After the disastrous and painful end to the War in Afghanistan, one may dare to hope that what have come to be known as the “forever wars” are over. Robert Nisbet’s 1988 The Present Age would offer an unwelcome, but probably necessary, bucket of cold water. In this short “how-did-we-get-here” survey republished by Liberty Fund in 2003, Nisbet shows how war is not just a problem that has cropped up from time to time over the last century. Rather, in one form or another, it has come to define American political and social life.
Here one finds the major themes of Nisbet’s career: the breakdown of authority and of small-scale community, the imposition of centralized power, the appeal of political monism, the attempt to develop “national community,” the rise of the detached, “loose” individual. All are applied to the experience of twentieth-century America. It makes for a grim diagnosis with no obvious prescription for recovery.
Built for War
If you were to ask conservatives where American politics went wrong, you might expect any number of answers: Barack Obama? The cultural revolution of the 1960s? The Warren Court? The New Deal? The Civil War? Nisbet offers an answer that probably does not come immediately to mind: World War I. The Great War hardly registers a blip on the historical consciousness of most Americans. But Nisbet makes the case that it was a defining turning point. It was the first time that the federal government recognized just how completely it could mobilize society to achieve an external objective.
Armed with unprecedented war powers to command social and economic life, Woodrow Wilson declared that “It is not an army we must shape and train for war, it is a nation.” With the War Industries Board, the War Labor Policies Board, the Food Administration, and a host of other bureaucratic agencies, Wilson took command of American economic life. Industries were nationalized, prices fixed, production mandated or forbidden.
Ominously, it was not just the economic and productive life of the country that needed to come under government control: “the popular mind needed also to be mobilized, to be fixed, willingly or unwillingly, on the goal of military victory.” And so nationalistic propaganda designed and disseminated by a Committee on Public Information infused every crevice of daily life—movie theaters, schools, neighborhood watches, stores, and churches. Just as important was what could not be said, a matter regulated by speech codes eventually upheld by the Supreme Court. Half of Americans had opposed the country’s entrance into the war, and the nation simply could not get what it needed out of its subjects with such resistance.
The victims of this “total, or totalitarian, state” included the Constitution—“too obviously a charter for peace, not war”—and the manners of a “laissez-faire and entrepreneurial America” that managed its own affairs to such a high degree that nineteenth-century observers had been able to “find no true sovereignty in America.”
Though the more Orwellian elements of World War I’s total war machine shut down in the “return to normalcy,” it had demonstrated new possibilities that would never be forgotten. “It was all a great lesson,” Nisbet observes. “Crisis, whether actual war or something else, is a valuable means of acceleration of political power.”
The next crisis was economic rather than military, but the same lessons applied. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to mobilize all of society in the same way. “With altered names, many of the same production, labor, banking, and agricultural boards of World War I were simply dusted off, as it were, and with new polish set once again before the American people.” The martial imagery of so many New Deal agencies—the Civilian Conservation Corps and National Recovery Administration are the most obvious—captures the sense that America was once again at war with an evil foe that could be defeated only with expert planning, social and economic mobilization, and obedience to orders.
Nisbet is clear that actual wars and militarization tend to have the most drastic and transformative effect, but their spirit also infects all other endeavors related to power. President Eisenhower captured the sentiment in identifying “a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution of all current difficulties.” The martial spirit leads us to embrace the idea of the nation as an army meant to meet challenges and attain specified, communal ends, rather than a home in which we live justly with one another, work, worship, and raise our families.
One hardly needs a reminder of the “wars” America has been fighting since the New Deal. There is no shortage of hot wars, from World War II to Afghanistan. There is the Cold War (and many now seem excited at the prospect of another one). And there is the endless stream of New-Deal-style political wars, from the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs to that new forever war that began with “two weeks to flatten the curve” but continues to demand that every worker, clergyman, and schoolchild do his part. Indeed, it wouldn’t be going too far to say that politics today is just a continual “moral equivalent of war,” in which commanders are appointed, soldiers mobilized, and the nation unified to defeat whatever or whomever the enemy happens to be today.
Both militarization and militarized politics are made worse by moralism. “What America touches, she makes holy” is the maxim Nisbet uses to capture Wilson’s belief in America as Redeemer Nation, the glory of which was proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The domestic corollary is the creation of a “national community.” This idea was also nurtured by Wilson and others in the Progressive era, but it was brought into full bloom by Roosevelt. Perhaps the most persistent theme of Nisbet’s career is that people will seek community wherever it can be found. And as centralized power dissolved the old, localized, and humane sources of community, it offered a new form, described by William Schambra as “a powerful central government in the service of the national idea, a president articulating that idea and drawing Americans together as neighbors, or as soldiers facing a common enemy.”
Speaking endlessly about “community” and “family,” Roosevelt, in his own words, sought to extend “to our national life the old principle of the local community.” Of course, what Roosevelt left out was the fact that this new community could never serve as a salutary check on the state, as the old forms had, because it was merely the handmaiden of power.
Experts, Politicians, and the People
One of the most important, and disquieting, elements of Nisbet’s analysis for our own day is his assessment of who is to blame. Today, when confronted with a distant tutelary power that penetrates into our lives in the name of a war on whatever, it is all too easy to blame some small group of nefarious actors: the “liberal elites,” the “deep state,” or our “ruling class.” Whoever they are, “they” are definitely out to get you.
These narratives are usually couched in apocalyptic rhetoric, but they would actually be preferable. After all, there’s usually a simple solution to defeating “them”: win the next election (each one the last hope of western civilization, of course) and put power in the hands of better people.
Nisbet recognized that the problem went deeper than who holds the reins of power at any given time. The problem is that the people actually want this. Though he described the America of his day as “absolutist,” he nevertheless made the provocative claim that “ours is still what Lincoln called it, government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But it is still absolutist.”
It’s not that Nisbet overlooked the rise of the expert class and the bureaucratization of political life. In Twilight of Authority, he remarked that the Cold War solidified “the marriage between intellectuals and national government,” and he traces that union through the decades in The Present Age as well. (He also makes a useful distinction between genuine experts and intellectuals whose claim to expertise is entirely self-declared.) But rule-by-expert is more a symptom than a disease.
Americans, he observed “seemed to become fond of the War State” during the Great War, and the many expansions of the federal bureaucracy were popular acts of Congress, not the product of some revolutionary minority faction. Indeed, following Tocqueville, he argues that the “bureaucratization of society” is not anti-democratic at all. It is the natural endpoint of a regime dedicated to an ideal of equality. As the “bearer of goodies,” bureaucracy it is popular. That is why no ideological faction—socialists, liberals, or conservatives—has any problem with it, so long as they are the ones putting it into motion.
If one becomes too focused on the problem of empowered but unelected bureaucrats, then, it is easy to believe that populist politicians will solve the problem. Nisbet would be skeptical. In fact, despite his scathing critique of the administrative state, he does give it credit for operating “as a brake on the muddleheaded, brash, and sometimes cretinous ideas of government, of war and peace, brought to Washington by each new administration.”
This explains Nisbet’s blistering criticism of conservatives, especially political evangelicals and President Reagan. Inheritors of a tradition that saw the plurality of social order as a check on centralizing tendencies, they use the talking points when it’s politically convenient but remain fully committed to using and expanding the power of the state once it is in their hands.
Nisbet recognized as well as anyone that the centralization of political power was not just one contemporary problem among others. It is a phenomenon that has trickle-down effects throughout society. Family life, education, the business world, the pulpit, and culture—all show the effects of our centralized state, which serves as a “distant magnet” that pulls individuals away from these sources of social order, leaving them “loose,” borrowing a term from Samuel Johnson. Readers of Nisbet’s more famous books will find this concept familiar.
These social institutions, then, instinctively adapt to the incentives of the time, remaking themselves to gratify the new expectations—both ethical and hedonistic—of “loose” individuals. The result is a highly politicized society that deconstructs (physically and intellectually) what meaningful social order still exists.
This, Nisbet argued, was the egalitarian society. And egalitarianism, “the most powerful of ideologies in postwar America,” could best be understood by the philosopher Nisbet loathed more than any other: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In The Social Philosophers, Nisbet had highlighted an idea from Rousseau’s Social Contract: “it is only by the force of the state that the liberty of its members can be secured.” This sentence, he argued, was the most important in Rousseau’s works, for it captured the relationship between a certain misguided conception of liberty and the power of a centralized state. Though Rousseau embraced the most absolutist of political models, he could reasonably do so in the name of individualism, for only the all-powerful state could cut through the arbitrary limitations placed on individual autonomy by family, church, custom, and manners. In place of these, man would be bound only by the rule that he himself has made by participating equally in the state.
It is this dynamic—its blending of absolutism with the concept of liberty—that makes Rousseau’s thought so uniquely dangerous, Nisbet argued. This potent cocktail has intoxicated the modern mind, making it unsure of its own condition: “What has connoted bondage to the minds of most men is exalted as freedom.”
In The Present Age, we see the effects of a liquor similar to Rousseau’s, one that makes us look to the centralized state as the only recourse for the establishment of genuine freedom. Rousseau, Nisbet observes, was the thinker who really recognized what true egalitarianism required. “For unlike Rawls and Christopher Jencks and others who seek to make equality simply and effortlessly accomplished, Rousseau deals frankly and fully with the role of political power in the achieving of greater equality in society.”
Rousseau knew that the attainment of a society of truly free (by his understanding) individuals would require the use of total power—power that could reach and remake any area of social life that threatened “freedom.” With this purifying fire, one could also create a new form of community, comprehensive and conformable to the demands of the autonomous individual who finds ultimate meaning by participating in and giving oneself over to the whole.
And even for those who would recoil at Rousseau’s ideas in the abstract, the centralized state, dwarfing all sources of social authority and speaking (with a forked tongue) to the human desires for freedom and community, stands as an almost irresistible tool for the attainment of political and spiritual ends.
The Present Age—Still
The dynamics Nisbet describes certainly seem to have continued unabated in the thirty-odd years since the book’s publication. Universities are governed by a “Dear Colleague” letter from Washington. Politicians publicly worry that parents might intrude on the state-run education of the nation’s children. An endless stream of “medical experts” with bullhorns instruct us in just the right way individuals, businesses, schools, and churches must operate in order to adapt our daily lives to achieve a great communal purpose. For many, religion has continued to be a mere proxy for politics. And the only alternative seems to be a swarm of populist politicians with no real plan other than to inflame and take advantage of public frustrations.
The Present Age is not the most important of Nisbet’s books. The conceptual themes are developed more fully elsewhere, and there have certainly been plenty of developments since 1988 to take into consideration when assessing America’s historical trajectory. Moreover, it does not provide much guidance on how to turn back or move beyond this “revolution in ideas,” except for the vague suggestion in the Foreword and the Epilogue that our old constitution, distorted and forgotten but still in existence, might play a role.
But the book does serve as a model for applying a conceptual understanding of political life to the reality of events. And it is a provocative and scathing reassessment of midcentury America for those tracing out the transformation of America.
Most importantly, it reminds us to look twice at anyone—progressive or conservative—who seems to be promoting freedom or community, but is really only interested in grasping the very power that destroys both.