restricted access 2 - Robert Nisbet: Conservative Sociologist
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2 Robert Nisbet: Conservative Sociologist A German encyclopedia of conservatismbegins its entry for Robert Alexander Nisbet by noting that he was a “conservative sociologist .”1 For American academics, such a characterization may seem strange and even oxymoronic, since in the United States and almost everywhere else in the Western world today, the Left dominates sociology as a discipline. This ideological association applies not only to the vast majority of academic sociologists , but also to famous sociologists who were Nisbet’s contemporaries. Talcott Parsons, Gordon Allport, Thomas Merton, C. Wright Mills, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Thomas Bottomore are only a few of the illustrious sociologists who were active fifty years ago and who belonged to the American Left. Indeed, even a social thinker who was beloved by the Right and who excoriated the therapeutic society, Philip Rieff, was never a self-­ described conservative.2 Some interpreters may identify Nisbet as a historian of social theory, as someone who brought forth such distinguished surveys of social theory as The Sociological Tradition3 and The Social Philosophers.4 I believe, however, that Nisbet would not have settled for this honor. His work The Social Bond is a detailed study of the sociological method; even his widely read defense of the “sociological tradition ” as the creation of nineteenth-­ century opponents of the French Revolution and the modern “unitary state” is intended as a vindication of Nisbet’s approach to social analysis. In any case, Nisbet would not have accepted the title of being a mere chronicler of ideas, as opposed to being a social scientist who appreciated the legacy of conservative social thinkers. Significantly, non-­ rightist social thinkers whom Nisbet admired, such as Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, were transformed in his alembic into exponents of “conservative insights.” It is also relevant to distinguish between Nisbet’s identification as a conservative and the now conventional use of the term to refer to Republicans as opposed to Democrats, or fans of FOX News as opposed to viewers of other news networks . Nisbet never sang the glories of “American exceptionalism,” nor did he 12 C H A P T E R two call for the spread of the American democratic model to distant climes and peoples . From The Quest for Community onward, he targeted American crusades for democracy and American popular culture. In the epilogue to The Present Age, he depicts the United States as a “giant in military resources but not in the exercise of military power and responsibility. Befuddled by belief that God intended it to be the moral teacher to the world, our giant stumbles from people to people, ever demonstrating that what American touches, it makes holy.”5 America is “a giant too in domestic bureaucracy” that generates an “awful total of indebtedness” and the growing dependence of the population on public administration; moreover,“in structure our giant is a horde of loose individuals, of homunculi serving as atoms of the giant’s body as in the famous illustration of Leviathan in Hobbes’s classic.” Nisbet finds a diminishing organic connection among the tissues and organs of the American body social: Economically our giant is bemused by cash in hand rather than property and wealth. Growth is for weeds and idiots, not for the illuminati and literati. Culturally reigning symbols are two in number: deconstructionism and minimalism, each resting securely on the conviction that self-­ exploration is the mightiest truth of them all.6 Nisbet can be viewed as a true product of the New World. He was born and raised in Southern California, and—­ except for wartime service in Saipan—­ spent most of his life in Southern California and Arizona. But Nisbet saw in America’s postwar hegemony intimations of decline.He was relentlessly critical of twentieth-­ century American life, and although emphatically on the right, he inveighed against a moralistic foreign policy, consumer capitalism, and American public administration. Dominant themes in his social criticism—­ such as “progress and anarchy in modern America”7 and the “twilight of authority”8 —­are unmistakably linked to the United States in the present age. Nisbet’s prolonged inspection of American politics and culture made him extremely unhappy with what he observed, albeit not in the same way as another despiser of mass democracy, the satirist H. L. Mencken, who aimed his shafts at the “boobocracy.” Nisbet had no Menckenesque flair for satire. Unlike the exuberant journalist and “Baltimore Sage,” he never satirized his targets in order to amuse others. Although a reluctant agnostic like one...


Subject Headings

  • Conservatism.
  • Liberalism.
  • Right and left (Political science).
  • Political science -- Philosophy.
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