Robert Nisbet

Winston does well in bringing Robert Nisbet’s teaching to bear upon the basic problems we confront (War, Crisis and Centralization of Power). An assigned reading in my contemporary American conservative course at Georgetown is Nisbet’s The Present Age. While this work incorporates much of his previous thought and findings, I assign it primarily because it is a scathing indictment of our interventionist policies since the First World War. He remarks on the “prominence of war in American life since 1914, amounting to a virtual Seventy-Five years war,” noting as well “the staggering size of the military establishment since World War II.” He contends that there are irrepressible forces at work, namely, “the whole self-perpetuating military-industrial complex and the technological scientific elite that Eisenhower warned against” which shamefully exploits a widely accepted, but sham “American exceptionalism.” I think it fair to say that Bush II’s foreign policy and rhetoric embodied just about everything Robert Nisbet loathed. He would have been disappointed, but not at all surprised, that his “Seventy-Five years war” is now almost a “Hundred years war.”


What I want my students to see from Nisbet’s account is that traditional conservatives are not mindless war hawks (think Max Boot) contrary to what one might glean from the talking heads on TV or the main stream media. My having to do this, however, only indicates the extent to which neoconservatism has somehow morphed into just “conservatism.”


Be that as it may, Nisbet’s observations, coupled what has transpired under the Bush and Obama administrations, point to a state of affairs that troubles me mightily. Specifically, as I see it, there is a gulf, separation, or disjunction (there are perhaps better words to describe this) between sensible, ordinary Americans and those who are making the decisions to commit our nation to sustain hostilities. In fact, and significantly, the separation is more extensive than this: During the run up to the Iraq invasion virtually all the “opinion leaders”—high ranking officials, the influencial editors and columnists, the gurus from the Council of Foreign Relations, the “talking head” experts on cable TV—tacitly seemed to assume that military intervention was necessary. For the most part, these individuals were not concerned with the questions surrounding whether we should invade Iraq; rather their concerns centered on when we should invade, what our tactics ought to be, what effects the invasion and the removal of Sadam would be on the Middle East or America’s stature in the world, and so forth. While one might have imagined that launching a “preventive war” would have sparked considerable and heated debate, this issue was largely ignored by those in power and their minions. To a lesser degree, Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan illustrates the same phenomenon: His ultimate decision, much like Bush II’s to invade Iraq, seemed like a forgone conclusion once the elite establishment publicly pushed the matter to the forefront as involving the security of the nation.


Perhaps better evidence of the gulf or separation to which I refer is the fact that lies and deception are seemingly necessary to gain popular support for wars. It is now well documented, for instance, that Roosevelt II told the people one thing (your sons will never fight on foreign soil) while he endeavored in various ways to involve the nation in hostilities. Likewise, lies and deception, albeit in a different form, marked our interventions in Vietnam and Iraq. While, in my opinion, this by itself is deplorable, my point is that this practice indicates at least the existence of a separation in outlook and thinking between the decision makers and ordinary citizens. What other reason would there be for the lies and deception if not to bring the people around? Moreover, as Goebbels remarked, such a transformation is not too difficult for those who control government to achieve.

If I am essentially correct, forces other than those identified by Robert Nisbet are at work to keep the nation on war footing; that is, the military-industrial complex and the scientific elite to which Nisbet refers have powerful allies in the elite establishment.

My concerns with this state of affairs are multiple, but I am now most intrigued by the question of what accounts for the separation between the leaders and opinion elite, on the one hand, and the ordinary citizens on the other. What accounts for the difference in views? Is it that those who have or seek power possess an imperial mindset which sets them off from ordinary individuals? Is it that the preoccupations of the elite—i.e., international relations and national security—are such that they are blind or insensitive to the wider world about them? Could it be that since foreign policy, broadly speaking, is relatively free from the obstacles encountered in formulating domestic policy, the elites have little sense of accountability? Or might it be that somehow the military-industrial complex now has the means to bring elite opinion around?


I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question. But I do believe that there is a relatively incestuous elite—officials and opinion leaders—that holds to markedly different views regarding America’s role in the world than probably a very healthy majority of the general population. Given enormously tragic consequences of our following interventionist policies—hundreds of thousands have been killed, even more who have been wounded and maimed, millions have been displaced, and the entire effort is estimated to have cost us over two trillion dollars—I hope I am right about the basic good sense of the American people. They constitute perhaps the best hope we have to put an permanent end to these policies.



Are there other ways to rein in this elite short of a popular uprising of sorts. Is it possible to bring its views more into line with that of the American people? I can think of two. One would be the institution of a draft that would make our decision makers think real hard about any future intervention; it would probably preclude anything along the lines of Bush II’s preventive war. (That a draft would have this impact is further evidence of the gulf or separation to which I refer.) Of course, a draft is pretty much out of the question. So long, however, as our military consists of volunteers, prospects of curbing interventionism are significantly reduced.


A second means of control would take the form of a healthy war tax. Certainly the decision makers would have to take popular opinion into account knowing that such a tax would be levied. The mere prospect of losing an election over such a tax is more than sufficient to insure a healthy moderation.

The bottom line is this: We live with a dissonance. For reasons I can’t determine our decision makers and elites embrace imperial ends. Yet, the American people are simply not an imperial people; they are unwilling or incapable of making those sacrifices necessary for empire. I would submit that our republic, if we can still call it that, is endangered so long as the imperialists have their way.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email