Classic Revisited: Nisbet, “Twilight of Authority”

Recent events have me thinking about the American sociologist Robert Nisbet’s old classic, Twilight of Authority (1975).  Published in some sense in response to the Watergate disaster, the book’s thesis was that the distinction between the cultural or social and the political is vanishing, as the historical mediating institutions of authority —  family, religion, and community, among others — all of which are hierarchical in nature, are being replaced by allegiance to the state, which in turn absorbs the functions previously performed by other private institutions.  The thesis is not particularly unique, and certainly did not originate with Nisbet.  But Nisbet gives it unique and elegant expression in this volume.

And here is an old essay of Nisbet’s, from the excellent but sadly now defunct journal, The Public Interest, entitled, Public Opinion vs. Popular Opinion.  A bit from the essay, to give you a taste of Nisbet’s style:

A true public, as A. Lawrence Lowell stressed in his classic work on public opinion more than a half-century ago, is at bottom a community: built, like all forms of community, around certain ends held in common and also around acceptance of the means proper to achievement of these ends. Not the people in their numerical total, not a majority, nor any minority as such represents public opinion if the individuals involved do not form some kind of community, by virtue of possessing common ends, purposes, and rules of procedure. Public opinion is given its character by genuine consensus, by unifying tradition, and by what Edmund Burke called “constitutional spirit.”

Popular opinion is by contrast shallow of root, a creature of the mere aggregate or crowd, rooted in fashion or fad and subject to caprice and whim, easily if tenuously formed around a single issue or personage, and lacking the kind of cement that time, tradition, and convention alone can provide. Popular opinion is an emanation of what is scarcely more than the crowd or mass, of a sandheap given quick and passing shape by whatever winds may be blowing through the marketplace at any given time. It would be incorrect to say that popular and public opinion are totally unconnected.  What proves to be public opinion in a community is commonly generated by popular opinion, whether in majority or minority form; but it is only through a process of adaptation or assimilation-by the habits, values, conventions, and codes which form the fabric of the political community-that popular opinion ever becomes what we are entitled to call public opinion, the opinion that is in fact more than opinion, that is at bottom a very reflection of national character.

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