Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential victory signaled an apparent success for conservative ideology. His campaign effused all the hallmarks of traditional conservatism-family, neighborhood, church, voluntary associations, limited government, decentralization, and laissez faire all figured prominently in his speeches.
Yet behind the veneer of conservative boosterism lurked a medley of political persuasions. The far right, evangelical crusaders, libertarians, old-line conservatives, and military populists all jockeyed for influence. And many were decidedly not conservative in the American tradition.
That tradition, observes sociologist Robert Nisbet in Conservatism: Dream and Reality, harks back to the writings of 18th century British philosopher Edmund Burke, especially to his Reflections on the Revolution in France. What distinguishes conservatism most from other ideologies, including liberal individualism, is its emphasis on traditional associations as the bulwark of social order and freedom. These associations "are valuable as mediating and nurturing contexts for individuals and equally valuable as buffers against the power of the state."
Yet the Reagan phenomenon, with its moral and military crusaders, would burden us with more, not less, government. The far right, warns Nisbet, "is less interested in Burkean immunities from government power than it is in putting a maximum of government power into the 'right' hands." And he adds, "From the traditional conservative's point of view it is fatuous to use the family-as evangelical crusaders regularly do-as the justification for their tireless crusades to ban abortion categorically, to bring the Department of Justice in on every Baby Doe, to mandate by constitution the imposition of 'voluntary' prayers in the public schools, and so on."
Equally undeserving of the "conservative" appellation are the military crusaders who would engage the United States in far-flung military adventures to preserve the American way. For, points out Nisbet, "in America throughout the twentieth century, and including four substantial wars abroad, conservatives had been steadfastly the voices of non-inflationary military budgets, and of an emphasis on trade in the world instead of American nationalism." Nisbet rightly concludes that, whatever its rhetoric, the Reagan phenomenon is not a triumph for conservative ideology.
Nisbet does far more than reflect upon the Reagan administration. Conservatism is a concise anatomy of Western conservative thought over the past 200 years. In just over 100 pages, he manages to unveil its major tenets-political, economic, religious, and philosophical.
This pithy little book is not intended as a major philosophical contribution, yet it provokes reflection. Is liberal individualism necessarily incapable of finding an important role for tradition and social groups in the scheme of things? If, as in conservative ideology, traditional institutions reign supreme over any notion of individual rights, by what standard are oppressive institutions to be condemned?
The conservative view of culture and social evolution emphasizes the complexity of human action. Social institutions evolve through time and embody experiences, knowledge, and purposes that escape comprehensive understanding. For that reason, as Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek so poignantly insists, attempts to refashion social order through cognitive design or rational planning will inevitably fail. Conservative ideology grasps this fundamental point but grapples inadequately with the potential for violence against individuals that resides in the social group.
Nisbet himself makes no attempt to settle these issues. But his account of history illuminates the all-too-precipitous process by which individualism can deteriorate into egalitarianism and the pursuit of morality can lead to tyranny. Ironically, Reagan's acolytes now invite just such tyranny in their crusade to establish laws to bolster family, morality, and tradition.
As Nisbet remarks, "From Burke on it has been a conservative precept and sociological principle since August Comte that the surest way of weakening the family, or any vital social group, is for the government to assume, and then monopolize, the family's historic functions." Burke, notes Nisbet, "saw in the radical individualism of the French revolution the seeds of destruction of traditional associations," a destruction that would beckon the tyranny of an omnicompetent state to fill the vacuum. Of such a state, based in theory on the general will of so-called sovereign individuals, one 18th-century conservative cautioned, "Each morning the citizen would look into the mirror while shaving and see the face of one ten-millionth a tyrant and one whole slave."