Reforming and Re-Forging the Republic
Reforming and Re-Forging the Republic
Looking around at the present situation, it seems that the United States is approaching one of those great, earthshaking crises that radically transforms the country’s institutions. The fundamental character of the American spirit has not changed, but its present iteration has grown stagnant. We’re standing at the cusp of one of those times when new ideas are needed. The question is where these new ideas will come from.
As with most great questions, those great new ideas can be found in the most splendid repository of wisdom the world has ever known- our own historic past. Two theoretical models of American history can help retrieve this wisdom and apply it to the present day, but first a note on the uses of models.
Theories and models are exactly what they sound like- theories and models. They don’t accurately describe or explain everything, reality being as complex as it is, but they do provide a useful framework for looking at history and preparing policy. History doesn’t actually work the way the two models below describe. But these models can illuminate major trends in history and make them more palatable to understanding, and, perhaps, inform analyses of current trends and judgments for future strategies.
Walter Russell Mead has done great work borrowing from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, and illuminating the various cultural and intellectual persuasions that have mixed to form the great political traditions of American history. He has persuasively argued that these traditions will last far longer than contemporary Blue progressivism or fusionist conservatism can hope to stay. A brief look at the great crises of American history in the context of these persuasions, then, is in order.
First, there is the Puritanical social reformism that has characterized the political and social thought of the North, especially New England, for centuries. We might refer to it as the Wilsonian tradition. Wilsonians can be found in different stripes across various political movements, but their basic convictions remain the same- there is a moral order which society must conform to, and the purpose of government is to both enforce that order and put in place reforms that can bring society closer to it. Legalism has been the preferred means for the first end, and activism the means for the second. Wilsonianism has animated just about every major reformist movement in American history, and when divorced from Christianity it gave rise to the Progressive movement.
Then there is the Quaker commercial activism rooted in the Mid-Atlantic, from Pennsylvania to New York. It might be called the Hamiltonian tradition. The various strains of Hamiltonianism all share the basic belief that the main purpose of government is to promote economic growth in a market-based system. The means Hamiltonians normally defer to include all forms of government activism, from the regulation of markets to the protection of certain industries to investment in key resources. Hamiltonians have always been present in debates about economic development, and have been present in every major party.
There is also a Cavalier traditionalism based in the plantation South, with bastions in the Virginia Tidewater, the Carolinas, and the Deep South. It’s normally referred to as the Jeffersonian tradition. Jeffersonians are primarily concerned with the preservation of local institutions and traditional social norms, and they see government as an agent which mainly erodes these mores. The means Jeffersonians endorse, therefore, is limited government. Jeffersonians of all stripes rise up to defend localities and traditions whenever the winds of modernity deliver great change.
Finally, there is the Scots-Irish populist temperament, emanating from Appalachia. These backwoodsmen and their descendants give life to what might be called the Jacksonian tradition. Jacksonians view the purpose of government as being to preserve and improve the material interests and collective honor of the people as a class. The means is populism- what some might dismiss as demagoguery, but what is more or less a bundle of policies meant to aid individuals and satisfy the collective consciousness. Every established population tends to be Jacksonian to some degree, particularly those with high levels of group consciousness.
Note also that no political thinker in the United States, unless they are a true pariah and a radical, neatly fits into one of these schools of thought- not even the founders of these traditions themselves. Instead, these persuasions are more like the four nucleotide bases of DNA- cytosine, thymine, adenine, and guanine. They are linked up in various combinations and proportions, and each mix results in a distinct political persuasion. For example, the modern conservative movement as it has existed from the 1950s onward is largely Jeffersonian, with a healthy dose of Jacksonianism. Elements of the conservative coalition are Christian Wilsonians, and other elements are pro-business Hamiltonians. But they are all united around the Jacksonian-Jeffersonian synthesis, with Wilsonian and Hamiltonian subgroups. The modern Blue Model progressives, meanwhile, could be described as Hamiltonian- Wilsonians, in their demands that government be used actively for the moral betterment of society. The list could go on, and every significant political movement would be represented by some combination and proportion of these four traditions, up to and including the radical socialists of the early 20th Century (radical Wilsonians) and the white supremacists who checkered much of American history (radical Jeffersonians.)
Looking at the broad sweep of American history, we see these schools of thought organizing themselves into political movements and colliding. At certain crisis points, the dominant factions were able to significantly rewrite the political order and establish new institutions- de facto new republics.
Here we come to the second model- the Crisis Cycle theory, touched upon by many American historians and political theorists but perhaps best articulated by Michael Lind in the first chapter of The Radical Center.
Distilled down to a few paragraphs, the theory is this- all societies change over time, but the modernizing forces of capitalism and liberalism- being, as they are, individualistic, rationalizing, and egalitarian- tend to drive the processes of cultural and political change even faster. This occasionally results in revolutions of various sorts, and American society is no different than Continental European, East Asian, or Middle Eastern society in this respect (though Walter Russell Mead argues in God and Gold that Anglo-American societies are better able to weather these storms than more traditionalist societies.)
Economic restructurings usually happen first, and subvert the economic foundations of prior political orders. When the contradictions and tensions between new economic realities and old political institutions reach a tipping point, there is a political revolution of sorts whose product conforms better to the economic-technological reality of the new world. This happens most dramatically when there is a major shift in the American internal political alignment and external strategic position. Then, a new order for the ages is established.
Meanwhile, the new orders are never perfect, and their imperfections harden and stagnate over time. As these deficiencies make themselves known, they prompt reformist corrective movements to rise and work toward fixing them. And those reformist corrective movements, in turn, tend to plant the seeds of new economic revolutions. The new economic revolutions and restructurings cause even reformed legacy systems to grow old and stagnate, and new political revolutions rise and replace the older systems with time.
Furthermore, in American history, the movements that rose toward the end of the lifespans of great political models tended to be, in Walter Russell Mead’s parlance, Hamiltonian-Jacksonian. That is, they were populist-nationalists. Their deepest premises focused on using energetic government action to bolster and support the mass middle class of the American people. The progressive and libertarian reformist corrective movements tended to heavily feature Wilsonian anti-plutocratic reformism, or Jeffersonian anti-bureaucratic localism. Of course, every statesman and movement in American history was an amalgam of these four schools balanced against each other in some proportion; but the particular arrangements of each change with the times.
With that, let’s look at how the Four Schools Model and the Crisis Cycle Model interact to provide a framework for understanding American political history.
There has been a distinct American nation, as definable by a shared national creed, distinct national characteristics, and the presence of Fischer and Mead’s categories in public discourse, since roughly the turn of the 18th Century. The lives of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington attest to this reality. It is towards the middle of these great men’s lives, then, that the American strategic story really begins.
The Age of Sail had happened sometime before this, and was gradually undermining the royalistic and theocratic instincts of most European powers through the power of mercantile capitalism. Partly as a result of this, the French and Indian War was fought, ultimately leaving the British and their American colonists dominant on the European continent. This was the first significant shift in strategic realities for the colonists- and correspondingly, increasing British control of the formerly quite autonomous colonies had been the first significant political realignment. These were the first Semi-Crises of note for American history.
The Age of Sail, by proving the economic viability of the Atlantic colonies and engendering a sentiment of commercial independence, helped to bring about a political crisis between Britain and the colonies. Though the causes behind the American Revolution were multifaceted, in the long-term sense the whole cause would have been unlikely had the colonies not been able to maintain a degree of economic independence. A great strategic crisis, then, took place between 1775 and 1815- the Wars of Independence. The American Revolution, the Quasi-War with France and the nimble diplomacy that accompanied it, and the War of 1812 all served the strategic end of ensuring America’s independence from European control. At the same time, the colonies faced a grave domestic crisis over the great question of how to distribute power in the newly-independent republic. The Founding Era- the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist period, and the Revolution of 1800- shaped the domestic power structure of the republic and privileged a dominant class of large landowners. The First Republic was forged then, and it would last for decades thereafter.
Of all the legendary leaders of the Wars of Independence and the Founding Era, none towers higher than President George Washington himself. In his policy, he pursued both Hamiltonian and Jacksonian ends- he supported national union and an activist government capable of funding infrastructure and regulating finance, while simultaneously favoring expansion into Western lands beyond the Appalachians to provide land to small farmers. The Hamiltonian-Jacksonian synthesis was evident in his cabinet, too, in Alexander Hamilton and the quite populist Thomas Jefferson. The Jeffersonian strain, which valued civic virtue and local institutions, was present in Washington but not dominant; the Wilsonian reformist strain was there, but silent. When Washington and his advisors worked to shape the institutions of the early First Republic, they did so primarily among Hamiltonian and Jacksonian lines.
Over time, the American political society, dominated as it was by large landowners and veritable aristocrats, began to decay into corruption and class resentments, and began to experience massive gridlock between the agricultural and financial elites. Frustrated small farmers and other marginalized poor whites rose up in the Populist Revolution, a democratic political movement that sought expanded suffrage, greater landownership, and anti-elite economic reforms. These reforms did not transform the First Republic, but they did reform it at a time of near-crisis. Incidentally, they also set the stage for the incoming Industrial Revolution- greater access to property and capital, as well as new demand for mass-produced goods, would help bring about that great transformation. Meanwhile, America’s strategic position was altered but not quite transformed with the Western Movement. American settlement of California during the Gold Rush and of Oregon via the Oregon Trail, and American conquest of the New Mexico territory gave an independent America continental dominance over North America. This contributed to the ongoing sectional crisis that would eventually result in the Crisis of the Union.
Several statesmen, including James K. Polk and Henry Clay, did great things in this time while representing various strains of American thought. But none was so influential and charismatic as President Andrew Jackson, who truly set the tone of the age through his life and work. He was indeed a Jacksonian, fighting for the uplifting of the broad masses of society against what was perceived as a plutocratic landowning and capital-producing elite. And he was a Hamiltonian, supporting national union. But he is chiefly important because he was a Jeffersonian, too, supporting the devolution of power to lower levels and seeking to limit and curb the excesses of the planter-dominated First Republic. Jackson’s reforms would help the republic get by a little longer, but ultimately the Industrial Revolution which began in his time would make a far greater crisis inevitable.
The Industrial Revolution widened the gap between the northern manufacturing states and the southern states dominated by the planter elite. While many causes brought about the Civil War, including the great moral question of slavery and fundamental cultural differences between the North and South, one of the key factors was the shifts in power wrought by economic changes. The 1850s to the 1870s saw one crisis- the Crisis of the Union- with two major components, political and strategic. Strategically, the pre-war conflicts and the Civil War bore the question- would the United States maintain North American hegemony as a single nation? Ultimately, the resolution of the Civil War consummated America’s undivided domination over North American territory, gains won earlier in the Westward Movement. This period of North American hegemony would lead to the next great era in American strategy. Meanwhile, the domestic political component of the Civil War and Reconstruction permanently broke the power of the landowner class, and reconfigured power structures toward a situation that benefited the industrialists of the North. This great realignment forged the Second Republic of the United States.
One leader towers above this epoch, peerless- President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln pursued Hamiltonian ends- namely the preservation of the Union, but also the opening of Western lands to railroads to provide national infrastructure, and the central regulation of finance. At the same time he pursued Jacksonian ends, acting through the Homestead Act to provide free land to farmers and agricultural colleges. Yet Lincoln also had indisputably Wilsonian and Jeffersonian instincts- the alignment of the anti-slavery cause with traditional Puritan moralism, and the fondness for the cultural traditions of the North and willingness to preserve them against the South. But he was first and foremost a nationalist-populist of the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian ilk, and with these principles he laid the foundations of the Second Republic.
As time went on, the industrialist class of the Second Republic grew extremely, extremely powerful. The late 19th Century saw the rise of the Robber Barons in industries of all sorts, and they naturally grew to hold immense political power and influence. Against this domination rose regional political movements, including the Progressives in the Northeast and the Populists in the South and West, who demanded reform and a tempering of the power of money. These reforms, including worker protection, consumer protection, environmental protection, and trustbusting, came during the Progressive Era. The Progressive Era reformed but did not overthrow Lincoln’s Second Republic. However, Progressive reforms did lay in place the fundamental building blocks of the Blue Social Model, which would interplay with economics over the next decades and fundamentally transform the industrial capitalist system. While the Progressive Era Semi-Crisis reformed American society at home, the newly-dominant and unified American nation plied the seas in an Age of Empires abroad. Taking colonies of its own during the Spanish-American War and attaining true great-power status in the First World War, the strategic reality of the United States was altered but not quite transformed in this period. It would, however, help to suck the United States into the World Crisis that was yet to come.
There were quite a few great leaders in the period of the Progressive Era and Age of Empires, including William Jennings Bryan, Henry Cabot Lodge, Woodrow Wilson, and Elihu Root. But the most important and symbolic of all of them was President Theodore Roosevelt. TR was the most influential and visionary in policy and strategy, and achieved the most significant reforms of the age during his Presidency. He was a Hamiltonian in his views on government’s role in economic development and nationhood, and a Jacksonian in his view that government should help the broad masses of the people. More importantly for his age, he was a Wilsonian reformer, bent on fighting the influence of the financial plutocracy and working to shape America into a fairer, more progressive society. These reforms helped loosen the grip of the oligarchs on the Republic, and they provided the blueprint for the Blue Model which was to come later. But ultimately Teddy Roosevelt did not save Lincoln’s Republic from its death- he only prolonged its life by a few decades.
The industrialist-capitalist system Lincoln had made possible continued to totter under its own weight, even with the progressive reforms Theodore Roosevelt had made. And around the world, the industrialist-capitalist system tottered, too. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union developed their own collectivist responses to the contradictions of capitalism and blue capitalism, and the clash between these powers and the United States during the Second World War and the Cold War amounted to a World Crisis that fundamentally elevated America’s strategic position to that of the indispensable superpower. Meanwhile, stateside, progressive reforms crept up the policy ladder until the great crash of 1929, after which progressive reforms were pursued excitedly and the statesmen in power crafted what could be called the Blue Social Model. Progressive blue capitalism helped to undermine the old industrial capitalist system, and ultimately replaced it in the 1930s as the economic organizing mechanism of American society. This put in power a new class of bureaucrats and technocratic planners, the “Best and Brightest” as John F. Kennedy would later call them. It amounted to the foundation of the Third Republic of the United States, based on the Blue Social Model and the New Deal Consensus.
The Third Republic of the United States, particularly for the first half of its existence, is notable because it produced giant after giant on the political stage- Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon were among the most prominent. But each of these great statesmen followed in the footsteps of a legend who came before them- President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was, like Lincoln and Washington before him, a Hamiltonian-Jacksonian at his base. The Hamiltonian goals and means of national power, federal activism, central regulation of finance, and federal union all featured highly on his policy agenda. Much of that agenda, too, was directed towards improving the lot of the broad American middle class- the Housing Act, Social Security, the federal work programs, and more. FDR had a Wilsonian reformist streak, too (one which was stronger than that of his cousin Teddy) and much less of a Jeffersonian streak, though he respected the local cultures of his constituents and often invoked Jefferson, going so far as to build a memorial to the third President. But fundamentally, FDR, too, was a nationalist-populist, and he designed the Third Republic of the United States along nationalist-populist lines.
The bureaucrat-dominated political system of the New Deal Consensus and Blue Social Model had a tendency to be so stable, it was stultifying. And, like the agrarian system of Washington and the industrial system of Lincoln, FDR’s bureaucratic system tended to ignore the concerns of those at the bottom end of the income spectrum. Combined with the cultural revolution underway in the 60s and 70s, this political underrepresentation was enough to inspire culturally conservative, economically populist Jacksonian America to cast its lots with the Conservative Revolution of the 70s and 80s. The lurch to the right of the Republicans and the shift to the center of the Democrats provided a Jeffersonian corrective to the bureaucratic excesses of the Blue Social Model, without overthrowing and dismantling the fundamental institutions put in place by the New Deal. Administration was conservatively reformed, and many industries were deregulated. This economically open environment paved the way for the Information Revolution, which would use computer technology then under development, take it to market, and eventually transform the world. Abroad, American hegemony- or at least lack of significant hostile threats- impelled a strategic culture informed by what has been called a Unipolar Moment. American statesmen were more inclined to be bold and brash in American foreign policy, from Reagan’s squeezing of the Soviet Union to Bush Sr.’s invasion of Iraq to Clinton’s interventions in the Balkans and Africa to Bush Jr.’s Global War on Terror. Again, America’s position in the world changed, but not in so fundamental a way as it had changed in 1945.
There were several major figures representative of this period of American history, including Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart, John McCain, and Bill Clinton. But the grandfather figure towering over this era was none other than President Ronald Reagan. Reagan had broad appeal to Jacksonians due to his simplicity and his populist rhetoric, but his chief importance in American history was as a Jeffersonian. He sought policies that protected the traditional cultures and institutions of middle America, and policies that would decentralize governance to levels at which it was better done. He also curbed some of the exuberant excesses of the New Deal, without carving out the New Deal’s fundamental precepts. So Reagan did not transform the Third Republic- but he did reform it, and has gone down as a transformative President since.
In 2015, it is apparent that the Blue Social Model and the New Deal Consensus are gasping their last breaths, while the Reagan reforms were not sufficient to provide a new governing blueprint on their own. Neo-Reagan policies were tried under President Bush, while Neo-FDR policies were attempted under President Obama. Neither worked, and it is only slowly becoming clear to our political and donor class that new thinking is going to be required to reforge the American Dream in its next iteration. The Information Age has been truly revolutionary in its effects. Abroad, the international system breaks down, and revisionist states defy American power in their own realms. But armies and missiles are not our only problems abroad- technology and economics have converged to decentralize power away from the nation-state level to degrees not known since the Medieval Ages, and threats from terrorism, international organized crime, and other shadowy forces loom as dark as those from Iran, China, and Russia. A New Axial Age emerges internationally, where revisionist empires prowl and states are hollowed out by forces within. On the homefront, a New Reform Age appears to be nearing dawn, as plutocratic and bureaucratic forces suck the lifeblood out of the American economy and society begins to take notice. If present trends and past events are any guide, it would appear that a charismatic, even legendary, president may enter the Oval Office in the next decade or so, and craft the Fourth American Republic with the support of the information technology oligarchs of Silicon Valley. This new charismatic President, we would hope, would be another Hamiltonian-Jacksonian thinker, and build the Fourth Republic with those tools, while crafting a grand strategy suitable to our global situation.
Taken on its own, this interpretation of American history would appear to be very deterministic. But it doesn’t have to be. It merely organizes history in a perceivable pattern and makes recommendations based on those observations. For example, due to the fact that the latest economic revolution, the Information Revolution, is still in its early phases, we can expect that some great realignment in American domestic politics is nigh, along with a strategic repositioning. But no iron law of history requires this, and it may be that neither event occurs and no great leader arises, thus disproving the theory.
Nonetheless, the theory provides a window for looking at disparate events and, in the author’s opinion, is roughly accurate enough to form the general contours of a policy agenda for the future. Given that grave national crisis beckons, it would be wise for American statesmen to formulate a new grand strategy to adapt to our present strategic reality. Meanwhile, they should resurrect the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian habits of mind that crafted three great orders in the past, and the Jeffersonian-Wilsonian habits of mind that worked to reform them, and apply this new pave-the-way liberalism to the challenges of the 21st Century.
Dawn of the Fourth Republic
And thus we arrive at the present situation. It’s been a few decades since we’ve had a great president, and it’s nearing a century since we’ve had a legendary president. The tides of war are brewing abroad while the sirens of decay sound at home. The nation is as divided as it was in 1861, as sapped by plutocratic power as it was in 1901, as much faced with international crisis as it was in 1941, and as beset by bureaucratic stagnation as it was in 1981. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. The stage is set for a great movement to rise and a great leader to command it and bring America to a new destiny.
The question is, in the coming crisis, will this new transformative leader craft a system which, like those of 1789 and 1865 and 1945, will overreach and eventually grow stagnant and collapse under its own weight? Or will sufficient Wilsonian reformist and Jeffersonian localist checks and countermeasures preclude the absolute consolidation of power in bureaucratic and plutocratic elites?
Although Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were the truly transformative statesmen who ushered in new eras, and we should thus look to their example moving forward, it would probably be better to look to the nationalism and populism- and localism and reformism- of Theodore Roosevelt, when seeking to determine what balance of political persuasions the next great president will need to embody and practice. Roosevelt was certainly of the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian school of nationalist populists, as were the three legendary presidents, but he also had a proud streak of Wilsonian reformism in him, and a healthy respect for Jeffersonian localism and liberty. In terms of character and policy, he arguably might have been the greatest president in American history, had fate not denied him a cataclysmic crisis of the union to navigate.
Will we have a President like Theodore Roosevelt, who, in the ongoing plutocratic and bureaucratic domestic malaise and the incoming world crisis, can hit that sweet spot of Jacksonian populism and Hamiltonian nationalism, and who will simultaneously have some Jeffersonian instincts to finalize the extinction of the progressive Blue Social Model, while pursuing Wilsonian righteousness and reform to overturn the suffocating financial plutocracy?
The shifting sands of American politics have some underlying constants that have maintained their existence throughout the history of our body politic. At certain times of great crisis, these stars have aligned and a leader emblematic of them has assumed the reins of power and fundamentally transformed American society. As we approach the next of these great crises- in 2021, perhaps?- we will need a level of political and strategic creativity not known for several generations, and a leader capable of integrating various American political traditions into a better, more effective end result. Perhaps Jim Webb or Jon Huntsman will be that leader; perhaps not. But a leader who embodies the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian policies of Theodore Roosevelt, similarly tempered by Wilsonian reformism and Jeffersonian localism, will be on the horizon soon. We have yet to see them.
In the meantime, here’s to the swift arrival of the Fourth Republic of the United States.