Wilsonianism, Then and Now

The fatal flaw of Wilsonianism, with its endemic and epidemic political righteousness, its insistence upon trying all governments and other institutions by the hopeless criteria of Fourteen Points or Four Freedoms, or some equally Jacobinist nonsense, is that it can only erode, weaken, or destroy existing structures. It cannot, by its nature, build new ones–not durable ones, at least; only pseudo-structures like the League of Nations (which would have been no better had Wilson had his way with Henry Cabot Lodge) or the United Nations. The real work of building or rebuilding is invariably left to those who detest freedom and who do not shrink from the uses of force, repression, persecution, and terror. Could one find a better illustration of that right now than either Cambodia or South Vietnam?

That’s Robert Nisbet, from a 1975 Commentary symposium, “America Now: A Failure of Nerve?


4 thoughts on “Wilsonianism, Then and Now

  1. Tim October 23, 2006 / 11:36 am

    Here is a similar, but long, quote from a 1988 National Review book review of Robert Nisbet’s “The Present Age.” (source)

    “… Simply stated, Nisbet’s diagnosis is that the contemporary United States suffers from giantism. (“It is a deeply flawed giant; not yet moribund but illgaited, shambling, and spastic of limb, often aberrant of mind.”) The American Constitution was clearly “designed for a people more interested in governing itself than in helping to govern the rest of the world”; just as clearly, “there can be no doubt of what the Framers most definitely did not want: a highly centralized, unitary political Leviathan.” Nevertheless, after two hundred years the United States has become a country in which even so-called “conservatives” demand that Washington make a commitment to “global democracy” and a “conservative” President “departs office having increased the size of the bureaucracy, the national debt, and budget deficits.” Whereas the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had in mind a republic that would mind its own, strictly limited, business in the world, while allowing its citizens to mind theirs, the United States today is intent upon “making holy everything it touches” abroad and dragooning Americans into doctrinaire notions of egalitarianism.

    Fundamental to this perversion of the Framers’ original intent, as Nisbet explains in one of the most interesting portions of his book, is the replacement of pluralist, sectional, and federal ideals by the ideal of “community”–both national and global–nurtured by President Wilson and raised to maturity by his erstwhile young admirer and appointee, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The communitarian ideal, by which the state becomes the modern equivalent of the church, is implicit in the attitudes of such thoroughly contemporary politicians as Governor Mario Cuomo, yet received its clearest and most direct formulation in the writings of Rousseau–who, in Nisbet’s opinion, is really the patron saint of the present political age, of far more relevance to progressivism today than Marx or Lenin. “Perhaps,” Nisbet suggests, “only under the camouflage of the rhetoric of freedom is the actual power of the state increased more easily than under the camouflage of the rhetoric of community.”

    Nisbet, who like Lukacs is a great reader (and quoter) of Tocqueville, thinks the United States today may be in the intermediary period described by the Frenchman when he wrote:

    But between these two extremes of the history of nations [earlier described as “the complete equality of the whole community and the absolute separation of ranks”] is . . . a period of glory as well as ferment, when the conditions of men are not sufficiently settled for the mind to be lulled in torpor, when they are sufficiently unequal for men to exercise vast power on the minds of one another, and when some few may modify the convictions of all. It is at such times that the great reformers arise and new ideas change the face of the world. Though he believes that “the time would appear to be congenial to a revolution in ideas as was the eighteenth century in America,” Nisbet makes it plain that no such ideas have been adumbrated by the Reagan Revolution, nor can they be expected to arise from the Republican Party and movement conservatism as they are presently constituted. Also like Lukacs, Robert Nisbet is thoroughly disenchanted by Reaganism (if he was ever under its spell), and he is not timid in expressing his disenchantment. He seems to view the Reagan Administration as representing the forces of decadence, rather than of renewal, in American society. He intimates that there is a pseudo-imperial pomp to the Hollywood White House, with its moralistic foreign-policy feints, reckless encouragement of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, atmosphere of extreme liquidity, in which unprincipled individuals hang loose upon the government, cutting themselves good deals as they go along to get along, and elevation of image over substance, PR over truth and sincerity. All these, Nisbet suggest, are recognizable symptoms of the anomie and anarchy of the present age, in which the Cash Nexus and the Power State are the greatest goods.”

  2. Scott Lahti October 25, 2006 / 3:42 pm

    Good old Chilton Williamson, author of that old review of Nisbet from NR. A fine writer and literary editor in his own right (he edited my own efforts for NR and Chronicles).

    It’s telling, is it not, the release date of the Liberty Fund reissue of THE PRESENT AGE: March 2003…

    Here’s a question for fellow Nisbetians (pr. “Nizz-BEE-shins”). My father seemed to enjoy the copy of the Harvard paperback edition of Nisbet’s PREJUDICES: A PHILOSOPHICAL DICTIONARY I gave him last Christmas, and has most recently tackled the classic NEW YORKER writer Joseph Mitchell’s omnibus UP IN THE OLD HOTEL (Father’s Day), and the early chapters of Mencken’s one-volume DAYS trilogy (birthday), en route to announcing categorically his refusal to renew THE WEEKLY STANDARD for another year.

    Now I’m thinking of introducing him to John Lukacs. Though the 718 pages of Mitchell went down like a good ale, Pop had to give up on Lukacs’ admirer Jacques Barzun’s majestic doorstopper FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE after about 50 pages as too heavy a lift. Any tips on the best Lukacs lead-in? I’m thinking CONFESSIONS OF AN ORIGINAL SINNER, but welcome alternatives.

  3. Michael J. Keegan October 31, 2006 / 7:12 am

    Regarding an intro to Professor Lukacs, I think your inclination is right on.

    Some 15 years ago, my good friend, Scott Richert, the executive editor of Chronicles introduced me to Lukacs via Confessions and it was a terrific primer and an engaging read. I’ve reread multiple times thereafter, and have chided Scott to take on Lukacs as a subject. Richert is by far the best expositor of Lukacs out there today.

    I would also suggest the compliation published by ISI, Remember Past. It is hugh, but well worth the cost – chock full of Lukacs.

    A worthwhile, but little known book by Lukacs is Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines; he profiles one of the best American essayist: Agnes Repplier – she’s excellent!

    His Destinations Past is a terrific intro complement to Confessions. It was published by Missouri and really illustrates Lukacs’s ability to muse at the most basic level.

    I still believe that his Historical Consciousness is by far his best work, though abit detailed and more formally philosophical than many of his other more popular works.

    Yet, I think the best bet for an intro is Confessions.

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