In which I ignore what little prudence I have, and set out to piss people off
To a Mentor-
I wrote up this little reflection on my ambitions, initially for my blog and Facebook, but am now unsure whether or not I’ll share it publicly. I think I have important things for people in here to hear, but it would be uppity and arrogant rather than sage and wise for 22-year old me to counsel my friends to be Noble Romans of Old.
Who knows, by the time you read this I might have jumped the shark and shared it and started taking flak already. But I just figured, since you’re my primary political mentor, that I should send you my thoughts on the subject of what I want to do with my life and how that relates to my personal development.
So I keep getting the “Luke do you want to be President” kind of questions over and over again and I keep giving my same standard self-deprecating canned response: “God save the country if that ever happens.” Sometimes I tell people my true ambitions and say “no but I want to be the Alexander Hamilton to someone’s George Washington.” Sometimes I go a bit deeper and say “I want to be the kind of person about whom people ask ‘is he going to run for President?'”
But I’ve been reflecting on it deeper and deeper, and realized something that’s been driving me for a while. And I would not trust people who were not driven by the same force, with the reins of public life (hence my antipathy to Trump and Clinton, as well as Gary Johnson.)
Since FDR, arguably since Lincoln, and probably since the days of George Washington himself, we’ve inhabited a Presidency-heavy constitutional system- in the White House has been vested the symbolic sanctity of the Union and Republic, of our Liberty itself. It’s always been a lot more than a mere administrative or policy-advocacy office. It’s been a Cincinnatian, perhaps at times a Catonian or Ciceronian office of republican splendor. The President, for better or for worse, has been the face of the nation.
In the last century it has increasingly become an Imperial Presidency, overstepping the old constitutional boundaries that once precluded aspiring Lincolns and TRs from doing great things. That’s probably been for the best- with the sheer complexity of modern industrial society, it’s unclear how else we could have organized things. But that power must be exercised responsibly, with both history and posterity in mind.
And as the power and glory of the Presidency has increased, both in political fact and in the public imagination, so has increased the necessity of true greatness in the souls of those inhabiting the Oval Office. Greatness of the sort with which Cincinnatus, Cato, Cicero, and all those other dead white males would have been intimately familiar.
But partly because of the deconstructionist monstrosity of the fruits of the raging 60s, partly because of the emphasis of ideological principle over networked character that has characterized the parties since Goldwater and McGovern, and partly because of the increasing democratization and reformation of politics since Watergate, it’s been harder for men and women of the character of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln to ascend or even aspire to high office in our Republic. They’re there, but they tend to stick to unelected positions in the Military-Industrial Complex and the Commanding Heights of the economy. When they DO seek public office- and I would say the last two great examples were Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the John McCain of 2000- they’re either largely impotent (Moynihan) or they resort to selling their souls, principles, and character in fraught quests for power (hence McCain’s Palin desperation.)
America since midcentury has been fraught by various social conditions and political reforms that make the crucial mix of Thumos, Arete, and Pietas absolutely impossible in modern statesmen and stateswomen in power. Thus the decline of our politicians from Truman, Johnson, and Nixon (all jerks, but all exceptionally skilled and nonideological politicos) to Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Clinton again (all nice guys/gals, but not particularly competent politicos and certainly not great leaders.) Straight Talk Express McCain 2000 was the closest we got to greatness. It’s a tragedy he chose to change.
I’m not bemoaning the fall of the Republic- it isn’t forthcoming, even in the terror of the present crisis and the coming ones- but its health and glory are not served by the caliber of Presidents we have as options nowadays. And I think there’s a direct correlation between the increasingly ideologized, increasingly democratized politics of the early 21st Century, and the declining character and talent of our leaders.
So what’s the answer?
Quite simple really. We need old-fashioned republican statesmen and stateswomen updated for the 21st Century, “men/women with empires in their purpose and new eras in their brains/branching toward the skyey future, rooted in the fertile past,” who pay more than lip service to the great heroes of Americana- who pay tribute to them in their lives, choices, actions, and characters. Perhaps we need to make systemic reforms that encourage and incentivize such Roman Souls to enter the hubbub of democratic politics in an institutional Republic with the spirit of a Democracy; but ultimately their entry into the political process is their choice, not the result of machinations by people who want them in.
We need less people who want to be President of the United States, and more people who are worthy of being President of the United States.
So what’s my real ambition? What’s my real goal in public life? (Aside from “turn America into a great space-faring Republic, an Empire of the Stars?”)
To be worthy in my soul of assuming the office of President of the United States. Not to actually assume it- to desire assuming that office, particularly nowadays and at my age, is far more vainglorious than noble.
But to so cultivate my character, tend to my intellect, and master the craftsmanship of politics that, should my country ever call, I would be standing by, ready to act, a soul worthy of the stewardship of the Republic. That by no means means I want to be President- and I think our best public servants don’t- but it does mean that in whatever capacity I were serving the public, be it in our national economic apparatus, amid the defense and intelligence community, in the Cabinet or Congress or some statehouse- I would be a leader worthy of heeding my country’s call should it ever come.
In my view there are a few character traits and habits of mind that disqualify anyone from being such a worthy statesman or stateswoman, and I’m not sure that I don’t show them right now-
1-Basing your love of country off of a vision of a golden future or a return to a golden past, and lacking the moral nuance to accept the evil in your country’s heritage- and future- alongside the good. That is to say, being a conservative first and an American second, or a global citizen first and an American second. Conservatives, you need to accept Franklin Roosevelt as an American; Global Citizens, you need to accept Andrew Jackson.
2- Having “becoming President” or something as your primary goal, consciously or subconsciously, and “serving your country” as a second and related goal. No Man or Woman is born to rule. Trump, Hillary.
3- Not easily answering “yes” to “would you die for your country, your countrymen, and your flag?” That, and you need to mean it, and there are few things that suggest you mean it more than actually putting yourself on the line or preparing to put yourself on the line in some form of military service. Not to romanticize military life of course (DuffelBlog exists for a reason) but I continue to hold that it means a lot.
But let’s be real- “be worthy” (and I mean a very different word from “qualified”) is just as great a mountain to climb as “become President of the United States.” The qualities of character and soul requisite of worthiness are a lifetime’s work of action and a lifetime’s thought and reflection, not habits practicable after a week’s cultivation.
Perhaps I’m embarking on a quixotic quest seeking to be worthy. But I’d rather cultivate my soul and serve my country, and fail, than drain my soul and serve myself, and succeed.
Hello all newcomers to my blog. Some of you may have seen one of my older pieces from back in the Spring arguing that Donald Trump might just be toying with us, and is actually his pre-2015 self beneath all that bouffant hair.
Well, I hereby rescind all those thoughts and condemn myself for ever having published them. They were nothing more than glorified wishful thinking, the worst instance of lipstick-on-a-pig I’ve ever succumbed to.
I still think a “softer, gentler Trumpism-” a liberal American nationalism- would be a helpful corrective to the globalism of the present American political elite. I’m still working on how to move towards that.
But true liberal nationalism should never ride the blood wave of racist populism. True liberal nationalists in the tradition of Burke, Hamilton, Disraeli, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill, and Nixon should never succumb to the ugliest impulses of human nature in the pursuit of their higher principles.
But then, Trump doesn’t even have those higher principles. He’s a bundle of vulgar instincts temperamentally unfit to lead public opinion in our Republic. He’s not what Andrew Sullivan called an “extinction-level event,” he’s worse- the American Berlusconi, a clown in loose-fitting statesman’s garb whose only legacy will be the degradation of the office of the American Imperial Presidency yet further beneath what Clinton, Bush, and Obama have done to it.
I’ll be holding my nose and voting for Hillary. I’ll be hoping that Sasse, Huntsman, Greitens, Baker, or Faulconer can reform the GOP and assume the reins of the Imperial Presidency in 2020 or 2024, in the interests of restoring the Republic and liberating America from the Globalist Masters and the Populist Barbarians. I’ll be working at my task of burying Fusionist Conservatism in due season, and clambering my way into “the room where it happens.”
I’d just like to forget that I ever had faith in Donald Trump, Destroyer of Worlds. I won’t forget it.
Note: The first chapter of Clinton Rossiter’s book “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution” (from which this piece is excerpted) is very much worth reading, as it contains an extended analysis and survey of the various aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s intellectual and professional personality. Rossiter covers:
Hamilton the public financier
Hamilton the public administrator
Hamilton the realist diplomat
Hamilton the industrialist
Hamilton the military organizer and soldier
Hamilton the orator and lawyer
Hamilton the constitutionalist
Hamilton the political scientist
Hamilton the American
In essence, Alexander Hamilton mastered all the arts of modern government, and built institutions and traditions of American governance that have stood the test of time. After Weehawken, never again has a single man so brilliantly mastered so many fields and put this mastery to the service of his country, and at so crucial a moment in history; never again, perhaps, will another.
The following is an excerpt from the concluding chapter of “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution.”
…Engaged as we seem to be in an effort to save our dominant liberal tradition from the defects of its own virtues, and also to extend its range to new social and economic problems, we are rummaging in the past for political thinkers who can help us perform this critical task…
[Hamilton’s] political principles were not as “correct” for the United States, in his time or in ours, as were those of Jefferson and Madison. No one who has studied and cherished the American political tradition would identify Hamilton as its First Source, and thus look to him for expression of the basic ideals of American democracy. He was too skeptical a judge of men and too harsh a censor of democracy ever to be allowed to stand alone as our teacher. Yet he did speak brilliantly to a number of questions that most of his contemporaries preferred to ignore, and his answers have never seemed more relevant than at this very moment. They are relevant not only because they teach us to deal more imaginatively with the hard problems of a high civilization, but because they are as fully convertible to the uses of committed democrats of the twentieth century as are the principles of his constitutional law. The lessons we learn from Hamilton the political thinker will reinforce and energize the liberal tradition, not sap or corrupt it. And the best of those lessons would seem to be:
Men are driven to strive and achieve by their “passions,” of which the most politically significant are the desire for esteem, the anticipation of gain, and the love of power.
Men also wish to preserve and advance their “interests,” which are the physical and psychological fruits, real or merely hoped for, of their strivings.
It is next to useless to preach to men about their duty as citizens to control their passions and rise above their interests.
There is, however, a variety of political techniques through which passions can be steered into channels of healthy creativity and interests can be secured against the assaults of fear and envy.
The test of a sound and viable government is its ability to use old techniques and invent new ones that can harness the passions of men and enlist their interests in the service of the common ends of society.
Encompassing the mass of private interests, yet rising above them to live a life of its own, is the interest of all men in the pursuit of these ends- the general welfare, the common felicity, the public good.
No society can survive and prosper unless its citizens understand the commands of the public good and can generally, whether lured by carrots or threatened by sticks, be made to obey them.
No society can survive and prosper unless it has ways to nurture “choice spirits,” men of uncommon virtue and talent, and to place them in positions of responsible authority.
As the opinions of the people are the decisive force n the political process, so the confidence of the people is the principal support of government.
Confidence is inspired chiefly by an honorable, dignified, efficient administration of public affairs.
It is also inspired, up to a point, by the sounds and appearances of such an administration.
The worst of social ills are disorder, violence, instability, and unpredictability- in a phrase, “the hydra Anarchy.”
The worst of political ills is a weak government unable to cope with the convulsions of anarchy, because the next step beyond anarchy is not chaos but despotism.
The most likely candidates for the role of despots are demagogues.
In a disordered world, there is more to be feared from a dearth of political power than from an overdose of it.
The cutting edge of power is energy- the use of power imaginatively and forcefully in the public interest- which is the indispensable quality of good government.
The executive is the chief source of political energy.
An energetic government is as necessary to the success of democratic government as it is to any other kind.
The happiness of men in a civilized society depends to a critical extent upon the capacity of government, not merely to keep order and protect them in the enjoyment of their rights and property, but actively to promote social, economic, and cultural growth.
Banks, factories, and armies are as important for the freedom and progress of civilized men as schools and churches. The authors of constitutions for those who aspire to be such men will make room in their planning for these instruments of society.
This is not, be it remembered, the whole of Hamilton’s political thought, for he had many other things to say on many other subjects. Nor is the whole of his thought, I repeat, a political philosophy for American democracy. But this is a catalogue of opinions and judgments of which he was the first and most explicit exponent among the Founding Fathers- in several instances the only exponent- and Americans may go to it confidently for instruction in the problems and possibilities of twentieth-century statecraft. Hamilton the political scientist, like Hamilton the constitutionalist, is both the teacher and the property of the whole nation. He speaks to the Right but also to the Left, and speaks perhaps most intelligently to those who mill about in the middle and seek for ways to save both America and American democracy. He is a useful man to know because he tells us harsh truths that we are not told by Jefferson, useful because democracy needs skeptics as well as enthusiasts to acclaim. Hamilton the political thinker was a skeptic who was honest, acute, and specific about his doubts and fears, and such a thinker as he has a message of unique perception for this generation of Americans. As Eliphalet Nott warned in 1804, if this government of ours, the “illustrious fabric” on which Hamilton’s “genius” was “impressed” should ever fall, “his prophetic declarations will be found inscribed on its ruins.”
In conclusion, let us look again at the whole Hamilton, whose relevance for our times goes well beyond his teachings as constitutional lawyer and political scientist. It is not alone our indulgent Constitution and energetic government that should remind us daily that he lived and achieved and prophesied, nor even our mixed, balanced, productive, regulated, and occasionally guided economy. It is, rather, the very existence of America as a nation that spreads its sway over most of a continent and its influence over much of the world. We have achieved the power and glory he foretold in his most hopeful hours because we have become a far more perfect Union than all his enemies and even most of his friends wanted us to be…
… Accustomed as we now must become to thinking in terms of a progressive industrial society served by an energetic national government under the liberating Constitution of a sovereign Union, we are bound to pay homage to the man who first set this image before the American people.
-Clinton Rossiter, “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution”
I’m confused. Politically confused.
I issued my kinda-sorta endorsement of Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago, but as I’ve watched Donald Trump more and more in the ensuing weeks, a question has gripped me.
Is he becoming moderate?
Is he becoming electable?
Is he becoming… Presidential?
Most people’s answers would be no, no, and hell no.
He hasn’t shown up on the news much in recent weeks. You know why? He hasn’t said anything stupid or politically incorrect recently. More and more people tell me they think he’s looking more and more like a President and proposing more and more reasonable policy solutions. Is he doing this consciously? Is this indicative of what is to come? The “proto-fascist,” a dignified statesman?
The fallback that David Brooks, Bruce Bartlett, and myself have retreated to goes something like this: “Well, yes he’s radical populist right, but AT LEAST he’s destroyed the GOP Establishment and will open up room for a new, moderate ideology and a new, diverse coalition better suited for governing to form!” Indeed, I still think this officially. But… What if something crazy happens, and Trump does change his tone and substance?
More compelling, I think, is Conrad Black’s note that Trump must run to the center and start looking presidential if- when- he gets the Republican nomination and goes up against Hillary Clinton. And truth be told, that would make sense- it would look like just about every other successful Republican’s presidential strategy in the last fifty years, since the conservative movement started taking over the party. Win over the right-wing populist base first to get the nomination, then fight over the moderates with the Democrat. In today’s world, when the neoliberal plutocrats in the GOP Establishment have been especially silent to working-class concerns, it’s been easier for someone like Trump to build a coalition of the working class, so long as he said what they wanted to hear (perhaps without necessarily believing it.)
Here’s Black’s full quote–
“If Donald is cheated of the nomination, the Republicans will lose badly in November. If he makes no gestures of civility and does nothing to refine his message to the strata of the electorate who like a little more nuance and syntactical orthodoxy than Archie Bunker provides, it will be an unnecessarily disturbing election. If he follows the advice of his wife, Karl Rove, and many others (including this columnist), and banishes the contention that he is a crude and nasty know-nothing, he will win. The country wants to turn the page on the Bushes and the Clintons, but the voters have to have a believable and reasonably attractive sequel. It isn’t Sanders or Cruz, but it still could be Trump.”
For whatever reason, it seems to me that “banishing that contention” that he is a right-wing political troglodyte won’t be too hard for Mr. Trump.
Because he was moderate for most of his career before 2015. He supported the Clintons, he opposed the neoliberal tax plan of 1986, he’s constantly criticized conservative Republican decisions up to and including the war in Iraq, has praised Planned Parenthood, and has generally committed a million other acts that conservatives and indeed GOP Establishmentarians would view as heresies. He’s been no loyal Democrat either, supporting any number of pro-business and nationalist initiatives over the course of his career.
Even nowadays, after months and months of right-wing populist pandering, he still manages to hit the political center in text analyses and other studies. Granted, that’s more due to extreme right-wing views on immigration and extreme left-wing views on trade balancing each other out, but it still testifies to the fact that he is not bound by the ideological shackles tethering, say, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders.
In fact, Trump’s general policy platform- working-class populism in trade, infrastructure, immigration, entitlements and social services, and other economic areas- makes up a reasonably centrist-populist platform. Michael Lind, great bard and dutiful custodian of the old “one-nation conservative” tradition in the United States, has suggested that a centrist Republican Party might jettison neoliberal supply-side economics in favor of “a kinder and gentler Trumpism.” Who’s to say that Trump himself will not be the one to provide such a platform? Especially given that he’s a New Yorker, with all the cosmopolitan capitalist instincts of any New Yorker?
It seems that Donald Trump is running a brilliant campaign strategy- to win over the disenfranchised white working class with economic populism and all the social ugliness that entails, snatch up the presidential nomination from the cold, dead hands of the GOP Establishment, and position himself as a moderate in the general election, a moderate statesman who has a record of truly being concerned about the working class (as opposed to the faux care for the working class of Hillary Clinton.) There is no other way to win a presidential election as a Republican, and indeed, the history of the United States since the fall of the Southern slave lords and the rise of Lincoln has proved that the party that wins over Jacksonian Americans into a coalition with some of the commanding heights of the economy is the party that will dominate politics moving forward. Jacksonian America has since the 1990s been alienated from the Republican Party, and Trump aims to bring them back- much to the agonizing despair of the bipartisan Establishment.
But I will make a more radical contention- Donald Trump is not only very likely serious about becoming the next President of the United States, and knowledgeable about how to get there. Donald Trump is also quite possibly the next legendary President, quite far from David Brooks’s contention that he’ll be “the worst president in American history,” going down “in devastating defeat.”
Two legendary Presidents- Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt- were relative outsiders who dramatically shook up the orthodoxies of their times. Lots of people thought Lincoln would destroy the Republic, and just as many people thought Roosevelt would preside over a tyrannical increase in federal power. (As the slave lords and the industrialists found out, in some ways they did.) They both came from outside the political establishment and were actively hostile to the old establishments. Their unorthodox- but surprisingly moderate- views would thenceforth define the political debates over the next several decades. See any parallels?
But it goes deeper than that. I’m working on a long essay with the working title of “The Lawgivers: Cycles of Development in the History of the Republic.” The basic thesis of Lawgivers, which has been heavily influenced by Michael Lind’s “Three Republics” idea, boils down to three stages. First, after a great “revolution” and re-forging of the Republic’s institutions, developmentalist and populist leaders squabble over the legacy of the Revolution and propose alternate policy solutions. Second, great statesmen during those reformations fuse the developmentalist and populist policy philosophies into a new platform. And third, after the institutions of the Republic further decay, a new statesman, heavily influenced by the “fusionist” statesmen of the previous generation, rises and puts in place a new set of institutions based on the fusionists’ blueprint, becoming a “lawgiver.”
Under this thesis, Henry Clay adopted the nation-building and democratic expansionism of Whiggery and Jacksonianism, and was the primary inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s policies. Woodrow Wilson mixed the Populists’ demand for pro-worker/pro-farmer policies and the Progressives’ imperative for industrial regulation and collaboration, and provided the blueprint for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. And Richard Nixon synthesized Liberalism’s federal activism with Conservatism’s penchant for decentralization, providing what is in my opinion an excellent blueprint for the next great re-forging of our Republic’s institutional structure.
So Nixonian policy as the inspiration for what Lind calls the “Fourth Republic” waiting in the wings, just around the corner. Who better exemplifies, in the present day, Nixon’s defense and expansion of entitlements, his willingness to use federal activism, his working-class populism, and his general nationalism, than Donald Trump? Indeed, Trump has been compared to Nixon more than once, in various ways.
Moreover, Conrad Black- again, Trump’s biggest intellectual backer- wrote what is sometimes regarded as the best biography of Richard Nixon yet written. (He also wrote a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, the most recent lawgiver.) Black knows the Nixon legacy well- could he see the consummation of it in a Trump Presidency?
I don’t know the answer to that. And I don’t mean to endorse Donald Trump, nor do I seek to excuse his truly despicable comments about Muslims, women, Mexicans, and so many other groups. I don’t particularly like Trump voters, and the prospect of Trump as he has presented himself as President does indeed terrify me.
But IF he moderates his rhetoric and IF he adopts a more respectful tone and IF he runs to the political center and IF he brings back the old Donald Trump from before June 2015….
Why, if all that happens, I might have to rescind my endorsement of Hillary Clinton, vote for Trump, campaign for him, even write in favor of him. I might even decide to apply to work in the Trump White House (it’s not like that’ll be a very in-demand position early on.)
Yes, I am a Progressive Republican, and Trump is certainly not, and Trump’s supporters certainly are not.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a Progressive Republican hiding in there somewhere, deep beneath Donald’s bouffant hair, ready to govern in the great tradition of Lincoln and Roosevelt with the blueprint of Nixon, prepared to guide America through the present crisis and any on the near horizon… Will Donald Trump win the Presidency? Will Donald Trump reform our institutions and clear out the rot? Will Donald Trump steer our country through its darkest crisis in decades? Will Donald Trump go down as a legendary President? Will Donald Trump make America great again?
To be perfectly honest- with the qualifications I mentioned above- I hope so.
American history, like all history, doesn’t truly repeat itself- but it does rhyme. The rhythmic pattern is, moreover, culturally based. Michael Lind’s and Colin Woodard’s works are useful in understanding these trends.
Great cataclysms- American Revolutions- are exploited by Yankee developmentalists and Borderlander populists to forge new sets of institutions- new “Republics.” Those institutions are broadly accepted by all political power players, but they gradually decay under their own internal contradictions. The coalition of Yankees and Borderlanders decays as each cultural group pursues its particular goals, with the victor of the duel igniting a “Reformation” wherein the Republic’s institutions are reformed, but not fundamentally transformed. Deep Southern laissez-faire oligarchs usually ascend to national power following the Reformation and accelerate the decline of the Republic, precipitating another great cataclysm- another American Revolution- wherein great statesmen fuse the objectives of the developmentalists and the populists and establish a new “Republic” based on combined principles and compromise policies.
There are other cultural groupings, of course, and the reality is more complicated than this. But the contours of these grand bargains can be traced all the way to the First American Revolution itself.
The chief divide during the Revolutionary War, the First American Revolution, was between Tories and Patriots. Tories were more conservative, favoring order and stability and union with the British Empire, while Patriots were radical, favoring not only independence but full-on social transformation. The Tories were disproportionately New England gentry and upper-class folk; the Patriots tended to be small farmers, backcountrymen, and Borderlanders. There was considerable mixing, of course, but the tension was fundamentally between Tories desiring order and Patriots desiring liberty.
The outcome of the Revolution and its institutional vindication, the U.S. Constitution, combined and preserved the best of both into a First Republic based on ordered liberty. America was freed from Britain, but traditional social institutions remained. George Washington’s First Republic set the tone of American political debate for the next several decades.
As the institutions of the First Republic decayed through the 1820s and the 1830s, the American political system was open to a Reformation. The chief contestants for the shape of this Reformation were the Whigs- developmentalists interested in industrialism and infrastructure, alongside social moral progress- and the Jacksonians, populists primarily interested in continental expansion and the provision of land and votes for small farmers. Ultimately it was Andrew Jackson rather than Daniel Webster or John Quincy Adams who led the First Reformation and revitalized the Republic’s institutions in the eyes of the populists, but another statesman- Borderlander-descended Whig Henry Clay- properly fused democratic expansionism and developmentalism in such a way as to provide a blueprint for the Second Republic.
Andrew Jackson’s First Reformation only partly salved the Union; its institutions began to devolve again, and the rise of the Deep Southern planter class and its laissez-faire anti-government ideology in the 1850s brought the Republic to crisis point. The Second American Revolution, the Civil War, was navigated by President Abraham Lincoln, who successfully fused the expansionism and democracy of the Jacksonians with the demand for moral reform and industrial development of the Whigs, expanding on Henry Clay’s model. The Second Republic was based on a new social contract for working people and intensive industrial and infrastructure development across the country, and the institutions laid down in the Civil War and Reconstruction would last decades.
But the Second Republic began to decay a few decades after its birth; throughout the Gilded Age, the excesses of industrialization opened the Republic to Reformation. The two major dueling factions were the developmentalist Progressives, who supported industrial regulation and coordination in the interests of the Yankee elite, and the Western and Southern Populists, who supported federal bailouts for small farmers and small businessmen. Theodore Roosevelt was the iconic Progressive while William Jennings represented the Populists in the duel over the Second Reformation; it would ultimately be Theodore Roosevelt who presided over that Reformation. But another figure, Woodrow Wilson, effectively synthesized industrial collaboration and regulation with populist entitlements in such a way as to provide the blueprint for the Third Republic.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Reformation kept the institutions of the Second Republic going for a few decades longer, but ultimately the laissez-faire of the Deep South won out again in the 1920s and propelled the country towards the financial crisis of 1929. The Great Depression and New Deal, the Third American Revolution, was navigated by President Franklin Roosevelt, who, largely using Woodrow Wilson’s model, synthesized Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressivism and William Jennings Bryan’s populism into a new social contract and American System based on universal entitlements like Social Security and strategic collaboration between business, labor, and government. The Third Republic thereby fused the developmentalist and populist traditions, and would last for decades.
But the Third Republic’ system began to decay a few decades after its birth, as the excesses of big-government bureaucracy and the managerial-bureaucratic class became apparent. The country was ripe for Reformation by the late 60s and early 70s, and two movements dueled to reform the legacy of the New Deal- the Liberals, who focused on government activism and social reform, and the Conservatives, who wanted policy decentralization and traditional values. Lyndon Johnson was the epitome of the Liberals, while Ronald Reagan represented the Conservatives, and ultimately Ronald Reagan prevailed in the duel to dominate the Third Reformation. But it was Richard Nixon who fused the aims of policy decentralization and federal activism, and thus provided the basic blueprint for the Fourth Republic of the United States.
Reagan’s Reformation reinstated the legitimacy of the Third Republic in the eyes of the American people, but the country soon experienced a Deep Southern laissez-faire resurgence throughout the 90s and 2000s. The excesses of this ideology became apparent by the late 2000s and early 2010s, and we appear to be in the early stages of the Fourth American Revolution. What it will be called and what it will entail are anyone’s guess, as is who will lead it. But it is clear that the new governing system will synthesize the goals and policies of the Liberals under Lyndon Johnson and the Conservatives under Ronald Reagan- federal activism and social reform for the Yankee ruling class, and federalist policy decentralization and some moderated, modernized form of traditional values for the Borderlander middle class and working class. In other words, Richard Nixon has provided the basic political and policy blueprint for the next great reformer who will forge the Fourth Republic of the United States.
For all we know, this could be Donald Trump, though I doubt it. He has expressed an interest in federal activism, the darling of Liberals, developmentalists of the day, while appealing to the broad Borderlander working and middle class Conservatives, populists of the day. It’s unclear that he’d support social reform or, more importantly, policy decentralization and federalism. But whoever that great leader is who will lead a movement to unite the Yankees and Borderlanders, crush the laissez-faire Deep South, and synthesize the Liberalism of Lyndon Johnson and the Conservatism of Ronald Reagan via Richard Nixon’s model and forge the Fourth Republic of the United States, will go down with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt as the greatest of statesmen.
Contours of the Fourth Republic, Updated
American history, like all history, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Michael Lind’s basic thesis in two books- The Next American Nation and Land of Promise– illustrates that beautifully. Periods of intensive nation-building under the Hamiltonian developmentalist tradition precede periods of reactionary Jeffersonian populism and localism, which in turn are followed by new periods of Hamiltonian activism. The eras of Hamiltonian activism- the Federalist Era, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the New Deal and Great Society- inaugurate new constellations of institutions, while those institutions decay during the Jeffersonian backlashes. Lind’s theory is as intricate as it is beautiful, and it’s an incredibly useful analytic tool.
However, it seems to me that the reality is somewhat more complex, though it rhymes closely with Lind’s model. Rather than American history being characterized by progressive and reactionary periods overlapping each other, it is instead divided between Revolutions- when the Republic’s institutions are built or rebuilt- and Reformations- when the Republic’s institutions are reformed, but not fundamentally transformed. During the Reformations, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians duel over command of the Reformation, fighting for different- and not necessarily contradictory- political ends. During the Revolutions, new statesmen synthesize the goals and philosophies of the formerly competing Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, forging new institutions and setting down the rules-and conflicts- of the next Republic. The institutions include a ruling class, a social contract, an American System of Economics, and a governing regime.
The pattern starts just before the establishment of the First Republic, during the First American Revolution.
The Pre-Reformation- Order and Liberty
The major divisions among Americans during the American Revolution fell between those who were committed to order and the British imperial system- the Tories- and those who favored both independence and radical social reform- the Patriots. There were of course differing degrees of these sentiments, but this was the fundamental tension- those who favored independence and revolution, and those who favored empire and stability.
George Washington’s First Republic
The genius of the Federalists was the delivery of both independence and social stability, thereby sating the demands of the Patriots and calming the fears of the Tories and their descendants. The U.S. Constitution is a profoundly conservative document, preserving power for the propertied and quasi-aristocratic classes; but it remains a document of freedom nonetheless.
George Washington’s First Republic featured a ruling class- roughly, the agrarian planters of Virginia; a social contract, namely ordered liberty under law and cheap land for farmers in the West; an “American System” of economics featuring a national bank, industrial policy, and infrastructure development; and what historian Morton Keller calls a deferential-republican system of governance.
The First Reformation- Development and Democracy
The primary debate, after the establishment of the First Republic, was what the young Republic should focus on- Westward Expansion, in the interests of the white working class, or Industrial Development, in the interests of an ascendant class of industrialist. The Whigs and National Republicans tended to support expanding industrial development, while the Jacksonian Democrats favored Westward Expansion (as is evidenced by the land grabs of the Louisiana Purchase, the Oregon Purchase, and the Mexican War.)
Meanwhile, the ruling agrarian class grew decadent, while the American System and social contract of the First Republic increasingly came under the pressure of advancing technology. The old deferential-republican regime of governance grew increasingly obsolete. The institutions of the First Republic needed a makeover.
Abraham Lincoln’s Second Republic
The decadence of the First Republic and the squabbles between the Jacksonians and the Whigs came to a head in the Civil War and Reconstruction, which saw the fall of the former agrarian planter class and its replacement with a new industrial class. A new social contract that expanded the land grant system and pioneered new entitlements like education, minimum wages, and pensions was put into place. The American System was upgraded with a new central banking system and funding for railroads that would cross the continent. And the deferential-republican regime finally gave way to the ascendant populist-democratic regime.
Abraham Lincoln and the early Republicans’ genius lay in marrying the best of Jacksonianism with the best of Whiggery- an acceptance of the continental expansion and provision of free land for Jacksonian farmers, coupled with an embrace and upgrade of the Whigs’ American System. The Second Republic, therefore, was based on both economic democracy and industrial development. The decay of the former and the excess of the latter would provide the battlefronts of later conflicts.
The Second Reformation- Collaboration and Entitlements
Both major factions of the post-Reconstruction era, the Progressives and the Populists, accepted both democracy and industrial development. Their major squabbles would rise from the Progressives’ emphasis on curtailing the excesses of industrial capitalism and institutionalizing national economic collaboration, and the Populists’ emphasizing redistributionary measures in the interests of preserving the economic democracy of the 19th Century. Both movements were reacting to technological and economic changes wrought by industrialization.
Meanwhile, the Second Republic grew decadent. The industrial ruling class soared to heights of opulence previously unknown, as the masses of workers toil in squalor. The American System based on industrialism came under stress due to technological changes, while the social contract based on basic social services was challenged by industrializing economic dislocations. The populist-democratic regime of governance was challenged. The institutions of the Second Republic needed fundamental change.
Franklin Roosevelt’s Third Republic
That fundamental change came with the Third American Revolution- the Great Depression and Second World War. In this epoch of turmoil, the industrial class was marginalized and replaced by the new bureaucratic-managerial class. The New Deal social contract generally abandoned the land grant social contract, which had grown obsolete, and replaced it with a social contract based on universal entitlements like Social Security and expanded public social services in education, healthcare, and housing. The New Deal’s American System featured industrial policy and industrial collaboration between large corporations and the government, in the national interest, as well as increased infrastructure and technology investments. And the populist-democratic regime was largely replaced by a new populist-bureaucratic regime of governance.
In other words, the New Deal (which continued all the way to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society) saw a marriage of the Progressives’ and the Populists’ policy philosophies- industrial collaboration and middle-class entitlements formed the core of the New Deal governing system. That was the genius of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats- combining the ends of formerly competing factions. The excesses of industrial collaboration and the deficiencies of the entitlement system would inform the next generations of political warriors.
The Third Reformation- Activism and Decentralism
The major factions of the post-New Deal era included the Vital Centrists and the Conservatives. The Vital Centrists, both Rockefeller Republicans and New Deal Democrats, favored expanding on the New Deal’s system of entitlements and industrial collaboration, and thus increasing federal activism. The Conservatives, including conservative-populist Republicans and Neoliberal Democrats, favored limiting the size of government and decentralizing its activities to states and localities.
Throughout the late 20th Century, the institutions of the Third Republic continued to decay- the bureaucratic-managerial class grew decadent, while technological and economic changes threatened both the New Deal-era American System and the Social Security/Medicare and social services-based social contract. And the populist-bureaucratic method of governance grew increasingly dysfunctional. Severe institutional reform became unavoidable.
The Coming Fourth Republic
Just as America’s first three Republics were forged in Revolutions amidst compromises forged by the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians in their preceding Reformations, so the coming Fourth Republic will be based off of a synthesis between the goals of the Vital Centrists and the Conservatives, and will be based on a new and updated American System, social contract, ruling class, and governing system. It will be forged in the Fourth American Revolution, an event that may be sparked by war, depression, debt default, internal rebellion, or some other event.
While we cannot know the details of the contours of the Fourth Republic, this much we can know- it will likely feature both a more activist federal government and more decentralized management of public policy. The federal government will take an increasingly activist role in forging the social contract and maintaining the American System of economics, while the governing system will be increasingly dispersed and the governing elite will be further decentralized.
The American System will, as usual, involve industrial policy in strategic industries like defense, tech, manufacturing, and energy, as well as investments in infrastructure and technology. The social contract will probably feature both expanded universal entitlements and expanded social services. Meanwhile, more decision-making will be devolved to a local level, expanding local control and undercutting federal control. And the elite that replaces the bureaucratic-managerial elite- probably the information-technology elite- will be a further decentralizing force. This model- federal investment, decentralized governance- will be the defining feature of the Fourth Republic, just as industrial collaboration and universal entitlements defined the Third Republic, development and expansion defined the Second Republic, and order and liberty defined the First Republic.
Time to draft an agenda based on these general precepts.