil, neighborhood, labor, etc., had resulted in individuals shut up within themselves, removed from vitalizing communion with other people. In turn, the power of the state and its various missions of war, social justice, environmental justice, to name a few, became inviting new forms of communion. In 1988 Nisbet subsequently updated his mid-century thesis in The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America, where he considered contemporary developments as further contributing to his earlier observations.