Views of the Present Age
In his book The Present Age, Robert Nisbet looks at the major trends in the society and government of the United States in the present age. Nisbet considers the present age to be the period since the First World War to the present. His views and discourse are separated into three topics: the prevalence of war, the new absolutism, and the loose individual. In each discussion, Nisbet builds on the arguments and propositions of the previous, starting of course with the prevalence of war, and culminating with the discourse on the loose individual.
Nisbet sees war a powerful catalyst in the social and moral progress of the nation. The war specifically discussed is the Great War, World War I. Nisbet chooses this war because he sees it as "the most important war in U.S. history, the war that released the greatest number and diversity of changes in American Life" (p. 5). War, according to Nisbet, can stir up stale and fading moral values and strengthen "the sinews of society" (p. 10) by causing the nation to focus on the crisis at hand and thereby reexamine their values, since their country is preparing to enter a war of such magnitude. Nisbet also refers to war, and especially military necessity as "the Great Mother" of invention because of all the by products of the technological advances made in preparation for war. In his discussion, Nisbet sees war as having a great secularizing effect on the country due to the urgency and immediacy of the crisis that war poses. He utilizes this argument to proceed into his argument of the new absolutism because, in the example of the First World War, the government was given unquestioned powers to encroach on the personal freedoms of the individual, in order to benefit the cause. Nisbet argues further that it became the attitude of Presidents and Secretaries to act as though their decisions were wise and right for the country and that they no longer needed the council of the Congress, and therefore the people:
Just as each new president must show his spurs by deprecating State Department and congressional committees in foreign policy, so, it seems, must each new National Security Adviser to the president. He, too, under the Great Myth, immediately knows more than Congress. . . (p. 21).
Under these recently established methods of government, Nisbet argues that democracy in the U.S. has taken an absolutist turn. He attributes this to "the heaping up of powers, so far as possible, in the central government even at the expense of a strictly read Constitution" (p. 42). Nisbet discerns that the cause of this absolutism, centralization of powers, and swelling bureaucracy is leaders who have tasted the unparalleled and unquestioned powers of wartime, and who do not wish to relinquish them. Under the rhetoric of community and freedom, the government, through democracy, convinces the people to do what is good for the national community (as opposed to the loyalty to local communities that prevailed in the past), or to force them to be free. Nisbet expresses that these two arguments allow democracy in the U.S. to behave in an absolutist manner, since few question the validity of the arguments.
His final argument discusses the place of the individual in the present age. Nisbet specifically refers to the loose individual, who is "loose from marriage and the family, from the school, the church, the nation, job, and moral responsibility" (p. 84). He contributes an increase in social disintegration to the rise in individuals who "play fast and loose with other individuals in relationships of trust and responsibility" (p. 84). Nisbet essentially blames the government for this increase because he feels it is the government that places money as the common denominator in human life:
Government is the primary force in it all; such government weakens where it strengthens: weakens normal social authority as it strengthens itself through laws, prohibitions, and taxes. As the blood rushes to the head of society, it leaves anemic the local and regional extremities. (p. 85)
Thus, in the last sentence of the above quotation, Nisbet's main argument is exemplified: the increasing, unquestioned power and authority of the central government weakens American Society as a whole and as individuals.