JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.  “Community” is a recurring word and theme on this stoop, but it’s invocation can come in many undesirable forms: as a talisman against perceived ills; as a marketing device appealing to an unsatisfied self; as a spur towards nationalistic adventures; or as a way to close the door against others.  Given that, what is being evoked by the word community at FPR?  I certainly don’t have the last word on that question, but what follows is one answer, my contribution to the wonderful American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, edited by our own Jeremy Beer. 

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In the years following the French Revolution, conservative thinkers reacted with relatively unanimous skepticism or outright horror at the forces of individualism and progressivism that had erupted with such violence against ancient traditions and institutions during that conflagration. Conservatives like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre recoiled at the new conception of the human person as an atomized and fully free moral agent, possessed of abstract natural rights to be realized unconstrained by social limits. When entrenched as a movement of the people, they argued, this radical expression of individual will would not only destroy the whole structure of moral order on which western civilization was founded, but would also result in the rise of absolutist despotism.

The optimism of the Victorian Age found little that was convincing in this dour conservative outlook. With the popular penetration of the powerful idea of progress, the autonomous individual and his freely expressed will began to seem a self-evident and unmitigated good. The values of the age of progress-the maximum attainment of personal freedom combined with the maximum attainment of efficiency, mobility, uniformity, neutrality, and objectivity in the exercise of political, economic, and social power-were likewise taken largely as articles of faith. When Jeremy Bentham claimed to be able to legislate for all of India from the comfort of his English study, it was hardly puffery or idle boasting. Rather, as Robert Nisbet has noted, it epitomized the profound confidence that the new political theorists had in the objective power of reason to solve all problems of human relations and in the individual as the universal, primary unit of social and political order. Bentham, Mill, and other nineteenth-century apostles of progressive liberalism paid little heed to conservatives such as John Ruskin who were calling attention to the social cost of rationalism and individualism: the scattering of families, increased urbanization, and the disintegration of ancient allegiances—or, in other words, the destruction of communities of belonging that had persisted for centuries. To liberal theorists, this historical process was viewed not as tragic, or even (usually) as regrettable, but rather as signaling the glorious rebirth of man as he became progressively emancipated from the tyranny and irrationality of the past.

The skeptical attitude of European conservatives towards progressivism was never quite as strongly shared by their American counterparts. America, by the very nature of its discovery, settlement, and political birth, was literally a “new world”; a place of nearly limitless opportunity constrained only by the strength of a man’s back and the sharpness of his wits. The frontier spirit, buttressed by a Puritan heritage that emphasized individual responsibility and strict moral self-discipline, made the idea of the self-sufficient, rugged individual seem a rather conservative ideal, one which did not necessarily threaten the bonds of family, church, and community. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described the New World in biblical terms—a pristine continent provided to Europe’s castoffs as if newly risen from the receding waters of the great flood, a nearly empty and seemingly inexhaustible land in terms of both sheer physical space and material wealth. This geographic wonder imprinted itself on the American Puritan soul, Tocqueville explained, creating a new kind of man far less susceptible to the chaotic passions of his cramped and world-weary European cousins. Even so, Tocqueville warned that despite their natural advantages, should Americans ever give themselves over entirely to their private interests, the social bonds and traditional institutions necessary for a democratic republic would fail.

Democracy in America remains the necessary starting point for understanding the dynamics of community in America, and Tocqueville’s insights into the push and pull between American individualism and the need for communal ties certainly have been played out across the spectrum of American conservative thought. The dominant direction of this thought, however, has not been kind to strong defenses of community. The American experiences of Revolution against Britain, Civil War and abolition of slavery, suffrage and the political enfranchisement of women, the civil rights struggle, and the sexual revolution all have tended to promote, or be incorporated into, a view of history as the story of man’s progressive shedding of oppressive yokes-yokes usually proclaimed as necessary constraints by their defenders. American political thought has always had, and has continued to develop, a muscular theory of the individual rights of man. Conservative thinkers, to gain purchase on the American mind, have been forced to trace their policy and social prescriptions to some basis in individual rights. American conservatism has therefore developed an instrumentalist and mechanical view of community and social bonds: they exist as a means to preserve the maximum freedom and efficiency of individual action. When David Walsh, for example, argues against abortion in The Growth of the Liberal Soul (1997), he does so on rights-based grounds: abortion weakens the sanctity of all individuals, but because this idea provides the necessary foundation for personal autonomy and freedom, it must be defended.

The conservative veneration of individual autonomy as the central truth that must be vindicated by the social and political order reached its height with the twentieth-century development of libertarianism, and in particular with that strain of euphoric libertarianism preached in the writings of Ayn Rand. In both her nonfiction essays and especially in her fictional characters, Rand elevated the uncompromising, self-sufficient, immensely capable individualist and capitalist into a conservative hero. For the Christs of Rand’s gospel of selfishness, communal restraints and the demands of personal, concrete relationships and small social groups were evil impediments to be overcome on the way to a cross of self-actualization. This vision of conservative virtue as something utterly opposed to communal belonging gained considerable influence on conservative thought during America’s postwar struggle against the Soviet ideology of collectivism, and it continues to exert a strong influence on the conservative tradition today. Not all postwar conservatives, however, were so blinded by their hatred of communism that they abandoned all concepts of true community. Conservative traditionalists like Russell Kirk decried the influence of libertarianism on traditional communities and the networks of social obligations inherent in words like kin, church, village, class, caste, and craft. Kirk’s broadsides against libertarian individualists were passionate: he denounced the “decadent fervor” (Marion Montgomery’s term) of the libertarians, and declared that any cooperation between libertarians and conservatives was akin to advocating a “union of fire and ice.” Two of the most thoughtful defenses of traditional community as a conservative ordering principle were published within a year of Kirk’s Conservative Mind (1953): Nisbet’s The Quest for Community (1952) and Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics (1953).

Nisbet begins his study on the place of community in American political and social life by examining the failed promises of progress. By the postwar period, America had filled up. A sense of dread and ennui had spread through society, and the dominant tropes of psychospiritual expression were no longer found in terms like optimism, progress, change, and reason, but rather alienation, disintegration, decline, and insecurity. Americans, according to Nisbet, no longer seemed to trust or valorize the selfish Randian hero. The problem, he thought, was not technological tyranny or consumer greed or increasing secularism, but the distribution of political power. Modern man’s nervous preoccupation with finding meaning in community is a manifestation of the profound social dislocation caused by the unique power structure of the Western political state. As Western political power had become increasingly centralized, impersonal, and remote, it had atomized the individual and relegated communal interests and relationships to the realm of private personal preference. Nisbet locates the profound unrest in the American soul not so much in the disappearance of communal relationships but in the utter dissociation of those relationships from the exercise of real political and economic power. Traditional communities and the religious, familial, and local ties that bind them have not so much been lost, in Nisbet’s view, as they have become irrelevant at the deepest levels of meaning. It is here, in the unmediated exposure of the individual will to the impersonal power of the state (and to a lesser extent, the market), that Nisbet finds the root cause of man’s spiritual crisis.

Voegelin’s New Science tracks a similar course, providing conservative thought with a powerful analytical tool for understanding the spiritual dimensions of the phenomena Nisbet so clearly describes. For Voegelin, modernity could be summarized as a heretical commitment to Gnosticism, or in other words, a fundamental dissatisfaction with the uncertainties and limits of existence. Impatience for moral meaning and certainty beyond the humble limits of traditional communities leads the Gnostic thinker to imbue human existence in the here and now with the ultimate meaning reserved by traditional Christianity for the next life. By “immanentizing” the Christian eschaton, Voegelin explains, modern man took on the project of remaking existence according to the dictates of political ideology.

Both Nisbet and Voegelin note the paradox that modernity is both marked by nearly continuous warfare and a universally declared desire for peace. Nisbet persuasively argues that with the dissociation of traditional communities from the centers of political power, the modern disciplines of war, mechanization, bureaucracy, and mass communication become invested with a strong sense of moral identity and belonging. Voegelin described how the ardent commitments once reserved for local religious communities had been transferred to mass movements which stood as surrogate moral communities and provided an otherwise missing sense of historical purpose.

During the latter stages of the Cold War, and especially since its end, American conservatism has taken up the mantle of optimism and regained some of its earlier confidence in the rugged individual. Ronald Reagan’s seemingly single-handed defeat of the Soviet empire is a powerful symbol in contemporary conservative thought of the moral worth of one individual’s iron will. Taking their cue from Reagan, many conservative institutions and publications today seek a new conservative synthesis between the primacy of individual freedom and the need for social belonging. The ideals of this synthesis are put on display in the presidency of George W. Bush, who has managed to conjoin strong religious convictions and a stated commitment to preserving the traditional family and prepolitical communities with an underlying progressivism and a nearly Gnostic commitment to creating unrestrained political and economic freedom abroad.

Whether such a synthesis can successfully be maintained remains to be seen. There is good reason to be skeptical. With one of the most unique, eloquent, and deeply conservative voices of the late twentieth century, Wendell Berry has fashioned from his career a kind of long, poetic lament for the final passing of rural America and of its people, places, rites, and rituals. Community, for Berry, is ultimately about membership: it is a group of people embedded in a place and a network of memory who belong to one another. Within such a community, even individual moral decisions must account for that belonging. As a brilliant essayist and naturalist, Berry has offered in works such as The Unsettling of America (1978), The Gift of Good Land (1981), and Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1993) a stinging critique of the false communities of war, international markets, and sexualized consumerism. A central theme throughout is the way in which modern structures break apart that which authentic communities bind together: consumption and production, sex and fertility, freedom and responsibility. Berry demonstrates persuasively that no amount of moralizing will check the corrosive character of abstract freedom, especially economic freedom. As a result, even in a political period of supposed conservative ascendancy, local familial, religious, and rooted communities continue to suffer decline because they are unable to provide a plausibly authoritative account for, not to mention enforce, those norms rooted not in law, markets, or choice, but in tradition, faith, and a deep respect for the particularity of place.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles May 29, 2009 at 8:53 am

The liberal framework of the autonomous self possessing unlimited rights has been so powerful partly because there has been no alternative. However, there is rebirth underway of the teleological conception of humanity which I am convinced will ultimately succeed the atomic. Instead of the fiction of the monadic self possessing inherent rights, the historical self seeking its telos is on the rise. Instead of utilitarianism, virtue ethics will be the name of the game. Instead of rights, the question will be one of function, virtues, and ends. What is the function of the family? Of marriage? Of community? Of the state? What virtues allow it to perform its function and achieve its end? These questions, rather than the question of who has a right to what, will the the questions to ask in the coming decades.

avatar Thomas G. May 29, 2009 at 11:28 am

As Wendell Berry eloquently advocated, we need to seek “The Way of Ignorance”. I believe this is the same argument that Voeglin makes in “The New Science of Politics”.

Forgive me if I link to a post on my blog rather than re-type my thoughts on community, and the limits of human knowledge:

http://20prospect.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/on-the-virtues-of-ignorance-and-the-fellowship-of-the-ring/

avatar Dan May 29, 2009 at 11:49 am

There’s some substantial confusion here. I’m not sure where to start so I’ll start with some of the figures mentioned.

1) Burke is not a conservative (or at least not in the FPR sense, as a traditionalist). He was a Whig, not a Tory, who approved of the Glorious revolution, argued against wage and price fixing, argued for free trade, argued for limits on the authority of the King, argued for religious liberty, and was sympathetic to the American Revolution.

2) Nisbet is not a conservative but also, like Burke fundamentally a Whig. (http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north120.html)

3) Benthem was not a liberal and compared the concepts of natural law and natural rights to, “nonsense upon stilts”, a sentiment many contributors to FPR share.

4) The idea of Rand representing anything other than her own infantile cult is ridiculous. She in no way represents the liberal tradition and does not even represent the smaller libertarian tradition whose most radical elements (The Rothbardians) reject her).

avatar D.W. Sabin May 29, 2009 at 1:06 pm

G.W. Bush did not so much synthesize the competing yet complimentary forces of individualism and community as graft them together into a freakish parody of themselves and then trot them out to parade about in a kinder, gentler kristallnacht of heehaw utopianism…..The Athenians called it pleonexia and Iraq is his Sicily.

There is no reason to wonder whether the so called “compassionate conservative” GW Bush version of conservatism can be sustained because it never really existed in the first place. He was that cipher elevated to a role he was supremely incapable of filling whereupon the authoritarian gunboaters and neo-conservative corporatists could gut and flay the Republic with sardonic giddiness.

Conservative localism will not right itself until it roundly rebukes the death-in-slow-motion GOP that produces falsehood and fear like Iowa produces corn. We should all hope that principled liberalism and conservatism restore their dignity and power because both are degenerate now and as a result, the Federal Edifice is a libertine exercise in profligate waste. There is entirely too much glee in weak opponents and this kind of foolhardy triumphalism is what most characterizes our unbalanced political system over the last 16 years.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 30, 2009 at 9:45 am

Dan, I had a lengthy response to your comment here, but your argument is important enough that I have decided to address it in a post in a few days.

My focus will be on your claims about Burke — an important one to be addressed; needless to say, I’ll find your claim touching on something true, but to be also an inaccurate account of Burke’s perhaps unintended meaning and his historical reception.

This article seems to be what it claims to be: about community. It seems a distortion of the article’s claims to try to deploy ad hoc liberal/conservative terminology to refut Caleb’s taxonomy of Nisbet and Benthem. Since the article seems to use liberal/conservative as a divide between “Whig theorist” of perfectability and progress and between those skeptical of it and cherishing community, to apply the terms liberal/conservative with some other definition at work is the worst form of equivocation. This is not to say that your definitions of liberal and conservative are wrong; they are not. But they are clearly not the definitions with which this article explicitly shows itself to be opperating. Given that the article seems to make a forceful critique of the inadequacy of most definitions of conservatism, taking on board the definitions it uses seem to be more than incidental to understanding it.

avatar Dan May 30, 2009 at 11:29 am

Matthew,

The article is not simply about community but also about the conception of community within liberalism and conservatism. The lines that it draws are unhelpful to the conservative liberal debate. The definition of conservatism seems to be anyone concerned with community while the definition of liberalism seems to amount to a few thousand Randriods playing Dungeons and Dragons in their parents basement. Liberals like Burke and Nisbet thus become conservatives and radicals like Benthem become liberals. This is not a real world debate. I could make a powerful critique of conservatism by taking Pope Julius II, a few Russian Czars, and some Asiatic despots by contrasting them with J.S. Mill, Locke, and Smith but that is not where the lines are actually drawn in the real political debate. To do so would be to engage in fashioning a straw man conservatism which may prove persuasive to a small band of the liberal choir but would be gravely unfair and do great violence to the conservative tradition.

Burke is of course a figure who has a very nuanced position and I look forward to reading your essay. As a liberal I of course do not find him completely unproblematic although considerably less problematic than Rand or even Reagan and G.W. Bush.

avatar Caleb Stegall May 30, 2009 at 11:38 am

James is correct. It’s an encyclopedia entry and as such, both accepts conventional taxonomy and paints in very broad and generalized strokes. It has all of the drawbacks of any encyclopedic article on a vast topic, reduced to 2000 words or less. This accounts as well for my rather benign treatment of the Bush amdministration.

I have made strong criticisms of the conventional taxonomy elsewhere, but this was not the place. That said, I did attempt to tease these boundaries by placing such figures as Ruskin and Berry in the “conservative” camp.

At some point, these taxonomic debates become pointless. I think measured against history, my placement/analysis of figures and ideas stands up quite well, given the limitations of the genre I was working in.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 30, 2009 at 11:58 am

Now, Dan, you seem merely to be misreading the structure and contents of the article. Rand is used as an example of the “libertarian” and “individualist” version of conservatism that developed in Cold War America. Given that this is the only conception of conservatism of which most Americans are aware, this article seems to make a clear argument that another such conception exists and that it may have greater claim to being an “authentic” conservatism because what it claims to conserve (community) is a verifiably older reality than what libertarian-styled conservatism claims to “conserve,” which is nothing older than the liberal defense of the primacy of the monadic individual. You have demonstrated in the past that this is a substantive difference insofar as you have specifically objected to the traditionalist or community-centered verson of conservatism in favor of something like a conservative liberalism (which, I see, you are content to describe as liberalism per se).

I understand your general point however. You are suggesting that liberalism and conservatism cannot be meaningfully distinguished exclusively by an attention to or prioritization of community. Surely this is correct, since “communitarianism,” so far as I can tell, merely justifies traditional liberal individualist dogmas with a new community-centered vocabulary. To the extent that this article doesn’t gesture toward this fact, it might appear either incomplete or inadequate; I’m not convinced of this inadeqacy, however, since it seems to be concerned with establishing a fairly simply and uncontroversial set of premises:

a) Russell Kirk is a conservative.
b) Kirk’s “Conservative Mind” establishes a tradition that centers conservatism on the preservation of community
c) Burke and Nisbet stand coherently within that tradition (this is debatable, as you and I both say)
d) A Reaganite/Randian doctrine of individualism has, in the U.S., frequently made claims to being authentically conservative, but their account conflicts with Kirk’s., thus,
e) Conservatism and liberalism may well be reducible to their accounts of community and the individual, and, if we accept this, we will find that some folks we thought were liberal are really conservative and vice versa.

I grant the contentiousness of all of these claims, but would argue that this article serves to clarify rather than obscure their import.

I recently saw somewhere that some person had written, “Wendell Berry a conservative?! He’s smart, not an idiot, so it can’t be so.” Naturally, there’s more than one bone to be picked even in so brief a sentence, but I aduce it only to say that if someone like Berry can reasonably be embraced by certain liberals and conservatives alike, then an article like that above serves a clear purpose in clarifying why that might be.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 30, 2009 at 12:03 pm

I beg your pardon: I say above the listed premises that they are uncontroversial, and then I say after them that they are contentious. (This isn’t the only typographic error, but it’s the only one I’ll address). I had intended to say that individually the premises are clear and unobjectionable, but that the totality of the claims certainly challenges several conventions of our day. Thus, nobody debates Kirk’s conservative credentials (do they?), but to argue that Kirk’s conservatism is at odds with Reagan’s supposed conservatism would be. This only becomes more contentious when we acknowledge that Kirk doesn’t seemed to have recognized any conflict, at least judging from his encomiums for Reagan and his good friendship with old Dutch.

avatar Dan May 30, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Caleb,

I’m curious as to the encyclopedia’s definition of “conservatism” itself. It seems with the varied contributors that this would be the most contentious definition and also make entries on subjects such as “community” problematic to say the least.

The taxonomic debate is very important, as the existence of FPR itself demonstrates. In a nation where the right has become synonymous with conservatism (A most unfortunate linguistic development since Reagan) the question of what conservatism means is one that literally shapes the political opposition in this country. For the record I believe that the writers of FPR make the most compelling argument on this question. The greater question is has the right in this country ever actually been conservative (I believe here we will agree it has not) and if conservatism makes sense as the center of a opposition movement (Here I think we will disagree).

I realize your task was indeed a difficult one but feel it was possible (Within the limits of the task itself) to complete without mischaracterizing the other leading ideological constellation of the American right (liberalism). I don’t believe any discussion of Rand to be prudent for such an article. She is not a serious thinker, she has never been a leading voice of the American right, and her view on community are marginal even within her fringe minarchist libertarian circles.

I wholeheartedly agree with your placement of Berry and Ruskin in the conservative camp and think they are excellent examples of conservative conceptions of community. I believe you have done justice to the conservative position on the question of community, it is with what you have put it in opposition to that I find to be a mischaracterization.

P.S. Sorry James for the middle name address in the prior comment.

avatar Dan May 31, 2009 at 11:31 am

James,

My objection to Rand as an example has nothing to do with the admitted difference between liberal and conservative views of the individual. This is a real difference and deserves a discussion in an article such as Caleb’s. The problem is with using Rand as the example which characterizes the liberal position. She is the most extreme and viciously anti-social example and from what I gather from her writings human rights and human dignity are the exclusive properties of her sociopath protagonists and do not apply at all to anyone who would get in their way (Not to mention whole groups of persons whom she views as uncivilized and sub-human see her comments on Palestinians). She is not helpful as an example because she is not representative of any position and is very much alone in her views (Aside from the dungeon and dragons contingent mentioned earlier).

To the larger question of community being the defining difference between conservatives and liberals I would have to agree in a general sense but perhaps the difference could be better articulated as the difference in how one views the individual. The difference seems to be in what should be considered the irreducible unit of civil law. The liberal would agree and the conservative would disagree (to varying degrees. I have learned a lot from conservative anthropology but I’m not sure that I agree that such a conception would exclude a political theory constructed on this principle (hence my confusing self identification as a “conservative liberal”). Caleb’s article, rightly for its purposes only touches upon liberalism writ large. The argument thus is one of liberalism writ large and not particular to my own idiosyncratic vision.

On to premises:

a) Russell Kirk is a conservative.

Agreed albeit an Anglo-American one and thus heavily cross pollinated with liberalism, but at his core I agree a conservative.

b) Kirk’s “Conservative Mind” establishes a tradition that centers conservatism on the preservation of community.

Agreed

c) Burke and Nisbet stand coherently within that tradition (this is debatable, as you and I both say)

Agreed, this is where the Anglo-American cross pollination gets most confusing. I would make the case that Burke is at his core a liberal (Perhaps the first conservative liberal?) Nisbet is a harder call either way.

d) A Reaganite/Randian doctrine of individualism has, in the U.S., frequently made claims to being authentically conservative, but their account conflicts with Kirk’s., thus,

Not sure if Reagan and Rand can be equivocated on this point. Reagan’s individualism is not so doctrinaire and seems to be the general sort of American individualism grown out of the American West a la Goldwater. More liberal in its nature if you don’t count Sandinistas, the North Vietnamese, and communists in general as human beings.

e) Conservatism and liberalism may well be reducible to their accounts of community and the individual, and, if we accept this, we will find that some folks we thought were liberal are really conservative and vice versa.

Very true, hence my Burke as a liberal argument.

Kirk’s affection for Reagan I believe a product of genuine friendship, shared cold warriorism, and the fact that Reagan read his books (It’s always hard to dislike a fan).

My objection was never that their was indeed a battle on this front but one of where the battle lines should be drawn.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 31, 2009 at 11:39 am

Stegall, …
Perhaps the “limitations of the genre” do call for an over-distilled and broad-brush approach to defining the “conservative” ethos but to treat the GW Bush Administration “benignly” is to miss honing in upon the definition by a country mile. The two previous Administrations have singlehandedly flummoxed reasonable definitions of both “liberal” and “conservative” with the Clintonistas at least doing it in the sunlight and leaving a budget surplus while his successor pulled one Bait and Switch after another. At the very least, a discriminating summary definition of “conservative” philosophy should omit any mention of G.W. Bush whatsoever…unless contrasting itself against the Presidency of G.W. Bush. His Administration was about as conservative as LBJ and was as scornful of the rule of law as perhaps any in our history. His fiscal policy bordered upon insane and any legitimacy of his claim to the mantle of the degenerate definition of “cultural conservatism” was zero’d out by the perfidy of torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, illegal spying and ….in general a level of defiant petulance that , if it is to be included in the definition of “conservative”, would seem to indicate that the definition of “conservative” must include a clinical description of what was once referred to as “dissipation”.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 31, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Dear Dan,

Your most important points I shall, as promised, address in a little essay on Burke this week. I agree Rand is an eccentric choice, save unless Caleb was trying to take a subtle shot that the widespread and bizarre veneration of her intellectual bones among many so-called conservatives and liberals alike. My colleague Eugene McCarraher’s book on “Corporate Humanism”, which seems to be a few years from publication, I’m afraid, sets Rand out as an exemplary figure in mid-century American culture. I would agree with that assessment. She is hardly intellectually serious, but I have witnessed her influence enough that perhaps Caleb was just in trying to nip her in the encyclopedic bud. Frankly, she should be dealt not by political philosophers but by anthropologists and social workers.

I’m a naif when it comes to Nisbet, but it is clear that from the start his work was received as exemplary of the New Conservatism of Kirk — the same conservative spirit that we now call Traditional Conservatism (a nomenclature whose variability suggests how inconsequential all this has been in real politics). T.S. Eliot, addressing the London Conservative Union in 1955 said of America, “the true conservatives in that country in recent times had none of them been political figures: they had been the philosophic observers and moralists, often in academic positions . . . and Professor Nisbet of California.” If you are going to re-christen Nisbet some kind of liberal, you’ll have to do so on the grounds that you are seeing something his contemporaries did not — a fine argument, but one that requires the kind of idiosyncratic license you didn’t grant Caleb.

I think I was overly harsh on Reagan, actually, in suggesting that somehow Kirk compromised or contradicted himself in their friendship. There is so much that is arguable conservative about Reagan; it seems clear that the whole “supply side” dream made it seem possible that government would shrink and rein itself in, American conservatism will always have to grapple with “rugged individualism” as a particularly American tradition, even as we’re doomed to see that it is an essentially counter-traditional or tradition-dissolving tradition, and of course the Cold War understandably was the irresistable cauldron for the forging of all kinds of alliances . . . I’m not going to continue, but will just say that I increasingly appreciate (somewhat to my dismay) how understandable it was for persons with a clear and potent conservative vision to sign on to the Reagan program, and, further, that the Reagan program was not what was actually implemented, and so the historians have the difficult task of establishing a) how conservative in principle was Reagan, but also b) how conservative was the praxis that emerged beyond the theory.

avatar Caleb Stegall May 31, 2009 at 2:12 pm

You guys need to read more carefully before posting.

“The conservative veneration of individual autonomy as the central truth that must be vindicated by the social and political order reached its height with the twentieth-century development of libertarianism, and in particular with that strain of euphoric libertarianism preached in the writings of Ayn Rand.”

Rand is being offered as an example of one extreme. And to deny her influence on post-war conservatism is ridiculous. She has her own entry in the Encyclopedia.

“Whether such a synthesis [as attempted by Bush] can successfully be maintained remains to be seen. There is good reason to be skeptical.”

Sabin, your points may have merit in the abstract, but they have the disadvantage of being completely detached from reality. Like it or not, the Bush Administration was put in place and held in place by “conservatives.”

The point of bringing him up was not to discuss Bush per se, but to demonstrate a clear example of the tension within conservatism broadly construed by making an example of “compasionate conservatism” as a shotgun marriage between superficial concern for civil society and a committment to globalized democratic capitalism, and then to draw attention to a powerful critique of such schizophrenic policy positions.

avatar Caleb Stegall May 31, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Sabin, read again the last sentence:

“As a result, even in a political period of supposed conservative ascendancy, local familial, religious, and rooted communities continue to suffer decline because they are unable to provide a plausibly authoritative account for, not to mention enforce, those norms rooted not in law, markets, or choice, but in tradition, faith, and a deep respect for the particularity of place.”

avatar Bob Cheeks May 31, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Yes, D.W. why don’t you read the piece before gripping!
And, BTW as bad as Bush was would you have preferred Algore and/or Sen. Kerry, who I believe served in Vietnam?
So put that in your pipe and smoke it!!!
I’m watching my favorite old Commie on PBS, Pete Seeger right now! Oh, yes power to the people. To bad you gotta be a moral reprobate to be a communist, but,hey I loved the songs!

avatar D.W. Sabin May 31, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Stegall,
I read it, in detail, and am satisfied with it as a good…even historically comprehensive and more acute than most descriptions of our besotted creed up until GW Bush was used as a “synthesizing” element. Detached from Reality as I am, I will go to the mat , with bucket, to urge anyone who self-defines as a “Conservative” to look long and hard beyond the rhetoric, to the actions of the previous administration and how they lie as a profound rebuke of conservative principles regardless of whether or not the previous administration was supported by “conservatives”. To call me “detached from reality” would seem to suggest that the current debacle of the GOP is not directly tied to the profound mistakes of the GW Bush era and the resulting collapse of fundamental animating principles. You even cite an urge to “skepticism” but I think the results are in and deserve far more than mere skepticism and in fact, the GW Bush Administration functions as a comprehensive analytical tool and should be used as such so that at least something good will come of it. Actually, I would not have gone batty on it had you actually used a characterization such as you used in your reply: Schizophrenia. A multiple personality disorder is a perfect description. I would argue that this forceful a characterization would be useful in describing where we find the wounded beast of “Conservatism” today. Until bottom is found, the plummet continues apace.

Cheeks, the old canard meeting anyone rebuking the current GOP of
“whaddya want, to elect a Democrat ?” is insufficient to the task at hand. There is no fundamental force advocating a chaste restraint in government and foreign policy and as a result, we have what Stegall accurately characterized as “taxonomic debates” that have become “pointless”.

No need to reply….we are more in agreement than disagreement. Now, where was my Napoleon hat and riding crop, Jenny Lind and I are due to meet Freud for my anger management seminars. It would sem I have what is called “Bush Tourettes. “…dammit.

avatar Bob Cheeks May 31, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Oh, D.W. you have made my day, nay my week! There is no better flinger of conservative truism than thou dear palsy, and trust me I would pay to read the discursive discourse!
There is always a need to reply to you; and now back to Schilling and the destruction of the particularity of reason in the search for God. Will you give me an Amen!

avatar John Willson June 1, 2009 at 9:32 pm

“Goodness,” as my sainted grandmother used to say. Has any one of you ever LIVED in a community?

avatar D.W. Sabin June 2, 2009 at 2:07 pm

John Wilson,
In the words of Norm Crosby, “I represent that”. Are you implying that we convivial inmates at the asylum do not represent a “community”?

avatar Dan Sullivan June 6, 2009 at 3:00 pm

I know I’m a little late to this conversation, but I’d like to add a word on Robert Nisbet, if I may.

If his written work is any indication (and it’s my dissertation subject, so I’ve read almost all of it), Nisbet studiously avoided identifying himself with any political ideology or school of thought. The Quest for Community was not written as a consciously “conservative” work, but it is nothing if not a withering critique of modernity and liberal ideology. Nisbet had no problem with, even admired many of the goals of liberalism (he said so in Quest), but he pointed out, much as Patrick Deneen has mentioned in recent posts, that liberalism has a parasitic relationship with the classical Christian culture which makes it possible in the first place. Nisbet asserted that liberalism will eventually kill that which spawned, nurtured, and to a diminishing degree sustains it.

I attended last year a symposium on Nisbet’s work during which he was labeled a liberal because he lacks a metaphysic. Having read him in relative depth, I can say with confidence that the metaphysic is everywhere implied if nowhere explicitly stated. Primary associations were, for Nisbet, functional, of course, but only to the degree that they served a larger moral purpose. They are moral/spiritual institutions which sustain moral endeavor well beyond addressing the material necessities of life. He maintained that the ties that bind define us, provide meaning for us, and thereby set us free to pursue our end. Freedom, he claimed, emerges only from the “interstices of authority” where the various associations within which we live compete for relevance in our lives. This distributed, multifaceted authority structure reduces the risk that any one source of authority degenerates into a source of coercive power. For obvious reasons, Nisbet distrusted the modern administrative state. For what it’s worth, the self-described “individualists” at the symposium rejected Nisbet’s work as excessively authoritarian and socially deterministic, a conclusion that I believe gives insufficient weight to his effort to identify the best ground for the reconciliation of order and freedom.

In 1986, Nisbet published a book entitled, Conservatism: Dream and Reality, in which he described a framework for the consideration of the three extant political “ideologies” as he saw them: socialism, liberalism, and conservatism. He placed the first and the last on opposite ends of a continuum with the second somewhere near the middle shading slightly toward conservatism. The unit of measure which defined Nisbet’s continuum was proliferation and vibrance of intermediate associations, with socialism permitting and promoting these the least and conservatism the most. He never declared himself for a particular point along the continuum, but it’s clear from almost everything he’s published (17 books, hundreds of essays, reviews, chapters, etc) that his decentralist, localist thinking would reside on the point he described as conservative.

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