Every time a president of the United States proclaims himself to be in favor of returning power to states, cities, and neighborhoods, and opposed to our trying to solve national problems from Washington, he is echoing, probably unconsciously, a little book published in 1953 called The Quest for Community, by Robert Nisbet. Nisbet’s work is the mother lode of anti-big-government conservatism in America. Views like his certainly existed before The Quest for Community, but they weren’t expressed with nearly as much drama and intellectual elegance and so had less force and respectability. Just as black nationalism had a life apart from Malcolm X but is now impossible to imagine without him, hostility to centralized liberal democracy has become inextricably linked to Nisbet. That The Quest for Community was recently republished, nearly 40 years after it was written, is testament to the triumph of Nisbetism as the stated creed of American politics at the highest level.

Ideas are, understandably, usually discussed in presidential campaigns at the bromide level only. Reading Nisbet is therefore extremely useful, because it provides a full explication of the case against big government that we are used to hearing in the form of a one-liner. During the past quarter-century or so, hostility to the federal government has gone from being the province of Southerners and Babbitts to taking over at least a part of the house of liberalism—that part that rereads Small is Beautiful and favors the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally.” The antibureaucratic, antifederal government “New Paradigm” movement that is associated with White House aide James Pinkerton has succeeded in making suspicion of Washington into a smart-hip-conservative (rather than dumb-rube-conservative) position, and Pinkerton has attracted a good number of liberal followers too. It looks as if Nisbetism is well on its way to becoming, finally, consensual, which is all the more reason to look at it closely. Doing so reveals that Nisbet’s argument is more interesting and complicated than you might think, but also much less airtight.

The urge to merge

Nisbet begins with the premise that all people have a deep, fundamental need to belong to some kind of community—that the notion of the free individual as the basic social unit is ridiculous on its face. The whole thrust of modernization—defining it very broadly to include most political and social developments since the Renaissance, and even some before that—has been to chip away at the institutions through which most people have fulfilled their need for community. These are the family (especially the extended family), the stable town or village, the church, rigid social and economic classes, and guilds for people in the same line of work—the set of institutions that together constitute the traditional form of authority that the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies called Gemeinschaft. Such “intermediate associations” are, to Nisbet, unquestionably the ideal structures around which to build human society; he is a conservative in the literal sense of the word, meaning that he regards change with suspicion. “The greatest intellectual and moral offense the modern intellectual can be found guilty of,” he observes sourly at one point, “is that of seeming to think or act outside what is commonly held to be the linear progress of civilization.” It doesn’t seem terribly unfair to call him a nostalgist for the Middle Ages, and in that sense he is completely out of tune with the kind of conservatism that wins elections in the United States today.

Intermediate associations don’t simply disappear; they are forcibly replaced, usually by a more centralized form of authority, which Nisbet calls the State. The bulk of The Quest for Community consists of Nisbet demonstrating how a rogue’s gallery of political thinkers throughout history (Plato, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, Locke, Marx, and, especially, Rousseau) have justified an ever more powerful State, and ever less powerful intermediate associations. Quite often the champions of the State are also champions of the individual and his rights and freedoms, but this, to Nisbet, hardly lets them off the hook. Because the need for community is so deep-seated, society will always orient itself toward one form of it or another. If you kill off the intermediate associations in the name of liberating the individual, the inevitable result will be that people will direct their communitarian impulses toward the State—and that’s exactly what many of the champions of individual rights wanted. Thus Nisbet doesn’t find it at all paradoxical that the French Revolution should have combined glorification of the individual, hostility to traditional forms of authority, and political dictatorship; he sees the three principles as being intertwined.

Although Nisbet appears to be a man deeply out of tune with his times—many people feel they’re living in the wrong century, but he’s the relatively rare case who’s in the wrong millennium—there are ways in which The Quest for Community bears the distinctive stamp of the period when it was written, the early fifties. His discussion of the rise of the State has an oomph that a writer today wouldn’t be able to summon, because it appeared then that all of modern history led inexorably to Hitler and Stalin. Totalitarianism could be plausibly presented as the end result of the destruction of the intermediate associations; there was no need for Nisbet to strike a pose of reasonably understanding the need to strike a balance between the two forms of community, because he could safely portray one as completely evil and the other as completely good. Liberalism in The Quest for Community is a way station on the road to hell, not a stable, sustainable philosophy of governance; its main historical purpose is to soften people up for dictatorship. Only before the Hungarian uprising of 1956 could someone get away with writing, as Nisbet did, “the transition from liberal democracy to totalitarianism will not seem too arduous or unpleasant. It will indeed scarcely be noticed. . . .”

Also, Nisbet’s view of the condition of American society at the time he was writing has a lot in common with that of the leading liberal social critics of the fifties, such as David Riesman. He saw the country as being soulless, adrift, materialistic, conformist, advertising-riddled, rootless, corporate, and dominated by the rise of an alarming new creature, “mass man.” “[O]ur age has come to seem a period of moral and spiritual chaos, of certainties abandoned, of creeds outworn, and of values devalued,” he wrote. All this gloom fit perfectly into Nisbet’s schema—the above-mentioned ills could all be traced to the replacement of intermediate associations by the State—but today it is dated by its grimness, which seems as if it would have been more appropriate to a description of Berlin in 1931 than the U.S. in the “Ozzie and Harriet” era.

If Nisbetism is more rooted in the early post-World War II period than it might at first appear, it is also less wholly transferable to the present than his contemporary admirers would have you believe. Liberals’ Nisbet problem is huge and obvious: He doesn’t believe in either the primacy of individual liberties or the potential benefits of the modern welfare state. Conservatives’ Nisbet problem is subtler, but unmistakable. Nisbet is antimilitary (“the State is the outgrowth of war”) and anti-big-business, on the grounds that both tend to erode the position of his beloved intermediate associations. In fact he seems to be completely agnostic on the subject of capitalism itself; he calls it “a sand heap of disconnected particles of humanity,” unless it is primarily not an economic system but “a system of social and moral allegiances.” He has a benign view of some institutions that conservatives have distanced themselves from, such as hereditary classes and the Southern side in the Civil War, and others that they would see as too liberal, like labor unions; at the end of The Quest for Community, he uses rhetoric that would appear to indicate approval-before-the-fact of the much-hated campus “multiculturalism” movement. (In case you’re wondering what the landed gentry, the confederacy, the plumbers’ union, and the African-American Studies Department could possibly have in common, they’re all intermediate associations.)

The collapse of communism dates Nisbet, too. By his logic, totalitarian systems should be invulnerable. He says that once a society embraces the State, it can only move in the direction of absolute dictatorship; there’s no possibility of stopping somewhere along the way, or of reversing the process. One reason why is that totalitarianism holds its power not through repression, but by creating loyal, community-starved masses, who “are never tortured, flogged, or imprisoned, or humiliated; who instead are cajoled, flattered, stimulated by the rulers; but who are nonetheless relentlessly destroyed as human beings, ground down into mere shells of humanity.” Therefore rebellion is impossible, because once the State has successfully destroyed the intermediate associations it has guaranteed that people will gravitate toward slavish loyalty to the dictator—he’s all the community they’ve got. “No intellectual defense against totalitarianism could be more futile,” Nisbet announces imperiously, “than that which sees the States of Hitler and Stalin as operating in open contempt and hatred of the people.”

Now we know that in totalitarian states, the masses are, in fact, tortured, flogged, and imprisoned, that dictators do operate in open contempt and hatred of the people, and that the urge for freedom, rather than being extinguished forever, does still exist and can make itself felt. All that puts not just totalitarianism in a different light, but liberalism too: It now appears that Western-style welfare-state liberalism is not just sustainable but triumphant, and that fascism and communism were the temporary aberrations. Even to entertain the idea that liberalism is not fundamentally corrupt, that it should be reformed rather than dispensed with entirely, is to reject Nisbet’s central tenet.

William A. Schambra of the American Enterprise Institute, in a foreword written for the reissue of The Quest for Community, demonstrates the kind of spin that has to be put on Nisbetism if it is to have any present-day political utility. The examples he uses to delineate the evils of the State come not from the Civil War and the French Revolution, and not from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but from the Great Society; he identifies Nisbet’s dreaded State with the federal government, and intermediate associations with states, localities, and neighborhoods. Thus in the bad old days, “the State’s bureaucracies and courts disparaged and assailed the moral and cultural standards of local communities as they manifested themselves in local laws and customs, suggesting that they were parochial, narrow-minded, reactionary, and even unconstitutional.” But now we realize that, in the case of ghettos, for example, “the cycle of poverty can be broken only by a renewal of self-confidence, self-discipline, and belief in hard work within the individual—and those values are taught chiefly by strong, vibrant families, churches, and neighborhoods.”

For me, a Southerner born in the year of the Brown decision, there are uncomfortable echoes in this kind of rhetoric—echoes of what I heard throughout my childhood about states’ rights and federal oppression. Race is the tough issue for American conservative followers of Nisbet. Slavery was nurtured and protected by intermediate associations. The American political language of hostility to the federal government’s encroachments on local customs arose in the 19th century, substantially as a way of defending slavery. It took the rise of a national culture for slavery to be ended; it was no accident that the themes of union and emancipation were intertwined. Nisbet doesn’t mention American slavery, but he is well aware of the generally nationalizing (that is, to him, unfortunate) effects of the Civil War. The end of Reconstruction was an event Nisbet surely approved of; during the succeeding rebirth of intermediate associations in the South, the Jim Crow system was created. In the mid-20th century, every lasting civil rights victory resulted from the national community imposing its will on more traditional and smaller-scale forms of community, and in every case the intelligent Southern opposition was stated in the form of Nisbet-like warnings about the dangers of State power.

Nationally, what caused dislike of the State to arise in the minds of most Americans was a series of policies liberals enacted through the bureaucracy and the courts because they figured they’d lose in more democratic venues like the Congress, and of these, by far the most important were racial remedies like busing, affirmative action, minority set-asides, and the redrawing of local election districts. You don’t hear much grumbling from either the voting public or conservative intellectuals about the SEC, the FDA, the FAA, or the EPA, even though they too are instruments of the State. The tremendous appeal (to Schambra, and most other observers these days) of the idea that the inner-city ghettos are going to be saved through a neighborhood-by-neighborhood revival of Gemeinschaft is the other side of the coin: People want the country’s main racial problem to be solved, but they want to find a way to keep the State from taking on the job.

Divided we fall

The truth is that in general, and on racial issues in particular, it is not very useful to begin with the assumption that everything must be handled locally rather than nationally. Nisbet, remember, saw the State as absolutely menacing; not for him any Madisonian agonizing about how to balance the factions against the general good, because he saw no problem with factions having all the power. Nobody in the political mainstream really believes any more that the centralized State is either totally evil or avoidable, or that liberalism leads inevitably to totalitarianism. The carriers of the Nisbet torch apply his principles only selectively: not to national defense, not to Social Security, not, usually, to tax policy. No conservative during the Gulf war raised the call for replacing the U.S. Army with state militias. Also, most local communities in the United States today cannot honestly be held up as exemplars of Nisbetism: People haven’t been living in them long enough, and they’re profoundly, irrevocably tied into the national culture in a way that medieval villagers were not. Our society is complex enough that all problems simply can’t be solved locally any more.

The real lesson that The Quest for Community should have for us today is that the kinds of blanket dismissals of doing anything on “the national level” that fill the air should not be taken seriously. There isn’t a consistent philosophy behind them that’s at all applicable to the society we live in. There is a tension between local and national needs, and national-level solutions to problems do tend to produce coercion and bureaucratic inefficiency—but these issues should give rise to care and concern, not to wholesale rejection of the idea of American nationalism. Our country has fragmented culturally during the half-century since the end of the great unifying period of the Depression and World War II. Now—splintered, ghettoized, special-interest-dominated, apparently incapable of true collective effort for the sake of the common good—the last thing it needs is to be factionalized further.

Everybody can see that in the areas of defense and foreign affairs, the country has to operate as a nation, not as a loose confederation of localities. The war in the Gulf, its merits aside, surely proved that the president can persuade the country to unify around a cause, and that the federal government can carry out massive and complicated tasks with impressive competence. Perhaps people will now begin to feel a little embarrassed about making the familiar dinner table argument that Washington can’t lead the country as a whole and can’t carry out even simple tasks without bungling them, because there is such a dramatic counterexample at hand. The government ought to be taking on big jobs domestically too, such as improving public education and overcoming the social chaos in the ghettos. To do this requires that the sense of community, which already exists strongly around localities, be strengthened nationally. National community is not the fundamentally menacing notion that Nisbet sees it as. In fact, it’s the key to our country’s continued vitality.

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.