When a conservative thinker of Robert Nisbet’s stature surveys the American scene only to find “a deeply flawed giant; not yet moribund but ill-gaited, shambling, and spastic of limb, often aberrant of mind,” his claims to our attention are several. As a preeminent scholar, sociologist, and historian of ideas, Nisbet has been a mainstay of American intellectual life for decades. From his authoritative works on sociology to his landmark volume of 1980, The History of the Idea of Progress, to his masterfully playful Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (1983), he has continually enriched his chosen disciplines. Yet Nisbet’s importance does not test only on his scholarly accomplishments, varied and distinguished though they are. For he is also a figure rarely seen on the intellectual or academic landscape, a scholar as concerned with illuminating his own time and place as he is with the past itself.
That much is obvious from Nisbet’s many contributions to more immediate debates. Tradition and Revolt, a collection of essays published in 1968, sounds many of the themes that have occupied his shorter works over the years: the search for community against the fragmenting force of modernity; the growth of state power, particularly in the years since World War I; the alienation of individuals in an age when the bonds of family and tradition have loosened; the tensions between tradition and modernity in the American university. The “agony of the universities” has in fact concerned him especially, and in 1971 became the premise for his book, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. More recently, Nisbet has turned his attention to the larger questions of politics, as in his 1985 chronicle, Conservatism: Dream and Reality.
Many of the themes pursued in these various works are now distilled in The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America, a much expanded version of his 1988 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.1 Yet while readers may find themselves on familiar ground with many of this new book’s concerns, they may also find much in it to take them by surprise. As his recent study of conservatism suggests, Nisbet’s dissatisfaction with the American social and political scene has grown increasingly acute. In The Present Age, he appears to have reached the sharpest verdict yet on the fortunes—or more precisely, the misfortunes—of American modernity.
As one would expect from Robert Nisbet, The Present Age is an erudite, engaging, and beautifully argued piece of work. Its subtitle, however, is somewhat misleading; there is little mention of progress in Nisbet’s pages, and what does appear is only incidental to his argument.
To be sure, as he acknowledges, health in the 20th century has improved by leaps and bounds; whole diseases have been swept away; more American families “are living well than at any prior moment in American history.” Invention and discovery have likewise reached unaccustomed heights, propelled there in part by the demands of modern warfare. As elsewhere in Nisbet’s works, however, such material accomplishments cannot compete with his larger interest in the condition of the American spirit. In this realm, he argues, sickliness and corruption abound.
Nisbet opens his case by spiriting the Framers to the present and imagining the United States through their eyes. What, he asks, would surprise them most about the shape of the modern republic? His first chapter suggests that it would be “the prevalence of war” in everyday life since the events of 1914. Two world wars and a rash of smaller conflicts later, the United States remains mired in an era of strife—indeed, “a virtual Seventy-Five Years’ War”—unprecedented in American history.
The price paid for this transition to modernity has been a heavy one, in Nisbet’s view. The costs of foreign and military policy have surpassed $300 billion a year. American troops are “deployed all over the world,” and even where they are not, “a vast array” of weapons has been installed in their place. The “spirit as well as the substance” of the military now extends to most areas of American life. Most alarming is the foreign policy that the American military has been harnessed to serve. For the United States itself has become an imperial power, an “empire,” Nisbet argues, that “would shock the Framers to their bones.”
Nor would they feel relieved, he continues, by the claim that external aggressions had forced the United States into its sorry condition. The cold war and the Soviet aggrandizement that created it may warrant “respectful consideration,” but they “do not explain either the size or the type of military establishment we now have on our hands.” Instead, Nisbet finds the roots of imperial America within American borders.
There is, for one thing, the “military-industrial complex” of Eisenhower’s farewell address. This subject has long occupied Nisbet, who has written elsewhere about the deleterious effects of government and industry on the university. In The Present Age, however, he stands this concern on its head. The symbiosis between the universities and the armaments and defense industries has produced a “complex, possibly deep pattern of culture” in which whole segments of the American elite—businessmen, researchers, scholars, intellectuals—have come to share an interest in the prevalence of war. Thus, “even if there were no Soviet Union or its equivalent,” our own “internal dynamic” of interests would guarantee a martial element out of all proportion to what the Framers envisioned.
A second source of the “monstrous” American military establishment, Nisbet argues, is the age-old American moralism enshrined under Woodrow Wilson as a principle of statesmanship. It was Wilson who bequeathed to foreign policy the dictum that (as his own biographer Lord Devlin put it) “what America touches, she makes holy.” The list of failures that Nisbet ascribes to this grandiose axiom is a long one. It includes the losses at Yalta, with their origins in FDR’s denigration of our “imperial” allies and his reformer’s zeal for Stalin; the defeat in Vietnam brought on by Kennedy’s pledge, subsequently revoked, to “pay any price” and “bear any burden” in defense of American universalism; and the example of South Africa today, where American policy, in the author’s eyes, has succumbed to a near-hysterical fever of misguided conscience.
Nor, it appears, are contemporary liberals the only heirs to Wilson’s apocalyptic moralism. The author finds successors on the Right as well, particularly among conservatives obsessed with “world Communism.” This concern has been with Nisbet for some time.2 Yet, as his two most recent books suggest, the anti-Communism of yesterday is not nearly so alarming to Nisbet as the conservatism of the 1980’s. In Ronald Reagan he finds “the devoutest successor thus far to Wilsonianism as interpreted by Roosevelt,” a President whose foreign policy has embroiled the nation in an ever-mounting number of conflicts. Grenada, Lebanon, Nicaragua, the Persian Gulf—these and other flashpoints are entered in The Present Age as evidence of latter-day American ambitions. Indeed, so serious has the new Wilsonianism become that Nisbet is now led to warn that “no nation in history has ever managed permanent war and a permanent military Leviathan at its heart and been able to main a truly representative character.”
Nisbet’s second chapter, “The New Absolutism,” follows the trail of government intrusion into the more pedestrian corners of life. Just as the military establishment has compromised the self-government upheld by the Framers, so too has the federal government crept, “cradle to grave,” into the lives of ordinary citizens.
Nisbet’s account of the ills wrought by federal power and intervention since World War I is a familiar one. Under “democratic absolutism,” the political power of towns and states has shrunk to unprecedentedly small proportions. National control over the classroom, first justified as a necessity of war, has hardly dissipated; under ever-more sweeping decisions of the Supreme Court, it has in fact increased. The social-welfare bureaucracy, likewise born of war production, now “covers the country like a blanket and does not . . . hesitate to intrude into the most intimate details of our economic and social lives.” Over these and other compromises of constitutional liberty looms the modern Supreme Court, “the single most glittering prize” to be had for social reformers grown impatient with the more cumbersome procedures of the legislature.
To these charges Nisbet adds a more unexpected fillip: the “relentless march of royalism” not only in the federal government at large, but in the executive branch above all. The “dream of a strong, active, robust, commanding President that included more than a touch of plebiscitary democracy,” he charges, has lived on throughout the succession of Presidents beginning with FDR. Even Wilson, Nisbet observes, would not have dared, or perhaps even have wanted, the grand prerogatives claimed by FDR and his successors. He enters as evidence the “incessant imaging of the President” for the public, the “palace intrigues” more reminiscent of a court than of an elected government, the staff retainers “dedicated to protection of the royal presence,” even the grandeur of the White House itself, “never more resplendent before as under the Reagans.”
Such touches are emblematic, in Nisbet’s judgment, of the “hypertrophy” of presidential power that commenced with FDR. Even Churchill reported regularly to Parliament and the War Cabinet throughout World War II; modern Presidents, by contrast, have been nearly unanimous in their efforts to shield their initiatives from Congress and to denigrate the expertise of advisers who might object to a chosen course. Then there are the smaller transgressions wrought by the power-hungry executive. “Government by deception,” writes Nisbet, “by flat lying, grows apace”—a charge reviewed in excruciating detail, from Roosevelt’s wartime whitewashing of Stalin to Johnson’s (alleged) deception over the Tonkin Gulf, “the biggest lie yet to come from the President of the United States.”
Worst of all, however, is the continuing resort to national security, “that ancient refuge of despotic monarchs,” as a cover for controversial or illegal executive actions. Into that category fall Nixon and the Watergate affair, and, more prominently, the “Poindexter-North intrigue,” which was “possibly even a small coup d’état”; the very idea of a National Security Adviser reminds Nisbet of “everything the Fathers of the Constitution loathed and abominated in the Old World.”
If the harshness Nisbet brings to these charges is new, his analysis of their intellectual origins is not. He devotes several pages here to the writings of Rousseau, a subject he has returned to frequently since an essay on “Rousseau and Totalitarianism” in 1943. It was Rousseau, he writes in The Present Age, who first transferred “grace from the body of the church to the body of the state,” thus pointing the way to the corruptions of the 20th century. Nisbet finds Rousseau’s intellectual heirs everywhere, from the champions of “national community” and the “managerial state” earlier in the century to the intellectuals of today, who seek federally-imposed solutions for everything from child molesting to housing to AIDS. For Left and Right, Nisbet argues, “Rousseau is the man of the hour at this critical juncture in American political thought.”
If there is an antidote to the “democratic absolutism” that the author deplores, it does not appear in his pages. Popular backlash would appear unlikely: the animosity toward bureaucracy began to retreat “once the American middle class became a full-fledged member of Social Security and Medicare,” not to mention low-interest college loans and other federal enticements. The churches, universities, labor unions, and professions—these, too, have abandoned their former autonomy in the hopes of winning political power for themselves.
Nor does Nisbet draw much hope from the political scene at large. Contemporary liberalism has abandoned freedom for mindless equality. Conservatism is hardly better off, having become “an ideology seeking to capture democratic absolutism” rather than to repudiate it. Meanwhile, it remains divided from within by the competing voices of “military hawkishness, evangelicism, libertarianism, supply-siders, the power-obsessed Right, and others equally discordant.” As in Conservatism: Dream and Reality, Nisbet is especially critical here of the evangelical Christians who have come to adopt “a nakedly political approach” to the issues that most concern them. Reagan himself is dismissed in the strongest terms for his advocacy of constitutional amendments concerning abortion and school prayer. “Not even Hitler,” Nisbet writes, “dared carry the state, the totalitarian state, that far into the home and church.”
The book’s third chapter, “The Loose Individual,” gives impressionistic detail to the depressing analysis that has preceded it. As in many of the author’s sociological writings, the sufferings unique to modernity loom large. Citing Tocqueville, who argued that political centralization unleashes egoism and self-seeking throughout society, Nisbet depicts the “deviant delinquent, alienated, anomic, bored, narcissistic,” and otherwise troubled souls of the contemporary United States. The economy in his eyes is made up of Ivan Boeskys writ large; the churches, of hucksters and fallen demagogues. Ethics have all but evaporated, whether in the marketplace, the university, or the government. The middle-class family, too, is in crisis, led there by the rage for “equality” that has shaken other strongholds of tradition and moral example.
Into the vacuum left by the wholesale collapse of authority come anxiety, idle nostalgia, and apocalyptic visions of the future. In the universities, where progressivism rules, the utopian recasting of intellectual history has reached tragicomic proportions. Thus Marx is made a humanist, Freud a liberator and champion of human happiness. The world outside, with much trepidation and little to anchor itself, turns increasingly to self-seeking pleasures. Indeed, Nisbet concludes, “our society and culture today are manifestly closer to the complete cash nexus, the total monetary regime, than they were at the beginning of the century.”
Nisbet closes his book with a brief and searching epilogue. Perhaps, he suggests, our most pressing troubles—“militarism, bureaucracy, the monetarization of the human spirit, and the trivialization of culture”—will themselves subside or decline. There are, after all, “no inexorable, unalterable laws against which the human will is impotent”; and the United States does not yet suggest “the relentless advance of senescence in the human being or the course of a cancer.” In time, he suggests, the country may come to another awakening, perhaps even “the revolution in ideas” for which there is “dire need.”
It is a tribute to Nisbet’s open-mindedness that he ends his otherwise distressing discussion on so tentative and promising a note. In a similar spirit, the reader may well wonder whether the grounds for hope lie somewhat nearer to hand than the envisaged revolution in ideas. For if the portrait of the United States that Nisbet now paints is uncommonly vivid and provocative, it is also one worth subjecting to scrutiny.
Let us begin at the beginning, with Nisbet’s preoccupation with the American military. His analysis of that phenomenon is probably the most one-sided ever to appear alongside the rhetoric of the Framers. It is true that American power is deployed around the world; that our allies and friends receive aid and weapons; that the budget for defense is large enough to shock many Americans, let alone the dead ones. Yet if facts like these are to shape our image of the American military, others demand to be recited, too.
The United States, for all its might, occupies no foreign territories. It has not engaged in territorial aggrandizement since the aberrant events, long overtaken, of the Spanish-American War. Do the nations that request and receive American arms or troops find aid forced on them by an ambitious imperial power? They are more likely to fear that the United States will abandon them as it abandoned South Vietnam. Nor is the cold war quite the chimera that The Present Age implies. The West Europeans and others who long for the day when they can secure themselves without American help could testify otherwise, as could the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Afghans, and others who know the uniform of “imperialism” when they see it.
A similar lack of perspective afflicts Nisbet’s discussion of the defense budget. The United States today devotes about 6 percent of its GNP to defense. That number, far from representing an upward spiral, shows a clear trend toward decline; it is considerably lower, for example, than the proportion spent under President Kennedy in the years before the Vietnam war. (It is also roughly half the proportion spent by Great Britain in the mid-1930’s, years synonymous with the word “appeasement.”)
Of course, the most telling comparison is not American spending measured against itself, but against the behavior of its major global adversary. One has only to consider—as Nisbet does not—the Soviet-fueled battlefields of Cambodia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, among others. It does not take the mind of a moralist to oppose aggression against American allies and trading partners, or to fear the economic and political consequences of an isolated United States.
Nisbet’s portrait of the military establishment, too, suffers from a bias that has rarely overtaken his other writings. The Pentagon may indeed command more blood and treasure than the Framers in their worst nightmares foresaw. Yet its disposition is about as bellicose as, say, that of the Social Security administration. Under Ronald Reagan, the Secretary of Defense set forth an astonishing set of conditions for the exercise of American power; hardly a war in history, with the possible exception of the declaration against Japan after Pearl Harbor, would have satisfied them. Time and again in the course of policy-making in the 1980’s, the Defense Department has been less likely to advocate the use of force than even the State Department, itself hardly a repository of martial virtue. If this is militarism, it is of a kind that would insult the honor of the true militarists of this century—and there have been some.
Perhaps the most confounding of Nisbet’s assertions concern the ongoing “aggrandizement” of executive power. If aggrandizement is the charge, he appears to have apprehended the wrong suspect. The President today commands nowhere near the foreign-policy powers of his predecessors. The Congress, meanwhile, has during the last fifteen years imposed over a hundred restrictions on the foreign-policy powers of the executive branch. Most notorious is the War Powers Resolution, which encourages foreign adversaries to sit patiently with pencil and calendar while the American clock runs down. Other restrictions have curtailed such disparate activities as arms sales, intelligence operations, the dispatching of military and economic aid, and the protection of secrets. The President may indeed, as Nisbet charges, live more grandly today than any before him; if so, however, his luxury is a fig leaf to cover his shrunken powers.
Nisbet is more compelling when he leaves Washington to examine the intersection of politics and ideas in the years since World War I. These passages show him at his best: tracing the pedestrian to the philosophical, the everyday to the abstract, the most unexamined details of American life to the political words and deeds that have affected them.
This is particularly vivid in his discussion of Rousseau. Nisbet cuts deftly through Rousseau’s seductive poses—romantic, purist, pedagogue—and lays bare the rejection of right and liberty implicit in the idea of the general will. He convincingly outlines the appeal of those ideas for the modern political intelligentsia, “that aggregate of intellectuals and scholars dedicated to the state precisely as their medieval forebears were to the church.”
There is much to be said for Nisbet’s case against the political clerisy. Twentieth-century intellectuals, like the politicians they have sought to influence, have indeed shown an appetite for centralized, state-imposed “solutions,” whether of the “national community,” New Deal, or Great Society variety. Nor has that appetite declined notably in the years since 1980, as the continuing appeal of Mario Cuomo and of his vision of a “national family” confirms.
Yet one wonders, too, whether Nisbet’s case may be somewhat more damning than is necessary as the 1980’s near their end. It is true that the appeal by politicians of every stripe to centralized solutions shows no sign of waning. Moreover, it is easy to sympathize with Nisbet’s dismay at a time when officials who have pledged to roll back federal spending instead advocate ever-larger budgets for their own offices and ever-expanded scope for their powers. Yet while there is much in Washington to distress any advocate of limited government, there is much elsewhere that would seem to ameliorate it.
This is particularly evident in the realm of ideas, the preeminent realm, as Nisbet has so brilliantly shown elsewhere, from which others take their ultimate direction. Here, momentum may not be so clearly on the side of Rousseau, even within the “degraded” precincts of the academy. Although the verdict on the esoteric pursuits that figure prominently in Nisbet’s third chapter—deconstruction, minimalism, radical feminism—remains to be reached, as a sociologist, especially, Nisbet must be struck by the ongoing spectacle of students on today’s university campuses who see many of their teachers as political anachronisms or worse. It is curious, too, that he neglects the debate over higher education sparked in part by the success of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. However limited, these are changes that may not bode well for the academic orthodoxies Nisbet deplores.
One wonders, too, whether Americans elsewhere in the country are as enamored of “democratic absolutism” as Nisbet seems to fear. Tax revolts, workfare, IRA’s, “privatization”: these are only a few of the ideas that testify to a dissatisfaction with the welfare state. The think tanks, centers, and foundations that Nisbet consigns to the “political clerisy” now include a number of scholars and analysts who advocate exactly the sort of federalist policies that he believes have vanished. Are these, too, the handmaidens of the state?
Other signs of change are apparent in the private sphere. The sexual revolution appears spent, whether through its bouts with venereal disease, AIDS, abortion, or family breakups. Popular culture reflects the new mood; from movie houses to comic strips, it is short on feminism and free sex, long on child-rearing, the anxieties of the career woman, and dark morality tales about adultery and promiscuous sex. All this is not to say that Nisbet’s fears for the “loose individual” are misplaced. But the question of which forces shall prevail over the conduct of everyday life would appear to be more open than the author of The Present Age believes.
If there is much, then, in Nisbet’s recent thought to provoke and enlighten, there is much too that invites qualification and dissent. When it comes to the present decade, however, his perspective all but deserts him. Obviously, there is something in the 1980’s that has proved powerfully distressing to Nisbet and that lies at the root of his present discontent.
One clue suggests itself in Nisbet’s otherwise bewildering treatment of conservative evangelicals, a group for whom he reserves his darkest prose. Their very mention calls to his mind “blinding hatred uncoiled in terror, arson, and wars without mercy.” Yet conservative Christians, after all, became a presence in national policy only after the issues of greatest concern to them, such as abortion and the schools, had been systematically appropriated into the federal domain. If some of them now seek solutions in the form of constitutional amendments, there are others who advocate that such “social issues” be returned to state and local government. In any event, it is hard to understand why a movement so intent on preserving its own autonomy should receive such rough treatment at Nisbet’s hands.
Perhaps the answer is that his animus against the religious Right reflects his larger set of grievances against the administration of Ronald Reagan, grievances which are painfully evident throughout the book. Nisbet is second to none in his harsh judgments of the current President, and there is scarcely a policy or event that fails to arouse his indignation. Thus, the Strategic Defense Initiative appears as “utopianism,” Grenada as “a little bit of Armageddon.” Even a detail as inconsequential as Reagan’s archives is ridiculed by comparison with “the pyramids of Egypt,” which “would be cheaper in the long run; even less royal in thrust.” Conservatism: Dream and Reality, too, had its share of barbs for the Reagan coalition, but these were not nearly so prominent as they have now become. From the opening pages to the last sentence, with its tacit denigration of “recent White House occupants,” The Present Age bristles with its condemnation of Reagan’s tenure.
Such palpable disappointment with a President who was once touted as the greatest federalist of them all may go some way toward explaining the pessimism that suffuses Nisbet’s book. It was the same Robert Nisbet, after all, who could still observe in the Public Interest three years ago that the election of 1980 “could fairly be seen as the glorious culmination of an ideological evolution that had begun three decades earlier.” Nisbet’s sympathy for that evolution, and for the ideas that gave it strength, has been a matter of record for some time. In recent years, it seems, he has examined the political triumph of those ideas and pronounced it pyrrhic.
Yet this verdict, like some others in The Present Age, may be premature. For many years, Robert Nisbet has illuminated as no one else the evolutionary essence of ideas, their importance to civic life, and their persistence, for better or worse, over long periods of time. The years under Reagan, too, should be cast in this meliorative light. No individual, not even a President, can be made the final arbiter of a tradition of thought whose lineage, as Nisbet himself has argued, includes the likes of John Adams and Lincoln, Tocqueville and Burke. To judge by the late 1980’s, that tradition persists in more quarters, and with more vitality, than Robert Nisbet now permits himself to believe.
1 Harper & Row, 136 pp., $17.95.
2 See his essay, “Foreign Policy and the American Mind,” COMMENTARY, September 1961.