Is Robert Nisbet’s “The Quest for Community” a historical artifact or a living source of wisdom? Has his insight into the natural human desire for community become a moot point in light of the rise of the State, which has replaced the church, family, and neighborhood?
Of the many books that Robert Nisbet wrote during his lifetime, perhaps none is more important than his first, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics and Order of Freedom (1953). This book, published within the same year span as Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, was praised by many eminent thinkers, Kirk included, and helped earn Nisbet the reputation as one of the most important minds of the post-WWII conservative renaissance in the United States.
As one can see by looking at his career, Nisbet was not only a brilliant thinker but also a man of incredible prestige. The author of numerous books and academic essays, he was also a public intellectual, sociologist, historian of ideas, social commentator, and professor: first professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley; then dean at the University of California, Riverside; then a teacher at Princeton University, the University of Bologna in Italy, the University of Arizona, and at Columbia University, where he occupied the Albert Schweitzer Chair of the Humanities. After his retirement from academia, he became a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Nearly implausible today, this traditionalist conservative, this brilliant and astute scholar writing within the intellectual tradition of Edmund Burke, was one of the most prominent intellectuals in America. The wisdom of Nisbet did not die with him in 1996. To the contrary, Nisbet’s The Quest for Community can still, to this day, provide insight to Americans of all political persuasions.
Nisbet’s thesis in The Quest for Community is this: Essentially all centers of authority within society—such as family, church, community—have been heavily absorbed by the central State. But despite their decline, these “intermediate institutions,” as he called them, serve a vital and two-fold purpose, first in serving as a check on centralized political power, and second in providing man with a sense of belonging. As a result, their decline has resulted in catastrophic consequences. First, it has left man without tangible associations through which to fulfill his desire for community. Second, since man is left with no local community through which to fulfill his desire to belong, he must clamor to join the only community still available: the mythical “national community” offered by the centralized political unit. “The quest for community will not be denied,” Nisbet concluded, “for it springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature—needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status, and continuity.” In other words, the quest for community is an impulse that stems from human nature. All yearn for participation and for a sense of belonging within a cause or body greater than the single person. If the desire for community cannot be filled in church, in family, in neighborhood, or in locality, then it will be filled instead by the central State.
In this regard, Nisbet believed that the modern State has proven to be the single greatest influence upon social organization in the West, causing society-wrenching changes to man’s economic, religious, kinship, and local allegiances. As Nisbet wrote in his 1952 preface:
I believe that the greatest single influence upon social organization in the modern West has been the developing concentration of function and power of the sovereign political State. To regard the State as simply a legal relationship, as a mere superstructure of power, is profoundly delusive. The real significance of the modern State is inseparable from its successive penetrations of man’s economic, religious, kinship, and local allegiances, and its revolutionary dislocations of established centers of function of authority.
In The Quest for Community, Nisbet weaves together a historical narrative, beginning in the medieval world and continuing to the twentieth century, of intermediate institutions becoming weaker as the central government grew stronger. In the Middle Ages, Nisbet found, the yearning for community was satisfied by a series of small-scale intermediate institutions: immediate and extended families, gilds, churches, villages, monasteries, and manors. Much social importance was placed on “small groups based upon kinship and function.” Whereas centralized power was weak, the “philosophy of community” was strong. However, as history marched onward—through Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution—intermediary institutions and communities came to be attacked as superstitious, patriarchal, and old-fashioned. The individual would gain his freedom and be freed from the shackles of tradition, progressives thought, by breaking them down through means of the centralized State.
According to Nisbet, man in 1953 had been released more than ever from traditional ties of class, religion, and kinship; however such release had not resulted in liberation but rather disenchantment, loneliness, alienation, and authoritarianism. Quoting C. Wright Mills, Nisbet claims: “The uneasiness, the malice of our time, is due to this root fact: in our politics and economy, in family life and religion—in practically every sphere of our existence—the certainties of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have disintegrated or been destroyed and, at the same time, no sanction or justifications for the new routines we live, and must live, have taken hold.”
Upon reading The Quest for Community, the reader is compelled to observe modern American politics through Nisbet’s lenses. Indeed, Nisbet himself did not limit his analysis to the history of Western Europe, for he also applied his insights to the history of the United States. And in so doing, he did not do so broadly in the manner of this survey, but rather with eloquent nuance.
When Alexis de Tocqueville, a thinker who influenced Nisbet, came to America in 1831, he could not help but notice the “small societies” that constituted the nation. One of the most prominent features of the young United States, he observed in Democracy in America, was the notable degree of “administrative decentralization,” whereby most decision-making was handled locally—by families, churches, communities, towns, and states—rather than by the federal government. Nisbet’s own thesis was influenced by that of Tocqueville, who also placed importance on intermediate institutions between the individual and central government. According to Fred Donovan Hill:
Developing his Tocquevillian theme, Nisbet locates the chief cause of the feeling of lostness in modern man in the weakening of the intermediate associations that stand between the lone individual and the State. Readers of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America will remember his view of man in a democratic society cut off from his neighbors by a strident independence that will brook no authority and therefore thrown into a direct confrontation with the central government. In such a situation, the State is likely to become man’s best friend; it is also likely, Tocqueville feared, to become his Parent, his Oppressor. Nisbet concurs in this view and he sees the twentieth-century citizen of the United States farther along this path to a possibly tyrannical relationship with the State because of the debilitation of such local institutions as the family, the neighborhood, and the church. After all, if the individual is alone and cannot rely on the family or the community or agencies, of local government or religious or fraternal organizations, he will have to rely on the centralized governmental authority.
At this point it is important to make clear that local institutions form an indispensable obstacle to the exercise of federal power. Middle institutions between the individual and federal government—such as the family, the church, the community, private associations, and even local and state government—are barriers to the exercise of federal power insofar as they compete with the federal government for allegiance. That the U.S. Constitution was crafted to grant a notable degree of power to states, including the right of non-compliance with unconstitutional federal laws, shows us that those who ratified the Constitution understood this point. It was commonly understood in the early years of the Republic that the American people were not a homogeneous unit, but rather members of independent sovereign states, all with their own unique history and local customs. In other words, not only was the separation of powers designed to defend liberty, but so too was American federalism. The states, which like the family and church rested between the lone individual and the federal government, were seen as critical in protecting liberty.
But with time, the federal government as we now know it came to fruition, absorbing unto itself the roles performed by lower-level intermediary institutions. Whether it was the New Nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Frontier of John Kennedy, or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, the State engulfed intermediate institutions in its rise to power. Ultimately, such a trend culminated into the situation before us today—with the head of household replaced with the Department of Education, the local church and charity replaced with the welfare state, and allegiances to local civil and political associations transferred into the hands of the federal government.
Today, in accordance with Nisbet’s thesis, the younger generation is living in a world where a far-reaching federal government is seen as the final arbiter of all social problems. Leaving matters to families, churches, and civil society is seen not only as implausible, but as the very root of our problems. For most of the scourges of our world are considered a result of these traditional institutions and most of them therefore are smeared as “racist,” “sexist,” “patriarchal,” “hateful,” and so on. In the pursuit of self-actualization most people believe that individuals should be free to live by and for themselves, rather than as members of a family, church, or small-scale community. In the meantime, the federal government continues to grow by leaps and bounds, unchecked by the competing allegiances provided by intermediate institutions. And as a result of this trend, we see all around us society-wrenching impacts. Nisbet would not have been surprised at the devastating effects of family breakdown in America as documented by Charles Murray in Coming Apart roughly six decades after the first edition of The Quest for Community.
Indeed, we are today subjected on a regular basis to news stories sharing a common theme: somewhere, for some reason, somebody wants the federal government to further involve itself in the lives of the citizenry. We can see this, for instance, in the recent Supreme Court decision in which marriage—an institution that for centuries was under the jurisdiction of the Church and civil society—was forcibly redefined by the Court and further transferred into the hands of the central State. We have also seen this theme in more recent controversies, such as the encroachment of the federal government into bathrooms across the nation. For instance, according to the Obama Administration, even young students can declare a new “gender identity” that must be accommodated by the public schools through inclusive bathroom facilities. Of course, the growing power of the American federal government in recent years has not only been seen in the social sphere, but also in the economic, international, and religious spheres, with strong support by the public.
It is no stretch of the imagination to assume that Nisbet would have been a staunch opponent of the presidency as it currently exists. And it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that Nisbet would have, to an extent at least, understood the presidency and today’s presidential candidates within the broader framework of his thesis. By desiring to expand the federal government in general and the power of the executive branch in particular, all successful candidates and all modern presidents have sought to weaken what remains of the intermediary institutions between them and the individual. The lone masses, stripped of their traditional social identities, rally around their national candidates with grandiose purposes of being “stronger together,” or “making America great,” or being a part of something bigger, far bigger, than one could ever achieve on his own. Once again we are reminded that if the desire for community is not found in homes and families, in churches and local associations, then it will be found elsewhere: in presidential rallies and in the personality worship surrounding the modern American president, the breadwinner of the national family and figurehead of the national community. Nisbet’s thesis lives on.
Unfortunately, the record of modern conservatives in bolstering local community and stopping the growth of federal power has been abysmal. Nisbet believed that Ronald Reagan, for instance, never did limit the power of the federal government in any meaningful way. Far more important to late twentieth- and early twenty-first century conservatives was putting State power into the hands of those who supposedly could be trusted. Thus, the goal of dismantling State power was replaced with the tactic of transferring such power into conservative hands. In 1986 he wrote:
“The Far Right is less interested in Burkean immunities from government power than it is in putting a maximum of governmental power in the hands of those who can be trusted. It is control of power, not diminution of power, that ranks high. Thus when Reagan was elected conservatives hoped for the quick abolition of such government ‘monstrosities’ as the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and the two National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities, all creations of the political left. The Far Right in the Reagan Phenomenon saw it differently, however; they saw it as an opportunity for retaining and enjoying the powers. And the Far Right prevailed. It seeks to prevail also in the establishment of a ‘national industrial strategy,’ a government corporation structure in which the conservative dream of free private enterprise would be extinguished.
Similarly, in his book Democracy: The God That Failed, modern social scientist Hans Hermann Hoppe noted that traditionalist conservatives were far more aware than conservatives today of the potentially devastating effect of State power. Advancing a similar position as Nisbet, he wrote that:
“In any case, what should be clear by now is that most if not all of the moral degeneration and cultural rot—the signs of decivilization—all around us are the inescapable and unavoidable results of the welfare state and its core institutions. Classical, old-style conservatives knew this, and they vigorously opposed public education and social security. They knew that states everywhere were intent upon breaking down and ultimately destroying families and the institutions and layers and hierarchies of authority that are the natural outgrowth of family based communities to increase and strengthen their own power…. Old conservatives knew that these policies would emancipate the individual from the discipline imposed by family and community life only to subject it instead to the direct and immediate control of the state.”
One might object that a book penned more than half-a-century ago is more a historical artifact than a living source of wisdom. To be sure, Nisbet’s The Quest for Community was written in the particular context of a particular period and should not be treated otherwise. But upon reading this timeless conservative mind, the reader is also compelled to see the living manifestation of Nisbet’s thesis in our day. Perhaps if my generation would pick up Nisbet’s book they would learn a little something about the vibrant traditionalist conservatism which Nisbet advanced. Or perhaps they might learn how utterly destructive the central State can be when nothing else is left to satisfy the human yearning for community. And if not any of this, then the reader will at least be able to delve into the writings of what the New York Times called upon his death a “man of decided civility…whose stately writings sometimes seemed as if they were composed of a quill pen.”
The reader will hopefully discover an eloquent thinker who took it upon himself to stand against the tides of history, against all odds, to save the civilization that he so loved.
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The featured image is “The First Birthday Party” (1867) by Frederick Daniel Hardy, oil painting on canvas. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.