This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
With a Democratic administration now in the White House, we are likely to see the growth of the federal administrative state. It is therefore worth considering what effect this anticipated growth might have on our sense of community, especially our churches, families, neighborhoods, and other local and civic associations.
The crisis of community is particularly acute within the white working class, with the disintegration of family, vanishing economic and educational opportunities, limited social support systems, and a general absence of solidarity. What role can the federal government play in fixing these things — and in restoring our sense of community generally? Will the likely growth of the administrative state aid or ail local and civic associations?
One thinker who can help us answer these questions is the late sociologist Robert Nisbet. In his influential book, “The Quest for Community,” Nisbet argued that the growing concentration of power in the state dislocated other centers of function and authority, with the ties between the individual and local associations being severed by the mandates of the state bureaucracy. Individuals consequently experienced alienation from their local communities — and even from themselves — and turned to the state for moral, cultural, and political guidance. By supplanting these communities, the state was able to reorganize society in its own image of individualism, secularism, and progress.
For Nisbet, this growth often accelerates in times of war, when power tends to be centralized under the state. By creating a vast bureaucracy to oversee its war objective, the state penetrates into nearly every aspect of society and removes any local associations that stand in its way. The result is a homogenous citizenry equal in role, status, and function that can be directed by the state to achieve its ends. Loyalty to the nation state comes to replace local attachments, creating a new sense of community among the citizens.
It is not only in times of war that such federal expansion takes place. According to Nisbet, the growth of the federal administrative state in American history started under Woodrow Wilson and culminated in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Nisbet believed that intellectuals were critical to fueling this growth. Because of their credentials and media fluency, intellectuals were well-positioned to present the case for the state’s “political omni-competence” in promoting “progress” to the public—whether it came to “making the world safe for democracy” or waging a war on poverty.
This push toward federalization has come from both sides of the political spectrum. For instance, the George W. Bush administration precipitated a dramatic federalization of public policy, supporting the nationalization of education and overseeing the expansion of Medicare. For neoconservatives, the attacks of September 11 justified curtailing civil liberties, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq. These policies not only alienated the political left but also estranged the communitarian right, who had hoped for a bipartisan movement of national unity and local renewal.
Underpinning the beliefs of both the left and right clerisy is a notion of American exceptionalism and progress: The United States has a unique role to play in the protection and spread of freedom throughout the world. This belief was shared by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and now by the Biden administration, with its slogan “America is back.” This ideology of exceptionalism and progress — the idea that the rest of the world eventually would become part of the liberal, democratic, and capitalist order — started with the end of the Cold War and was best encapsulated in Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man.” Although there has been disagreement among elites about how much the United States should promote democracy around the world, the underlying belief has remained surprisingly consistent, at least up until the Trump administration. It will be interesting to see in the next coming years how much the Biden administration’s foreign policy will revert back to this ideology of exceptionalism and progress or how much it will concede to the realities of geopolitics.
This ideology of progress and exceptionalism illustrates what political philosopher Eric Voegelin called a “second reality” — a term he borrowed from Robert Musil’s 1943 novel “A Man Without Qualities.” Voegelin used it to describe the pathology of ideologues who use imaginary causes and effects to explain reality by claiming to know the nature, direction, and end of history. Voegelin believed such claims were fundamentally mistaken because the future of history is unknowable. Those who made them were nothing more than ideologues lost in a “second reality” of their own creation.
If ideologues were left to themselves, they would be merely eccentrics. The problem for Voegelin was that they often appeared as intellectuals and therefore could impose their ideas on the modern citizen — a citizen who had been homogenized by the state (“the man without qualities”) and was thus susceptible to these “second realities.” In our own social media age, we have witnessed the proliferation of such “second realities” throughout society.
One way forward could be to sever the ideological tie between exceptionalism and progress, with the state acting to facilitate rather than replace local associations and civic institutions. In spite of all its past and present faults, the United States is exceptional, especially given its practice of liberty, rule of law, representative government, free-market economy, and the peaceful coexistence of different groups of people in a continental-sized country. But when married with the idea of progress, this ideology of exceptionalism too often promotes the centralization of state power under the aegis of “progress.” Rather than facilitating and supporting local and civic associations, the state subsumes them and thereby deprives citizens of the capacity to participate actively in the art of self-governance.
In a country as large and diverse as ours, deference to local knowledge and institutions does not only promote an active citizenry. It is also effective and efficient in the execution of policy, since few problems have a single, ready-made, theoretical solution. This is not to deny that the national government has a pivotal role to play in the lives of the citizenry. But caution and circumspection should guide federal policies, which should aim to support rather than supplant local communities. Let’s hope that the Biden administration recognizes this reality as it embarks on its program of “renewal” for America.
Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University and editor of VoegelinView and Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film.