Not long after Stephen Bannon’s much talked about call to dismantle the administrative state at CPAC, the Trump Administration issued a blueprint budget that would significantly reduce the size and scope of the federal government if enacted. Although the continuing resolution passed at the end of April largely maintained the status quo, it is conceivable that President Trump could, alongside a Republican Congress, oversee a reduction in the size of the federal government beginning with upcoming FY2018 budget.
The withdrawal of the federal government from the public square has long been popular among conservative intellectuals, is a constant refrain along the dial of conservative talk radio, and has regularly been a rallying cry of Republican leadership in Washington. If realized, these efforts would, in theory, limit the state from encroaching on the creative activities of private associations and liberate local communities to respond to problems as they arise, without the intrusive hand of the federal government dictating how to do so. But, in fact, there is reason to believe that the dismantling of the federal government’s role in the daily lives of Americans could put into place the very conditions that would in turn give rise to a far more oppressive and expansive government. Should the political dreams of conservatives become a reality, their nightmares might follow closely behind.
In short, the withdrawal of government power from the public square risks leaving a void that will elicit the resurgence of the state rather than its retreat. Ironically, the likelihood of this occurring is directly proportional to the degree that conservative concerns about the reach and penetration of the federal government into civil society are correct.
Revisiting the thought of the sociologist Robert Nisbet will help to explain why this is so.
One of the defining features of conservative thought is the way in which it conceptualizes how power should be distributed in a society, and the related conviction that it ought to be decentralized to lower level organizations as much as possible. Doing so will contribute to an institutional pluralism that will help to counteract the threat of political monism. As important as this objective is are the related and deleterious effects that centralized political power has on social cohesion and the creation of personal identity.
In his book Community and Power, Nisbet argued that one of the fundamental crises in the contemporary West is the loss of community. Central to his thesis is the assertion that a sense of community and belonging is a central human need—man is a social animal after all. Traditionally, a wide range of intermediate institutions, including churches, schools, unions, ethnic organizations, and other voluntary associations provided the basic framework through which individuals situated themselves in the world. Each institution would, in its own way, provide a common purpose to those who were numbered among its members, help to define roles and responsibilities, and create diverse structures of authority that under the best circumstances would vie for affection and loyalty of their participants.
Beginning as early as the 18th century, pieces were being put into place that would contribute to the erosion of these types of associations. The reasons behind this are varied, but a few factors are worth pointing to briefly. The first relates to the role of philosophy in the formation of contemporary political institutions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau emerges as the primary villain in Nisbet’s narrative, given the extent to which his political philosophy emphasized the role of the state in liberating the individual from oppressive and antiquated local associations. As his thought was popularized, it helped lay the political, philosophical framework for a strong central state that would provide the true path to human liberation. Nisbet went so far as to argue that it was the political logic of Rousseau, primarily expressed through his idea of the General Will, that underlay the emergence of the total state in the twentieth century. The specter of Rousseau still lingers in the thinking of those who like to centralize.
The emergence of liberal humanitarianism has provided a second underpinning for this erosion. Influential reformers have emphasized the important role that the state can play in the provision of welfare and other social services. The progressive movement, the New Deal, and the Great Society are all instances in which the state has become more intimately involved in the economic and cultural spheres of American life. Some of these interventions were admittedly beneficial for those affected by them. Regardless, using the power of the state to reconfigure and establish new social structures to provide services and support to individuals helped loosen the bonds that had previously tied these same people to independent associations. This is precisely because these types of associations had formerly been responsible for providing the functions and support that the state had subsequently usurped in its expansion.
Finally, and perhaps most important as an immediate cause, is the role that war has played in the centralization of power in the state and the declining influence of intermediate associations. War is perhaps the most efficient mechanism to centralize power. It provides a powerful tool to create meaning and purpose in the lives of a nation’s citizenry. Given the state of crisis that wars have generally elicited, political leaders are in a key position to help define the contours and definition of the purpose of war.
This capacity becomes particularly potent insofar as political leadership can tie the purpose of war to the spread of a people’s ideals (e.g., making the world safe for democracy). Presidents and other higher ranking political leaders tend to gain a degree of importance not otherwise present during periods of national crisis; the leeway that is often given to them during these periods would not necessarily be given during times of relative peace and stability. It is not always the case that the policy changes made during a time of war recede following its end.
Needless to say, the primary beneficiary of the decline of intermediate associations is the state, which has subsequently expanded in importance to the daily lives of the average individual. One of the central consequences of this expansion is, per Nisbet, the tendency of the state to usurp associations of their
distinctive functions through increasing nationalization of service and welfare, divest them of the authorities over their members through increasing centralization of political power in society … these associations, like the extended family, the church, and the local community, must shrink immeasurably in their potential contributions to culture.
The decline of intermediate associations as a primary force in the lives of individuals, and the absorption of their functions by the state, has resulted in “an increasing directness of relation between the sovereign authority of the state and the individual citizen.” Individual persons become more rootless and atomized, separated as they are from the meaning giving associations that would have in times past provided sustenance and meaning to their lives.
There is a kind of vicious cycle involved in this process. As the salience of lower level associations in the daily lives of individuals becomes further diminished, they start to wither further still. What is the point of belonging to an association or organization that does not have a clear function that directly informs and contributes to the lives of those who count as its members? With the declining relevance of these associations, state bureaucracies and the political leadership that guide them become more important, as they further co-opt the functions and responsibilities of these other organizations.
This dynamic provides an important insight into understanding the state of contemporary American politics. The expansion of the modern state and the nationalist impulse that accompanies it requires the weakening of bonds to local associations and the creation of an emotional loyalty to and identification with the political state. Contrary to what is assumed in many contemporary political debates, it is not the individual and her rights that are primarily in tension with the state, but the intermediate associations that function as a competing source of loyalty. In fact, there has likely never been a time in history during which the individual is so exalted as the central variable in social and political life. But the exaltation of the individual, which comes largely at the expense of intermediate associations, comes with a catch.
The ability to fill the various needs that are present due to being a human—whether they be material, physical, psychological, or spiritual—do not depart with the decline of these associations; they must be fulfilled elsewhere. In practice, this “elsewhere” is increasingly the state. As the functional utility of local associations diminishes and the state increasingly takes on the responsibility of providing for the varied needs of its citizenry, the state itself becomes further institutionalized in the daily lives of most Americans. As intermediate associations are progressively weakened and relegated to the shadow of an ever-expanding state, what is left for the individual person to fall back on but the state? It is here that the conservative dilemma is laid bare.
Conservatives would, for the most part, prefer to limit the directness of this relationship. The appropriations process is a mechanism through which the expansion of government can be checked, and perhaps even countered. Limiting the ability of executive branch agencies from implementing regulations would be another.
Nevertheless, to withdraw the resources provided to large swathes of the American public would likely elicit a sharp reaction from those dependent on them. Political leaders invested in their positions of power understand this reality and, to protect their position, often temper their efforts in response. The bureaucracies that attend to the various needs of a people are well established; the rules and regulations that initially put them into place have become institutionalized.
It would perhaps be another matter if there were clearly defined and well established alternatives that could take the federal government’s place. That would at least give something for people to rally around. But too often, among the leadership who are in a position to make something happen, it often seems assumed that removing the state from its central role in life is enough: slash regulations, eliminate entire departments, and reduce the size of government. In their absence institutions will emerge to fill the void that is left due to its withdrawal. Market demands will elicit—almost by necessity—such a response.
Perhaps this will prove true, however sporadic and unequal across geographic areas, in the long term. Nevertheless, viable social structures that can fulfill the existential, material, and psychological needs of a people do not sprout up overnight like Jack’s beanstalk. They need space to develop. They take time to mature. But it should not be assumed that time is on the side of conservative thought and of those who espouse it. To withdraw the state too abruptly, without clear plans with how to replace it, will leave millions on their own to deal with the cultural and economic anxieties that plague their lives. It will exacerbate personal and communal insecurities and directly test the ability of intermediate associations to respond effectively to these needs.
Should the direst predictions of conservatives prove true, it is unlikely that this network of associations will prove capable of responding effectively to these new realities. Under such circumstances, should there be too tenuous a connection to the lives of the average American, the network of mediating institutions would not likely matter much at all. Should it be any surprise that, under such conditions, countless numbers would plead for the state to reassert itself?
It would be a shame if, in the rush to deconstruct the state, conservatives and others keen on doing so unintentionally put into place conditions that result in its retrenchment. They should also be wary to whom they hitch their wagons. Efforts to degrade the system, cloaked in the guise of conservatism, could be used as a Trojan Horse by someone of a more authoritarian bent, who might use it as a mechanism to lay the groundwork to fill the void that they helped to create.
Charting a path out of this predicament will prove difficult, as it is not enough to enact another piece of legislation or tinker with administrative policy. The problems that we face are more fundamental and systemic. Failing to try, however, will almost assuredly leave the current logic of the system in place: the ongoing centralization of power in Washington, the further dissolution of what remains of the network of intermediate associations, and the increasing dependence of individual persons on an impersonal authority that makes edicts far from the local communities within which they reside.
Todd Scribner is an independent researcher in the Washington, DC area. His most recent book is A Partisan Church: American Catholicism and the Rise of Neoconservative Catholics.