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Because we Americans have become so infatuated with the power and person of the presidency, we have forgotten our republican duty to promote our sovereignty in legislative bodies…

Robert NisbetIf you were interested in finding the single harshest and yet reasoned critic of the twentieth-century nation-state, you would not, strangely enough, turn to a libertarian. You would, instead, turn to a self-proclaimed conservative, Robert Alexander Nisbet (1913-1996). And, not just self-proclaimed. Other conservatives such as Russell Kirk considered Nisbet one of the most important thinkers of the century. Almost all conservatives welcomed him eagerly into their fraternity of non-conformity. Perhaps securing his place among conservatives (rooted in Edmund Burke), Nisbet openly attacked libertarians (rooted in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill).

For most of his professional career, however, this great conservative, sociologist, public man of letters, and academic administrator railed against the modern nation-state. Unlike his closest English contemporary, Christopher Dawson, who grew increasingly anxious over what he thought of as the “new leviathan,” a form of political government never before seen in history, Nisbet saw a continuity in authoritarianism and totalitarianism from the very beginnings of the West. Utilizing a rather complicated Whiggish form of thinking, Nisbet believed much of Western Civilization—especially in the English-speaking world—to alternate between a form of royalism and a form of associational representation.

For all forms of the nation-state, however, Nisbet held less than admirable feelings. “What we call political philosophy is so overladen in the West with euphemism, panegyric, and idealization that anyone might be forgiven for occasionally failing to remember just what this philosopher’s true subject is.” And, that subject? Well, for Nisbet, it was “the political state, unique among major institutions in its claim of absolute power over human lives.”

While the modern nation-state might be capable of controlling all aspects of human life, thus making it somewhat new in outreach, its goals have never changed from the beginning of history to the present. “What procreation is to kinship and propitiation of gods is to religion,” Nisbet wrote, “monopolization of power is to the state.” Whatever the type of government—or, as Straussians like to put it, whatever the form of regime—Nisbet claimed that the state’s ultimate goal is always the same: power begetting power, endlessly, until all of private life has been consumed by politicization and control: “The essence of the state, then, is its unique possession of sovereignty—absolute and unconditional power over all individuals and their associations and possessions within a given area.”

Nisbet’s view here is deeply radical. Whatever Russell Kirk might have stated in private letters in the 1940s, his most libertarian period, he never would have gone this far in public writings at any point of his public career. In his statements on government, the state, and power, Nisbet went even farther than Friedrich Hayek ever did.

While governments from the beginning of time have sought to hide behind a false veil of good intentions, the pagan priests and secular academics have consistently served as the clerisy, manipulating the population through pro-state propaganda. “The history of political thought,” Nisbet wrote in 1984, “is the history of one euphemism after another to disguise the naked power of the state.” Even modern conservatives such as George Will who promoted a Burkean “statecraft as soulcraft,” Nisbet believed, were merely dupes, misreading Burke and actually promoting the ambitions and malicious “general will” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Nisbet was especially harsh on Mr. Will. From Nisbet’s perspective, “soulcraft” is just a pleasant euphemism for ideological power. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all believed in “soulcraft,” and their terrifying beliefs were nothing less than mere forms of soulcraft. “Again, it is cruel but necessary to see Leninism in its several forms as nothing less than Soulcraft.” Burke, as understood by Nisbet, could never be used to celebrate the state in any way, any shape, or any form.

Throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nisbet believed, American culture had resisted the concentration of power in government. During the first thirteen or fourteen decades under the U.S. Constitution, Americans had properly seen the best manifestation of the will of “we the people” in and through “little platoons,” such as families, churches, self-help societies, local political parties, and voluntary associations. When it came to the necessity of exercising political power at the state or federal level, Americans generally worked through sovereign legislative bodies rather than individuals. Thus, for the first half of American history, average Americans avoided the glorification or overuse of the presidency.

All of this, however, changed with Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Wilson concentrated power in his office, proclaiming the executive to be the best expression of the “will of the people,” a tactic employed by Andrew Jackson. According to Nisbet, the history of presidential lying began with Woodrow Wilson in 1916 by his assurance that the United States would not enter World War I. He had been planning entry for quite some time. Franklyn Roosevelt next made lying an outright art. Harry S Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were too honest to be good liars, but John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon were experts. As such, Nisbet claimed, the whole of the modern presidency is based on a “system of institutional lying.”

Because we Americans have become so infatuated with the power and person of the presidency, we have forgotten our republican duty to promote our sovereignty in legislative bodies. Not only have we forgotten, but we have actually encouraged our legislative bodies to stand aside for presidential personality and authority.

In painstaking detail, Robert Nisbet described six signs of Americans’ abnormal love for the personality of the president (contrasted to a respect for the office of the president): 1) a concomitant loss of faith in the legislative bodies of a republic; 2) an obsession with the “image” of the presidency, whether with fashion styles of the presidents and the president’s family, or their traveling; 3) the “luxury” of the parties hosted by the president in the White House; 4) the “carefully cultivated image of the democratic” aspect of the presidency, which is really a polite way of saying “royalty”; 5) the massive staff of bureaucrats (“retainers”) who do the president’s bidding, thus shielding the office from direct criticism; and 6) the employment of “the FBI and other paramilitary” agencies to maintain order and power across the republic.

Not surprisingly, the well-groomed American anarchist and classicist, Albert Jay Nock, deeply influenced a young Robert Nisbet as he had Kirk and William F. Buckley. Unlike Kirk, though, Nisbet became far more skeptical of all state power as he grew older and studied more. To the end of his days, Nisbet rejected the label of libertarian, believing it flawed and insufficient. For Nisbet, the true lover of liberty was not one who found roots in John Stuart Mill or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but in the thought of the grand Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke.

Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. Funny how the mention of Burke stops everything else in the room. And as well A J Nock, tutor to generations, or as much as possible in an increasingly culturally moribund society. As to Nisbet, his book Prejudices is also on my shelf, a trio difficult to surpass.
    It is a sorry tale we live with in an age when a president assumes a role not in congruence with our traditions and laws can be so distorted by bureaucracy and Executives careless of the power they grasp.

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