Robert Nisbet, Conservatism

Originally published in 1986, Robert Nisbet’s recently reissued study of the history and prospects of both conservative thought and political conservatism from Edmund Burke to Ronald Reagan is as relevant today as it would have been over the course of many yesterdays and as it will be for many tomorrows. No doubt intended to shore up dispirited conservatives in the dying days of the Reagan years, this short book would have been even shorter had Nisbet not chosen to include and comment on the various manifestations of Reagan-era conservatism. It should also be noted that his edition includes an introduction by Nisbet biographer Brad Stone, who briefly summarizes what has been called “Nisbetism” before taking the dreams and realities of modern conservatism into the 21st century.

Just what is “Nisbetism?” It is at once a thesis, a plea, and a lament. At its heart is Robert Nisbet’s assertion that a decent and healthy society nourishes those intervening institutions of family, church, and voluntary organizations that simultaneously guard against an intrusive state and restrain the urges and excesses of the isolated individual. One of Robert Nisbet’s great insights (with more than a little help from Tocqueville and others) is the unholy alliance between advocates of a powerful state and those who would be its alleged and even actual beneficiaries.

A society that is at once grounded in collectivism and individualism would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Not so, Tocqueville prophesied. And not so, Nisbet observed.

Not that Robert Nisbet liked what he was observing. Far from it; hence his insistent plea for the survival, nay the shoring up and flourishing, of those crucial intervening institutions, those “little platoons” of Edmund Burke; and hence his temptation to lament their obvious decline when he wasn’t engaging in his own prophesying about their feared collapse.

From the 1950 publication of his seminal Quest for Community to the end of his writing days Robert Nisbet functioned as a modern day Tocqueville. As such, he was a prophet of sorts himself. And, like all good prophets, he hoped that he would be proven wrong. Unfortunately, even as early as 1950 there were signs aplenty that he might well be right.

If there was a Robert Nisbet heyday in American intellectual history it happened to coincide with what he termed the “renaissance” of American conservatism (1950-1980). He certainly advanced no claim to being responsible for that revival. That said, he was anything but a minor player while it was underway.

This particular book was published just as the Reagan Revolution was losing steam and prospects for the future of American conservatism seemed far less bright. Reaganism aside, the heart of the book is a learned sweep through the history of conservative thought, always with an emphasis on Burkean conservatives and their defense of his platoons.

It is also a defense of general conservative principles. Under the heading of “dogmatics of conservatism” Nisbet admirably explains and defends the conservative commitment to tradition and religion, to property and liberty. If a reader is looking for a thumbnail sketch of key conservative thinkers and dogmas, he will find them in this chapter which comprises nearly half of the book.

But given the state of American politics in 2010, and given Nisbet’s worries of now nearly a quarter of a century ago, let’s dwell a bit on matters current in light of Nisbet’s insights—and worries. Before proceeding, it is important to keep Nisbet’s subtitle in mind, if for no other reason than he must have done so. Conservative dreams are one thing; daily reality is quite another. To be sure, Nisbet was not without his own dreams, even if he was anything but a utopian dreamer. In fact, among his worries were those he reserved for messianic-minded conservative crusaders who were all too willing to turn to a powerful state in the name of advancing American ideals.

In his always less than perfect world Nisbet’s American leaders of preference would follow in the footsteps of Edmund Burke and John Adams. Too far back, you protest? Well then, Robert Nisbet would settle for a Grover Cleveland, or a Robert Taft, or a Barry Goldwater (but not always for a crusade-tempted Ronald Reagan).

Two very large obstacles stand in the way of Nisbet’s dream ever becoming a reality: 1) There will never be another Grover Cleveland or anyone like him (“a good man in a bad trade,” or “the last of the Romans,” according to H.L. Mencken); and 2) Robert Nisbet knows it.

Or at least he knew as much as of 1986. He also knew that his thirty year revival, “with the aid of the {not always to be admired] neoconservatives” had at least nudged the American political order “somewhat to the right.” And Robert Nisbet, the realist, was prepared to thank God for small favors.

He also seemed to be prepared to make his peace with the welfare state. In fact, he suggests that it might well be “possible that traditional conservatism will be strengthened by what is increasingly being hailed as Welfare Conservatism.”

Was Robert Nisbet, circa 1986, among those hailers? It would seem so. Near the end of the book he sighs (?) or states (?) that the “future of the welfare state, barring utter catastrophe in the world, is thoroughly assured by now.”

Does this mean that Nisbet, the realist, had completely shoved aside Nisbet, the dreamer? Not really. His “Welfare Conservatives” may have been seeking to establish their own “lustrous pedigree.” But in Nisbet’s eyes theirs was a “futile hope,” if they thought they could claim Burke, or even Disraeli and Bismarck as their political ancestors.

Besides, Nisbet the dreamer gives himself the last word by reminding his readers that a “substantial core of traditional conservatism” remained alive and somewhat well in the declining years of the Reagan presidency. That core might not be enough to produce another Grover Cleveland, but the “kindly light” of that thirty year renaissance still shines brightly enough to guide the way.

Would Robert Nisbet be discouraged or encouraged by what has happened over the course of the past two years, meaning the election of Barack Obama and the reaction against his agenda? Would he be appalled, even numbed, by the Obama version of the welfare state? Or would he be heartened, even inspired, by the conservative resurgence?

Writing as I am on the eve of the 2010 mid-term elections, I have neither a crystal ball nor a way to resurrect Mr. Nisbet. Let’s simply say that his worries remain real worries, whether they be directed at the dangers of collectivism or those posed by a mass democracy. In his heyday, Mr. Nisbet expressed great skepticism about the various outbursts of populism scattered throughout American history. Would he be content to entrust a new conservative renaissance in the hands of a new American populism, even a populism of a rightist sort? No answer is possible, but reading this book offers an occasion to ponder such a question and to put forth Nisbet-like worries about what might ensue.

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