Chapter 11: The Contexts of Democracy


 It’s been a slow process of learning and sharing Robert Nisbet’s classic work: “The Quest for Community.”   It has been much harder of a task than I would have thought going in, but it’s been worth it. I hope you have enjoyed it, and have heard good feedback from several readers who care about the future of community in the USA.  

Community health is one of the most important and under-discussed aspects of health in the US.  That’s why I have taken on the project of summarizing and commenting one of the best books on community ever written.  

You can scroll through my blog for the other chapters to catch up, as I’m going chapter by chapter.  If you like what I’m doing here on the blog, pass it along or invite me to speak.  I do conferences and seminars on a variety of health topics – fitness, nutrition, and wellness.  

​Read on and enjoy.  At the end of this series I’m going to put together a downloadable summary of the book.

On a related note, I wanted to share an article about ideology that I thought you’d enjoy.  The anti-communitarians seem to be opposed to debate, consumed by hatred, and even unwilling to debate, all characteristics of ideologues.  This article describes in detail how Ideology works, and why it is so dangerous.  In this regard, the anti-communitarian impulses we see at work are a type of ideology, dealing in abstractions, and absolutes.  

“Ideologists Amok” by David Guaspari

From the article:

“The essence of ideology is to offer a particular kind of revelation—that all evils are caused by an oppressive system, a structure of domination, and that the business of life is liberation from it.”

Now on to Chapter 11…..
Chapter 11 The Contexts of Democracy
In Chapter 11, Nisbet lays out a working definition of a democracy, and agrees with Abraham Lincoln that it is best defined as “government of, by and for the people.”   Where there is a dilemma is not in reference to democracy itself defined, what it is and what it means, but in rather the conflict or confusion comes in precisely defining “the people.”  

1) On the one hand, the “people” are the purely atomistic political aggregate of individuals, outside of any associations other than the State.  
2) On the other hand:
“Alternatively, we may regard the people as indistinguishable from a culture, its members as inseparable from the families, unions, churches, professions, and traditions that actually compose a culture.” – Robert Nisbet
It’s easy to see why America has been so volatile and fractured in recent decades.  We are much more strongly in the number #1 camp than in the #2, obsessed with Washington, New York, or Hollywood.  Our democracy and our “people” are a people more atomized, less associated, and more isolated than ever, despite the ubiquity of technology, and rely more and more on the singular relationship with the State and its propaganda arms (Washington, NYC, Hollywood) to be able to function.  
The Goal of Democracy
According to Nisbet, the goal of democracy is clear:
“The major objective of political democracy becomes that of making harmonious and effective the varied group allegiances which exist in society, not sterilizing them in the interest of a monistic political community.”
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
I was taking an online course on Classical Philosophy last year (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) and one of the key points that stuck out came from Plato’s teaching.  According to Plato, there were 3 good, and 3 bad forms of government:
– Good Forms of Govt.- Polity (People with common culture rule in their own interest), Aristocracy (Virtuous elites rule in the community’s favor for the common good), Monarchy (A King or Queen rule virtuously on behalf of the people and the common good)
– Bad Forms of Govt.- Democracy (Mob rule), Oligarchy (Elites rule in their own self-interest), and Autocracy (Single ruler rules in his own favor).
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine we live somewhere in between a democracy and an oligarchy.  We don’t have a polity because we are too big as a country and can’t agree on much of anything, so every few years we have mob-like election fiascos.  Now we even have riots over who gets to be a judge, because we are not a polity- we don’t even agree on basic anthropology.  
The very tiny few and the powerful- the oligarchy, control the media, the institutions, censorship, even what will be thought and said in the majority of cases, who will be nominated, who will win, who will “succeed” and they make most of the decisions in our society about how things are done from top to bottom, and crucially this is usually done in their own favor, not for the common good.  It’s not black and white, and I know there are honorable people out there trying to do good, but we “the people” live somewhere between a democracy and an oligarchy.  It’s amazing the system functions as well as it does considering the state of affairs, but my sense is that we’re coasting on social capital that’s rapidly diminishing. 
One major proof of this in on the issue of border security and community.  Most Americans want to have some security in regards to borders and in particular citizenship, but the people who run the society want to open the borders because a) this deracinates and weakens the population b) creates a larger and cheaper labor pool c) decreases the likelihood of the formation of political solidarity to oppose the oligarchy.  Border weakening strengthens the power of oligarchy, reduces the idea of citizenship, fractures the possibility of a common good, reduces accountability for the oligarchy, and there are powerful people on both supposed left and right “sides” who agree on this, even though the “people” disagree and think there should be some type of border security and patriotic citizenship.  

A representative democracy is an impossibility without borders and meaningful citizenship, and citizenship consists of both rights AND duties.  
It’s impossible to have community without some conception of who is in, and who is out.  A global world with no borders, is by definition, a world without community.  Even on a local level, there needs to be some commonality, belonging, and cohesion.  Personally I’m not a fan of walls and fences with barbed wire, but on the same hand, there’s no way I can have “community” with the entire world, much less 370 million Americans.  
According to Nisbet, historically the emphasis shifted:

  • From localism to nationalism (and now globalism)
  • From pluralism to monism
  • From decentralization to centralization

This process created “Mass Society” which is characterized by:

  • Social Atomization
  • Political Centralization

One thing about this book that I keep saying to myself time and time again, and I keep writing is that I can’t believe Nisbet wrote it in the 1950s.  This paragraph alone is astonishing in its prophecy:
The principal problems of liberal democracy today arise from what Philip Selznick has so aptly called the “institutional vulnerability” of our society.1 This is a vulnerability reflected in the diminished moral appeal of those primary centers of cultural allegiance within which the larger ends of liberal society take on binding meaning. It is reflected in the relative ease with which totalitarian strategies penetrate the normal cultural enclosures of institutional life. “The decay of parliaments,” G. D. H. Cole has written, “has accompanied the democratization of electorates not because democracy is wrong, but because we have allowed the growth of huge political organizations to be accompanied by the atrophy of smaller ones, on which alone they can be securely built.”2 
While we seek constantly to make democracy more secure in the world by diplomatic agreements and national security legislation, we do not often remind ourselves that the most powerful resources of democracy lie in the cultural allegiances of citizens, and that these allegiances are nourished psychologically in the smaller, internal areas of family, local community, and association. These are the areas that contain the images of the larger society, the areas within which human beings are able to define, and render meaningful, democratic values. When the small areas of association become sterile psychologically, as the result of loss of institutional significance, we find ourselves resorting to ever-increasing dosages of indoctrination from above, an indoctrination that often becomes totalitarian in significance.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
Two things stand out there:

  1. The Institutional vulnerability of our society.
  2. Ever-increasing dosages of indoctrination from above.

You don’t have to think long without remembering institutions which are not defunct but which used to thrive. Here’s a fun but telling example.  America was a bastion of civic involvement up until recent times, and this included the Elk’s Lodge.  I recently went to a related (Non-Elks) meeting at an Elks Lodge and it was like a trip back in time, old photos all over the walls, with men dressed in suits who were former presidents.  There was a time when this kind of thing was a big deal in America.  Not anymore, they’re still around but are a shell of their former selves.  
As far as propaganda, open any mainstream magazine or watch any mainstream show, they’re all the same. The same pseudo-morality, the same buzzwords, the same sacred quasi-religious causes, even the commercials are the same.  The most recent Superbowl was more interesting for the discussion afterwards about all the propaganda than it was for the snooze of a game.  
A False Dichotomy
Nisbet writes that it’s a false dichotomy to think that the individual being antithetical to the State is the primary conflict.  In reality, it’s an individual’s status, his personhood, his belonging and associations, versus the state, because this is how “persons” are in reality whether they know it or admit it or not.  So as the “Person” loses associations, he oses the contexts of individuality, he becomes closer and closer aligned with the State.   
This is because as the State gives it also takes.  
On the State taking as it gives:
The collective political power of the people has increased enormously during the past century. So have available means of political participation by the common man: the referendum, the direct primary, the recall, the continuous abolition of restrictions on voting, and other even more direct means of participation. Yet, along with these increases in popular democracy, it must be observed that there has been a general leveling of local, regional, and associative differences, a nationalization of culture and taste, a collectivization of mind, and a continuous increase in the real powers of government over management, labor, education, religion, and social welfare. Democracy, far from heightening human autonomy and cultural freedom, seems rather to have aided in the process of mechanization that has weakened them. It must be repeated again, however, that this is not the inevitable consequence of the democratic ideal of power vested residually in the people. It is the consequence of the systems of public administration which we have grafted onto the democratic ideal.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
Nisbet attributes a lot of the growth of the state directly to the growth of the military industrial complex.  No one can deny how scary the power of the military has become in regards to surveillance, technology, and the power of modern weapons. As military might has grown, the power of the State has grown synergistically, and the power of the traditional associations have concurrently weakened.  As someone who is a strong supporter of the military and the military traditions in the US, I found this part to be disturbing but painfully accurate.  The military does seem to be one major area by which the State pushes its revolutionary arms into society.  
A great historical example is the military of Russia. Once associated with the King or Czar and his nobles and the feudal system, after the revolution it quicky became an arm of the modern totalitarian state, with torture, surveillance, propaganda, and power. In a time of war, democratic associations and localism suffer while the military and the State grow stronger at the same time.  If you pay attention to modern propaganda, there is always a “fight” for which we need to sign up- new rights, new crusades, new “progress”, new potential catastrophes around every corner. Modern propaganda is always couched in war-like terms, even if its not on a literal battlefield.  
Some have seen the move towards democracy as a good thing, as a result of the natural human urge towards unity, like that of the related fields of philosophy or religion where there has been a similar unifying impulse.  Others see the historical move towards democracy as a historical necessity, which is a big difference from the natural urge for unity.  Those who believe democracy is a historical necessity tend to be fixated on their own ideals of progress, and see history as one linear arc towards heaven on earth. 
The greatest intellectual and moral offense the modern intellectual can be found guilty of is that of seeming to think or act outside what is commonly held to be the linear progress of civilization. It is not the deviation from opinions of others that is censured. Nor is it deviation from established morality, religious or secular. Among modern intellectuals the cardinal sin is that of failing to remain on the locomotive of history, to use Lenin’s expressive phrase. This is the most damnable of all offenses in the modern rational mentality. Ordinary heresies, defections, and moral obliquities may be excused, but not the offense of being willfully outside the presumed course of historical realization. In practical terms, we are dealing with a habit of mind that seizes selectively upon certain aspects of the present age, e. g. political omnicompetence and administrative centralization, and invests these not
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
Nisbet keeps driving home the point that even though modern ways in politics and culture bring desirable things to our lives, the only guarantee of keeping these hard-won developments, which could be summed up as the prevention of tyranny in its various forms, is the plurality of small associations to which we all belong or used to belong.  Two excellent quotes from this chapter stick out:
“The only safeguard against power is rival power.” – Montesquieu
“Liberty depends upon the division of power.” – Lord Acton  
Freedom in the Context of Democracy
I found the writings on freedom and propaganda by Nisbet in this chapter to be some of the most inspiring in the entire work.  Nisbet gives us a positive conception of freedom, characterized by dedication, reverence, and with ends in mind.  He writes that freedom is not release, but rather dedication to one’s highest held values and beliefs, which are formed in associations. In this definition, freedom is something you work towards achieving, with an end in mind.  
“The weakening of these groups reflects not only growing spiritual isolation but increasing State power. To feel alone—does this not breed a desire for association in Leviathan? The individual who has been by one force or another wrenched from social belonging is thrown back upon himself; he becomes the willing prey of those who would manipulate him as the atom citizen in the political and economic realms.”
“The desire for freedom arises only out of men’s reverence for exterior and competing values. Genuine freedom is not based upon the negative psychology of release. Its roots are in positive acts of dedication to ends and values. Freedom presupposes the autonomous existence of values that men wish to be free to follow and live up to. Such values are social in the precise sense that they arise out of, and are nurtured by, the voluntary associations which men form.”
There’s no wonder so many people are hooked on unhealthy things, unsatisfying addictions, and whipped into a frenzy by political and commercial propaganda.  It’s hitting us 24/7 in a myriad of ways.  Unrooted, unmoored, and unassociated, the isolated individual would need to make a heroic effort not to succumb to the pressures of modern society in one form or another, and so cling to various consumer opiates, or propagandized causes.  The average person can’t resist this.  Modern democracy has potential upsides, but it also paves the way for atomized and subhuman existence, by the way it contributes to the centralization of society into one mass of undifferentiated and isolated “people” left to their instincts and urges.  
A New Laissez Fare
Nisbet calls for a new “Laissez Fare”, not necessarily for economics, but for associational life whereby the smaller groups to which people belong will thrive, and in turn then strengthen the liberal democratic way of life.  This should encourage us all to join up, to associate, to be local people, and to resist the urge towards monoculture, towards monothinking, towards unrestrained globalism.
The liberal values of autonomy and freedom of personal choice are indispensable to a genuinely free society, but we shall achieve and maintain these only by vesting them in the conditions in which liberal democracy will thrive—diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.


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