The Present Age
Harper & Row, 146 pages (hardback, 1988)
Robert Nisbet was for many years a Sociologist and professor at Columbia University and spent his later years as a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. This work, subtitled “Progress and Anarchy in Modern America” had its genesis as a series of lectures given in Washington, D.C. at the invitation of then President Ronald Reagan. It covers three general points which Nisbet felt were particularly at the forefront of America as it came to the end of the 20th Century. These were, 1) The prevelance of War since 1917, 2) The rise of a clerisy in political circles, largely symbolized by the rise of the importance of politics in every area of life, which had arms in both the Left and the Right, and 3) the disappearance of any kind of social cohesion, whether in the old institutions of State, Community, and the Church or in a common sense of a unifying ideological principle binding Americans together.
I’ll flesh out each of these points while giving a review of the work as a whole.
This work is easily accessible and shows none of the more technical sociological language which is common in Nisbet’s other works. In this sense the book is of a popular kind and eschews footnotes or other kinds of scaffolding usually present in a more academic or scholarly work. That being said his argumentation and prose is first rate and is a real joy to read. I read this book (my copy was 136 pages of text) in a couple of sittings over one day. Each chapter stands on its own (as one would expect of something cobbled together from lectures) and the reader would more than benefit from several readings to master the wealth of argumentation Nisbet presents, quite ably.
The first chapter walks the reader through the many conflicts the U.S. military has been involved with since the declaration of war proffered by the congress against the Triple Alliance in 1917. It deliberates on the appropriateness of each conflict, explaining that none of them other than the Second World War meet the founders expectation of the use of military force. If one is well-read in the current anti-interventionist literature nothing Nisbet writes here will be surprising or new. It is worth reminding such persons that not only was the author writing this in 1988, but he did so in the presence of Ronald Reagan, whom Nisbet takes to task for the adventures in Grenada, Lebanon, etc. There is much in this chapter which presages and predicts, with an almost scary accuracy, what would become the basic American foreign policy both pre- and post-9/11. It is this reviewer’s opinion that of the three chapters this is the one most in need of going over again by many sword shakers in the current political climate. With that noted let us go to the next sections of the book.
The middle chapter begins with the following sentence:
“Any returned framers of the Constitution would be quite shocked by the extent and depth of the power of the national state in American lives today as they would be by war and the gargantuan military.”
Nisbet will spend a good deal of space marking out exactly how each of the aforementioned realities (intrusive national state and large armed forces) have developed such a symbiotic relationship that they cannot be successfully brought apart. The author uses the growth in size, both in physical size and influence, of the city of Washington itself as a perfect example of the negative way that the rise in the importance of the Federal is not in keeping with the kind of government the men who wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights had in mind. He then goes to seemingly disassociated groups, religious (typified by the Moral Majority) and civil (organized Labor) to further elucidate his argument, with much firepower. While some may find this part a bit dated one could easily put in whatever the current Right and Left icons you would like and the comparison would still be perfect. Just as the first chapter was prescient this second one may even be more on the mark.
Lastly and in conclusion, the final chapter and epilogue look forward to what the effects of the prior sections will have on the future of the American experiment. The central point that Nisbet makes throughout the book, but especially here is that as the Federal state expands uncontrollably the non-political parts of life in the States will implode. Whether they be religious, non-religious, or educational. As we see the family and other bedrock institutions collapse around us what Nisbet writes could not be more correct.
Especially for those looking for a less sensational work examining the current state of the State.