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Paul Ryan, Robert Nisbet, and the Fight to Save Civil Society

Yesterday in Cleveland, Paul Ryan gave easily one of the most important and substantive speeches of this entire election cycle. The fact that it was substantive alone draws a contrast with President Obama’s reelection focus on Big Bird and binders. But it also outlined with frankness and sophistication the distinction between the worldviews of the two tickets.

Ryan spoke about poverty and education, individualism and dependency. But he also focused on the enduring necessity of civil society and the role that local communities play in the typical American life. Though Ryan credited his mentor Jack Kemp, the true unnamed force behind his speech was the late Robert Nisbet. Here is what Ryan said yesterday:

[Romney is] the type we’ve all run into in our own communities – here in Cleveland, too, and all around America. Americans are a compassionate people, and there’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable. Those obligations are not what we’re debating in politics. Most times, the real debate is about whether they are best met by private groups, or by the government; by voluntary action, or by more taxes and coercive mandates from Washington.

The short of it is that there has to be a balance – allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.  There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual.  Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives.  They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.

Nisbet wrote about this in his most celebrated work, The Quest for Community. (And for a great explanation of why that work is relevant to this election, see Ross Douthat’s highly worthwhile introduction to the updated edition of the book.) But possibly more relevant to Ryan’s speech was Nisbet’s underrated book, Twilight of Authority.

“In most ages of history some one institution–kinship, religion, economy, state–is ascendant in human loyalties,” Nisbet wrote in Twilight of Authority. “Other institutions, without being necessarily obliterated, retreat to the background in terms of function and authority.”

History shows that the usual cycle of predominant authority goes something like: kinship, state, religion, and then state again, he writes. “When major institutions die or become weak, it is ultimately by virtue of their loss of power to command respect and allegiance. That loss of power is manifest today in the state.”

Nisbet was writing in the age of Watergate and Vietnam, but the electorate’s near-immediate rejection of Jimmy Carter and consistent concern over taxes and deficits since then would suggest the country never took a holiday from the mistrust of government of Nisbet’s time. According to Nisbet, interest and participation in the government wanes considerably during such a time because the public sees it as corrupt and corrupting.

I would suggest, however, that Nisbet’s characterization has met a rather unique circumstance in the U.S. Nisbet points out that such institutional change is usually brought about by revolution, but that obviously isn’t going to happen here (nor should it). Instead, what we’re experiencing now is a split: conservatives have ditched government as the trusted institution, but liberals have only strengthened their faith in the government, especially the presidency. What Nisbet called the “forms of belief which find in the political state or any other external structure of social order the possibility of redemption or salvation” were on full display by Barack Obama himself, when he finally knocked Hillary Clinton out of the race for the Democratic nomination:

“I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

That’s also why Ryan brought up the Obama administration’s birth control mandate in that same speech: it’s the perfect example of left’s perception that the government works in competition, not concert, with faith groups; that true benevolence is enabled first by government coercion; and that, as the theme of Obama’s nomination convention had it, “government is the only thing that we all belong to.”

This is one reason for the degree of political polarization in America today. The emergence of a true small-government core identity on the right and the end of the pro-life left and Blue Dog Democrats is also the end of Nisbet’s cycle of affiliation and institutional trust. The populace doesn’t throw its weight behind its political leaders in unison, then its religious leaders in unison. Instead, the right has embraced faith groups and other local institutions as integral to the survival of the community, while the left has outsourced its charitable instincts to a strong central government as a lone, cold–and increasingly failed–authority.


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