Twilight of Authority Redux

I’ve been wanting to say something about the bizarre vision of American liberalism displayed at a recent Heritage Foundation event, as described by Suzi Khimm for MSNBC. It apparently centered on the hypothesis that liberals are engaged in a Faustian bargain with government whereby in exchange for total sexual freedom The State is given total power over every other aspect of life.

Here’s the view from the Heritage Foundation: Liberalism creates self-indulgent, licentious hedonists willing to cede every other kind of freedom to an increasingly authoritarian government.

“Give up your economic freedom, give up your political freedom, and you will be rewarded with license,” said Heritage’s David Azerrad, describing the reigning philosophy of the left. “It’s all sex all the time. It’s not just the sex itself—it’s the permission to indulge.”

Liberals, said editor Bill Voegeli, want to create “the United States of Feeling Good About Ourselves.”

What’s more, they think that those who disagree with them ought “to imprisoned—not to be debated, to be locked up on criminal charges and imprisoned,” said the National Review’s Kevin Williamson, citing stray calls from the left to “arrest climate change deniers.”

Jonathan Chait has some sport with Williamson’s inflation of random expressions of anger into The Warp and Woof of Liberalism:

At no point has Williamson entertained the possibility that [a] rant on Gawker does not encapsulate the predominant current in contemporary liberal thought. Perhaps he requires reeducation on this point in a FEMA camp.

But I haven’t seen anyone address the Big Theory here, which was probably expressed most clearly by the sociologist Robert Nisbet in his 1975 book Twilight of Authority. Nisbet argued that the steady destruction of “intermediate institutions” (those “little platoons” of authority operating between the individual and the central State, so beloved of Burkean conservatives) by “atomistic” individualism could lead to totalitarianism.

This analysis has been useful for years to conservatives who want to simultaneously accuse the Left of excessive individualism on cultural matters and as advocates for serfdom. You can also see its utility as a bridge-building argument for cultural conservatives and anti-government absolutists, who can agree that the informal “government” of unruly, licentious appetites via traditional religion, localism, a patriarchal family structure, and of course The Market, makes Big Government unnecessary.

Strange as it is for a lot of us liberals to realize many conservatives view us as sex fiends and potential prison guards, it’s a way of looking at things that is important to the internal dynamics of today’s hard-core Right.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.