Bring Me Men to Match My Mountains
Two prominent GOP intellectuals took aim at the Trump phenomenon from different angles in their recent columns.
In the Financial Times, Peter Wehner, a former Bush Administration official and frequent writer, indicted the populist rhetoric and ideological passion of the GOP for providing a fertile nursery for the likes of Trump to rise:
“He is the product of certain intellectual and political habits that have taken hold over the years: a lazy anti-government ideology, prizing emotivism over empiricism, and conflict in pursuit of lost causes. This is not conservatism; it is splenetic, embittered populism. “
Meanwhile over at the New York Times, the columnist Ross Douthat chided the centrist political establishment (including the Republican establishment!) for growing increasingly disconnected from the real concerns of Middle America:
“Finally, freaking out over Trump-the-fascist is a good way for the political class to ignore the legitimate reasons he’s gotten this far — the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad.”
While Wehner blames the populists for Trump’s rise and Douthat blames the establishment, it seems to me that both are looking at different aspects of the same story. The Clinton-Bush elite is incorrigibly decadent and invites a populist backlash; the Sanders and Cruz wings of the major parties are vehemently intolerant and impractical and can easily be radicalized.
So your average Joe voter is presented with a less-than-savory list of least-bad options on Election Day. On the one hand, they can go with political “professionals” who are bought and paid for by a variety of moneyed interests and advised by coteries of Washington insiders insulated from the “Real America.” On the other hand, they can go with “grassroots” populist candidates, Left or Right, who spout vague partisan platitudes chock full of impracticality and oftentimes laced with hate.
This dynamic will likely continue on Election Day 2016. Voters will be forced to choose between Hillary Clinton, Crown Princess of the Establishment, and either 1) the Trump himself as GOP nominee, 2) a moderate GOP nominee alongside a third-party Trump, or 3) another GOP populist pulled so far to the Right by threat of a Trump third-party run as to render them basically a Trumpista.
A decadent elite and a throng of mad-as-hell populists. Which is less bad?
Other options would be nice. What about a movement- or a single candidate- with the moderation and centrism of the establishment wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties, yet with the reformist fire and popular appeal of the populist insurgencies dominating the airwaves? A “radical centrist,” if you will, to borrow a term from the early 2000s.
One thing’s for sure- that candidate or movement isn’t going to emerge from AEI’s or Brookings’s networks, for reasons of temperament. We need someone fiery and anti-establishment. And they’re not going to emerge from the Heritage or CAP networks, for reasons of policy innovation. We’re not looking for an ideologue, but for a pragmatist. We’re not looking for Hillary or Jeb, but neither are we looking for Goldwater or McGovern.
Perhaps one figure to look to for inspiration might be President Theodore Roosevelt. He rose to power in an age of a decadent established elite and populist demagoguery on both ends of the political spectrum, and put in place reforms that cooled the looming crisis and set the nation on a path towards world power and national unity. A latter-day Bull Moose from California- centrist, reformist, and innovative, all in the name of the American project and national unity- could do great things in forging the next set of American institutions. Incidentally, TR’s 1912 running-mate was a son of California- Republican Governor Hiram Johnson.
So here’s a proposal for my fellow California Republicans. We shaped the party with a maverick presidential candidate twice in the last fifty years, two great American presidents who united the populist and establishment wings of the Grand Old Party and went on to make great and necessary reforms in their leadership of the nation as a whole- Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Their achievements have been immortalized in the national conscience and memorialized at Yorba Linda and Simi Valley.
Why can’t we do it again- find a leader, shape the party, transform the nation? In Sacramento, at the Jesse M. Unruh State Office Building, Sam Walter Foss’s immortal admonition from the land of the American West to its sons is inscribed- “Bring me men to match my mountains.” Nixon and Reagan stand in the national conscience, arguably, with preeminence similar to that of Half Dome, El Capitan, or Mt. Whitney- giants among giants, the most prominent summits amidst a range of glorious peaks. Where is the next son (or daughter!) of California, hungry to lead America?
Why don’t we look, as a state party, for someone to groom for high leadership in the state- the Governor’s office, perhaps, or a Senate seat- some champion of California-style reformist conservatism who can represent the state and the party on the national stage. Someone, to quote the Hamilton musical on Broadway these days, who is “young, scrappy, and hungry,” with a first-rate intellect and charisma and, beyond that, a principled vision for the country tempered by a realistic understanding of human affairs and American culture. Preferably an older Millennial, a bit of new blood for the electorate to taste.
Of course, this’d be a multi-year process with no quick or guaranteed results. It would take time to bear fruit- the next Nixon or Reagan won’t be decided by lot and spring out of a state convention ready to take on Hillary Clinton next year. Things like this take time.
But, alongside other plans the California Republican Party has to expand its base, propose alternatives to the Democrats’ green-and-blue policy consensus, and elect officials to local and statewide positions, would it not be smart for the state party to prepare for the next decade’s worth of fratricidal national intraparty squabbling by recruiting a champion or champions to rise above the fray and lead the party and nation in the future, and training them for such roles? Nothing, after all, can grant an organization leverage quite like charismatic, visionary national leadership.
Again- California and the California Republican Party have led future trends nationwide since California’s rise in the early 20th Century, from the reforms of Governors Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren to the policies of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. We can do it again. But we must first get our own house in order, define Republicanism for the 21st Century (and pray it doesn’t look too much like Trumpism or the establishment’s incoherent mash of policies,) and find a champion willing to bear the burden of leading such a movement later in their career.
The least we could do for our fellow citizens across the country is work to give them such an option in 2020 or 2024.
Forging the Fourth Republic
Forging the Fourth Republic
“Bring me men to match my mountains, bring me men to match my plains
Men with empires in their purpose, and new eras in their brains…”
-Sam Walter Foss, “The Coming American”
A foreboding sense of gloom is thick in the air as America approaches the elections of 2016. At home, our bureaucratic institutions are a mess, a plutocratic elite precludes any hope of real reform, a stagnant economy offers no real prospect of a revived American Dream, and the sense of national mission and national purpose has all but disappeared. Abroad, monsters and highwaymen lurk, from the fields of the Ukraine to the East Asian Littoral to the scorched battlefields of the Middle East. American leadership for the last two decades or so has been increasingly problematic and uninspiring. The people crave a change, and reformist movements and demagogues are now familiar sights.
Are we approaching the end of the Republic? That question can be answered with both a yes and a no. The short answer is “no-“ America will go on and neither split asunder, nor come under some foreign yoke, nor betray its ideals and slide into tyranny. In that sense, the Republic will go on.
But in another sense, the Republic- or more specifically, the Third Republic of the United States- is indeed approaching its demise, and is already thrashing about in its death throes. This “Third Republic” is the unique set of political institutions, elite structures, economic systems, and a social contract that have defined American life since the 1930s. That Republic rose when the Second Republic fell; the Second Republic, in turn, replaced the First Republic. Each of these Republics was characterized by a distinct and evolving set of political institutions, elite structures, economic systems, and a social contract, and each was forged in time of crisis. Each fell to its own internal decay.
Before we delve into the history of the three Republics of the United States, it’s important to note that the “foundings” of each were not clear, concise moments in time. Indeed, I consider the foundings to have lasted almost two decades each time- 1775-1791, 1854-1876, and 1929-1947. And even after these great epochs, statesmen continued to put new institutions in place, albeit at a less grand scale. But one thing is clear- the Republics were forged at the convergence of great domestic and strategic crises, and the America that emerged from the crises looked different in fundamental ways than the America that went in. These Republics fell when their institutions no longer functioned in the new realities of the world, and were swiftly replaced by better institutions.
And despite the very real differences between the men who forged the institutions and between the institutions that were forged, in the case of all three Republics- Washington’s, Lincoln’s, and FDR’s- two strains of American political thought were dominant. The first was what Michael Lind calls the “Hamiltonian” nationalist tradition of activist government. The second was what Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian” tradition of populism in the interests of a mass middle class. These traditions have been fundamentally at odds throughout the course of American history, and indeed, Washington and Lincoln waged war upon Jacksonians while FDR opposed them while in office. But when the energies of nationalism and populism have fused, the ideas that emerged have created powerful new institutions that have stood for decades in each case.
All this is important when considering what the Fourth Republic of the United States will look like. We’re building it right now; we could use some guidance.
With that, let’s take a look at the history of the three republics, and then, informed by the past, speculate on the future Fourth Republic’s broad contours and shapes.
Pre-Revolutionary America, it was widely acknowledged, could not long continue under British rule after the French and Indian War. The imposition of some excessive British intrusions onto the colonists’ self-governance inspired several mass revolts across the diverse realms of the thirteen colonies, and by 1775 the Revolution- and the Crisis of the Founding- had begun.
Between 1775 and 1791, several major strategic and domestic goals were met, all in the atmosphere of international crisis and internal division. Strategically, the colonies gained their independence from Britain through the long struggle of the Revolutionary War. They would affirm their independence after the crisis ended, in the Quasi-War with France and the embarrassment of the War of 1812. The new Americans also guaranteed some degree of sectional unity by uniting under the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution during the 1780s- and continental unity was perhaps the most important strategic checkpoint over the course of the next century. Domestically, the Constitution assured that there would be a strong but not overbearing national government. And finally, Alexander Hamilton’s economic program, put in place under the Washington Administration nearly in full, assured a dynamic mixed economy.
With a strategic and domestic climate amenable to American independence and nationhood, the institution-building could begin.
The bulwark institution of Washington’s First Republic was the planter elite. Washington, himself a planter and a slaveowner, embodied this dynamic. The planter elite was not always the governing elite, but it was the upper-middle tier social grouping from which power in the First Republic flowed. As such, it largely dictated the shape of institutions and the methods of governance, while offering some degree of stability and unity for a good amount of time. There were other elites, of course; the chief rival of the planters was Hamilton’s financier elite based in the northern cities, and in time an industrialist counter-elite would begin to rise. But it was the Southern planters who largely called the shots and determined the norms in the First Republic, and their favor was crucial for just about any politician trying to get something done.
Despite the sheer power of the planter elite, there was also significant government support for the rudiments of a mass middle class- a “social contract,” primarily economic in nature, that gave ordinary citizens a stake in their own government and paved the way for economic opportunity. This first social contract was based off of two federal policies- Hamilton’s financial system, which opened up opportunities for even the lowest rung of society to gain access to capital and improve their station, and the land grants in the Old Northwest, by which the federal government sold land to farmers relatively cheaply. Easy credit and cheap land were a very simple social contract compared to what would follow, to be sure; but they set the standard that the federal government would set up institutions to help the little guy.
But even as the government offered up opportunities for class mobility, the political institutions of the First Republic were solidly aristocratic. Party structures were set up in solidly aristocratic ways, in what Morton Keller terms a “deferential-republican regime.” Property ownership was necessary for political participation, as was some degree of social status. This would begin to change under the Jackson Reformation, but even then, the presence of great orators who littered their speeches with classical allusions was testimony to the fundamentally elitist character of the political institutions of this time.
Finally, there was Washington’s American System, an economic arrangement that would be carried on by Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, and many other Republicans and Whigs. The economy of the fledgling nation was structured around three main pillars: a national bank and centralized financial system, protections of “infant industries,” and federal support for “internal improvements” to bind the nation together. This national economic strategy favored all sectors of the economy, allowing planters and farmers to transport their goods, giving support to infant manufacturing industries, and keeping a stable financial system attractive to foreign investment. By the 1830s and 1840s, American economic strength would be recognized as among the foremost in the world.
Despite its clear effectiveness, the institutions of the First Republic would soon begin to decay under their own weight and in response to American expansion. The people would notice, and a new reformer- General Andrew Jackson- would rise up and reform, without revolutionizing, the institutions of the Republic.
Two trends in particular in the early 19th Century brought the largely aristocratic institutions of the First Republic into a state of decay, and they were both aided and abetted by particular institutions contained within the First Republic. These were continental expansion, abetted by the government’s sales of land to farmers and including such adventures as the Oregon purchase and the Mexican War, and the First Industrial Revolution, which the federal government helped to bring about by investments in technologies and protections for infant industries. The continental expansion brought about a sort of economic democracy, with a mass middle class demanding representation. The industrial revolution began to change the balance of power in the American economy and tilt it decisively towards industry, while setting up a newly empowered industrial elite.
Amidst these changes, the planter elite still held power, though it increasingly came under pressure from the rising Jacksonian masses and the newly ascendant industrialists. The invention of the cotton gin and subsequent re-affirmation of slavery’s economic power bolstered the planter elite, and over time it grew more and more reactionary and hostile to the policies of the north. But it still generally called the shots in national policy.
Against this, President Andrew Jackson rode in on a populist wave, fueled by the growing Jacksonian middle class. He and his populist successors improved and expanded on the previously existing “land sale-easy credit” social contract through two main measures- supporting a system of state banks, and drastically increasing the amount of land available to farmers and settlers through Indian Removal, the Mexican War, and the purchase of the Oregon Territory. (Jefferson had done the same through the Louisiana Purchase.) Jackson thereby expanded and preserved the First Republic’s social contract, without fundamentally rethinking it.
But in terms of political institutions, President Jackson and the Jacksonian movement made drastic changes. The 1830s saw nothing less than a transformation of the deferential-republican regime into a populist one, based not so much on aristocratic pretensions as on increased popular participation. Universal manhood suffrage and other reforms were fueled by anger at a system that common people believed excluded them in its oligarchic ways, an anger empowered the more due to the apparent decadence of the planter elite. This trend would repeat itself throughout American history- anger at an elite would inspire populist reformation of America’s political institutions, while the elite would quietly continue to hold power.
The American System of the First Republic fostered a new industrial elite in the eastern cities whose interests were increasingly inimical to those of the Southern planters. By the 1850s, the parties had divided among regional lines, and the seeds of crisis were inevitable. Jackson’s Reformation had preserved the First Republic for a few decades longer; but it did not resolve its internal contradictions, and the rise of the industrial elite would add fuel to the coming crisis.
By the 1850s, the nation had divided over the issue of slavery- the planter elite squabbled with the new industrial elite, public opinion followed the winds, and after the election of President Lincoln, the slave states started splitting off. The Crisis of the Union had begun.
The Crisis of the Union, which lasted roughly from the mid-1850s to the compromise of 1876, saw a number of strategic and domestic goals achieved by American populists and nationalists. First and foremost, the Union was preserved by Northern victory in the Civil War- and the preservation of the Union was the overriding strategic imperative of the 19th Century. Second, the Civil War and its aftermath saw the Union’s complete hegemony over North America, which would allow the United States to compete at the same level with the European powers. Aside from these strategic accomplishments, two crucial domestic achievements were made- first, the aristocracy was totally broken and replaced with an industrial elite. Second, Hamilton and Washington’s constitutional vision of an activist government was validated, making further state-building and government activism possible. The institution-building began during Lincoln’s tenure in office and would continue throughout the 19th Century. But the basic character of the regime was unduly influenced by Jacksonian democracy.
Lincoln’s policies and the northern victory put in place a mass industrial elite- the “robber barons” or “captains of industry” of the late 19th Century. These men, leaders and major stockholders of the great corporations and combinations in the steel, oil, railroad, and other industries, were not necessarily politicians themselves. But they did hold immense power, and most politicians built operations off of their foundations. This elite, like all elites, was not necessarily malign- the great corporate leaders did a lot to increase American wealth and employed millions of laborers. And on top of that, they were oftentimes quite philanthropic. But like all elites, they had a tendency to overreach.
Despite the mass industrialization of American society and the flight of many Americans to the cities, a majority remained on the family farm throughout much of the era of Lincoln’s Republic. And correspondingly, Lincoln and his congress passed legislation that amounted to a totally new social contract for the burgeoning American middle class- the Homestead Act, which gave free land in the West to farmers willing to maintain it, and the Morrill Land Grants, which created a series of agricultural colleges and cemented the federal government’s role in assisting public higher education. This new social contract, based on providing education and opportunities for the burgeoning middle class, overlapped with the new American System Lincoln institutionalized. It signified a greater commitment on the part of the federal government to act “for the people.”
The political institutions of this Second Republic were based on mass participation in the party-boss machine system, beautifully depicted by George Washington Plunkitt. Money, rather than social prestige, became the chief arbiter of political power, as it would remain throughout American history. But the party boss system tended to rely on informal trust networks and personal relationships as a distributor of benefits, rather than simply going to the highest bidder. As such, party bosses were relatively independent of the Gilded Age elites, while remaining interconnected with them. These institutions were strongly influenced by the party reformations of the Jacksonian era.
Lincoln also institutionalized a new American System in this timeframe. The former “infant industries” of the antebellum period had grown up into titanic leviathans, and government policy now tilted towards allowing them to flourish rather than propping them up. This included heavy protectionist tariffs. Congress embarked on a further ambitious infrastructure plan, passing legislation giving support to the railroads and generally financing internal improvements. And the National Banking Act recentralized finance, providing a stable investment climate and finance for various enterprises in the United States.
This system made America a power on the world stage and created hitherto unprecedented prosperity. Americans were now quite self-confident as a nation. But the excesses of industrial capitalism and the inequality they spawned would lead to populist revolts throughout the late 19th Century, giving rise to another great reformer- Theodore Roosevelt.
The overseas expansion of American interests, the Second Industrial Revolution, and the development of the financial sector created huge amounts of wealth, making many Americans very, very rich. These forces were abetted by the institutions of the Second Republic. Incidentally, they had the effect of hollowing out and corrupting those very institutions, and by the 1890s corruption swallowed the government and combinations swallowed the economy. The American people grew polarized, and reform movements like the Populists and the Progressives rose up in opposition to the swift rate of change and the seeming decadence of the industrial elite and establishment politicians. Amidst all this, Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the Presidency when President William McKinley was assassinated, and began implementing a reformist program.
The industrial elite had, by the turn of the 20th Century, incurred the public’s wrath. Public perception of elite control of politics belay the reality that the increasingly constricted combinations and big businesses were doing well, without producing any apparent benefit for the nation as a whole. This was plutocratic parasitism at its finest.
President Roosevelt made a point of expanding access to the American Dream and saving the Homestead Act social contract by cracking up some of the major trusts and working to open markets and opportunities for the common man. He also pioneered the rudiments of the progressive state, largely unsuccessfully, in the interests of making middle-class living more tenable. But Roosevelt’s largest contribution to maintaining the Homestead Act social contract was in cowing the large combinations and industrialists, and by being something of a populist, encouraging the perception that the federal government would protect the common man from the trepidations of the industrial elite.
To that end, Roosevelt, throughout his Presidency and 1912 presidential campaign, encouraged various progressive reforms in governance. These included some economic measures, but primarily consisted of political measures like recalls, referendums, and open ballots at the state level. It was believed that measures like these would give the masses a direct hand in governance and create another check against the power of the industrial elite. TR’s populist reforms did not wholly undercut the power of the industrial elite, but like Jackson’s populist reforms, they created the perception that the government served the interests of the people rather than those of the special interests.
This progressive reformation planted the seeds of progressivism in the United States, one tenet of which was rational public management. Though some bureaucratic reforms had been made during Reconstruction, the Progressive Era sw the proliferation of the new bureaucratic state and a corresponding elite that would one day challenge the industrial elite. TR’s reforms preserved the Second Republic through the intense international conflict of the First World War and the decadence of the 1920s. But the overbearing industrial elite would collapse with the crash of 1929, and a new generation would get to work at forging the institutions of the Third Republic of the United States.
The global Great Depression, combined with Soviet, Japanese, and Nazi militarism and expansionism throughout the 1930s, amounted to what might be called the Crisis of the World. Economic uncertainty and international chaos created a situation no American statesmen had yet known, and into the fray stepped President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The Crisis of the World, like the Crisis of the Union before it, resulted in the realization of a few main strategic and domestic goals. Strategically, first off, the United States survived the ravages of war- a feat no other combatant power managed to do so successfully. This put the American economy in a favorable competitive position in 1945. Additionally, the United States gained control of the global trading system and wrote the rules of that system with the Bretton Woods accords. This granted it a degree of power it had never before known. On the homefront, the Depression swiftly eroded public trust in the industrial elite, and new, rationalistic bureaucratic elite road FDR’s coattails through the New Deal to dominate American politics. Aside from the new elite structure, the Depression and Second World War created a mandate for an effective and powerful federal government even moreso than the Crisis of the Union had required. So between 1929 and 1947, Franklin Roosevelt and a coterie of other politicians had broad authority to re-forge the Republic, creating a unique set of institutions.
The bureaucratic, or “managerial” elite, as James Burnham described it, had been born in the Progressive Era. And through the new management structures of the New Deal, it came to dominate the federal government, eventually becoming what would be described as a “Fourth Branch” of government. This professionalized civil service would exert more and more of an influence over policymaking over the course of the century, while becoming less and less efficient and effective. But in the 1930s, it served its purpose well.
FDR and his congresses crafted a new social contract, one no longer based off of land grants for farmers willing to work the land, but on universal entitlements and various public services. The Social Security Act provided Americans with publicly-funded pensions in their old age, and all were eligible for it. Meanwhile, the federal government assumed a weightier role in providing for public education and job training, and the Housing Act subsidized the cost of homes. Aside from these, a network of various welfare services provided citizens with a last resort. This model- universal entitlements and public services like education and job training- would form the basis of the Third Republic’s social contract, and FDR’s heirs would expand upon them throughout the course of the 20th Century.
The rationalistic bureaucratic institutions of governance staffed by a career civil service were formed at this time, too, and politics adapted. Though a civil service had existed for decades in place of the old spoils system, it was now more formally institutionalized and normalized in governance. The parties continued to operate under variants of the boss system, but governance itself was solidly bureaucratic.
The old American System of Lincoln’s Second Republic was also revamped for the realities of the 20th Century. The Federal Reserve had been managing central banking for a few decades already, since the Wilson Administration, and it was empowered further under the Roosevelt Administration. Large monopolies in various strategic sectors were allowed to flourish, protected from nimbler competition by the bureaucratic elite’s regulatory regime. And the Roosevelt Administration and its successors embarked on a program of heavy public spending in areas like infrastructure and technological innovation, helping to propel the economy further into the century.
The bureaucratic and centralized institutions of the New Deal era worked well for a few decades. But in time, American global expansion- globalization- and a new information technology revolution would undermine the foundations of FDR’s Third Republic, and make reform necessary
The global expansion of American corporate power, so heavily supported by postwar presidents, began chipping away at American job security significantly in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the Information Technology Revolution, which had been funded and nursed by the federal government’s involvement in scientific research, began to revolutionize governance and render the old bureaucratic way of doing things less relevant. In this climate, the centralized and rationalistic institutions of the New Deal appeared more corrupted, while the bureaucratic elite appeared inept. Against this apparent stagnation rose the conservative movement and its charismatic leader, President Ronald Reagan.
In particular, the bureaucratic elite had been stagnating for several decades by the 1970s and 1980s. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society had drastically expanded the size of government and the power of the bureaucrats, but its atrociously uninspiring results and the ensuing social crisis of urban America eroded public trust in the professional civil service. Against this backdrop, a conservative like Reagan could more or less accurately say, “Government IS the problem!”
Despite rhetoric about decreasing the size of government, Reagan’s policies focused on deregulation and tax cuts. The core of the New Deal’s social contract- massive federal entitlements’ was largely maintained, and indeed expanded. In fact, Reagan’s reforms of the federal government are better viewed as attempts to preserve the public’s trust in the New Deal’s social contract, than as attempts to roll back or revolutionize governance.
In that light, Reagan did probably the least of any of the great reformers to democratize governance and institute populist reforms. But his rhetoric stood as a commitment of the President to stand against the decadence of the bureaucratic elite in the interests of the mass middle class, which thereby did much to restore public trust in government. Without fundamentally changing the institutions of the New Deal, Reagan reformed them in the name of the mass middle class.
It is interesting to note that Reaganite policies, particularly big defense spending, helped to employ and finance the burgeoning tech sector of the day. Information technology, beginning around the start of Reagan’s presidency, would begin to be more pervasive in American society, and in time its creators would begin to exert political influence on their own. But the fundamental unsustainability of the New Deal social contract, the decadence of the bureaucratic elite, and the increasing salience of the IT revolution would soon bring the Third Republic to the point of national crisis. And that’s where we are now.
The Fourth Republic of the United States
It would appear that we have entered the next Crisis of the World, or are otherwise close to it. The crash of 2008, the biggest since the Depression, exposed the fundamental contradictions of our economic system, while worsening gridlock and hyperpartisanship gives lie to the instability of our political institutions. Meanwhile, we approach strategic crisis abroad, with foes lurking in all corners of the Earth and new ways of war being pioneered by our adversaries. While the especially dramatic portion of the Crisis has not begun yet, nor has the intensive institution-building, it can be foreseen that those are nearing. When the dust settles, the American leadership must have accomplished four objectives.
First, two strategic objectives. Like in the last Crisis of the World, we must ensure the survival and sovereignty of the American nation. And aside from that, we must maintain a dominant position among the nations of the Earth.
Domestically, there are two more objectives. First, the bureaucratic elite must be fully replaced by the rising information elite of Silicon Valley, in its revolutionizing of society and governance and its general influence over American political life. Second, a strong but limited government capable of nation-building activities must be validated, and it must get to work crafting a new social contract and American System.
The information elites of Silicon Valley have already revolutionized American social life and business through the power of technology, and it is important for the improved competitiveness of the Republic that our political institutions follow suit. Tech-transformed governance could conceivably be more responsive and efficient than the current paper-pushing bureaucratic model, and such a new model of governance would require people who could speak the language. The replacement of bureaucrats with programmer-servants, and the corresponding power over governance given to tech executives, would be the final end of the bureaucratic elite and their replacement in power by the information elite and its particular interests and eccentricities.
This would have implications for political institutions and political participation, too- a digitally reformed government would offer different and broader avenues for participation to concerned citizens. That, in turn, would have profound impacts on democratic governance, perhaps super-empowering the public voice and the moneyed interests that inform public opinion.
A new social contract would have to be formed, too, one far more sustainable than the present universal entitlements model. One suggestion might be to hybridize the Civilian Conservation Corps, GI Bill, and Homestead Act models, and create a universal youth entitlement premised on a national service system. Under this system, young Americans would participate in national service of some form or other for a period of years, and upon the completion of their service time would receive a block of funding they could invest in college, homeownership, starting a business, or the like. Like Social Security, it would be universally available; unlike Social Security, it would potentially provide returns, and thus be fiscally sustainable. It could be combined with increased federal support for education to forge a new social contract based on national service and access to opportunity.
And the Fourth Republic will require a unique American System attuned to the realities of 21st Century life. Like the previous American Systems, it would include central banking, protections and partnerships with strategic industries, and a massive program of federal investments in infrastructure and technology. In the 21st Century, this would mean updating the mandate of the Federal Reserve, our existing central bank. It would include an identification of those industries considered necessary for American warmaking success- including energy, aerospace, defense, heavy manufacturing, IT, and biotechnology- and institute favorable policies for those industries to stay headquartered in America, including tax breaks and research partnerships. And it would develop a strategic infrastructure plan geared towards building the new infrastructure of the 21st Century- so aside from repairing old ports and roads, building a new nuclear energy grid, providing autonomous vehicle credits, and the like. This renewed American System would be built to expand and enhance American productive capacity and creative power.
This new set of institutions and policies can form the backbone of the Fourth Republic of the United States, but policy wonks on both sides of the aisle will need to get thinking creatively about our problems, informed by knowledge about the other three “Foundings” of the United States. So what can they learn?
Advice for the Next Great Leader
More likely than not, the coming period of great reforms will happen under the shepherding of a charismatic, visionary, uniting leader not unlike Washington, Lincoln, and FDR in stature and character. It does not appear that that leader is present in the 2016 field at the moment, so the country may have to wait a few election cycles for such a person to arise.
But that leader, once in the Oval Office, will find a grave crisis on their hands both strategically and domestically, and will have to respond with boldness, firmness, creativity, and hope. The future of millions of Americans yet unborn will be in their stewardship, and they will have to work to both preserve a divided nation and give it institutions that work. They will have only history as their guide; they will bear an unimaginable burden.
The first thing they can do is look to Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, and see what those great Republic-forgers had in common.
The primary takeaway here is that all three lawgivers were Hamiltonian in the best sense and Jacksonian in the best sense- they were willing to use the power of the federal government to forge institutions beneficial to the mass middle class. They were all intensely charismatic and devoted to national unity and integrity above all other concerns; yet despite their realpolitik, they never lost sight of the fundamentally moral cause of the American Republic. They communicated both realities to the American people through crises domestic and strategic.
In terms of getting through the domestic and strategic crises, two fundamental imperatives stand out: Preserve the American union against internal division, and preserve its sovereignty against external domination. These leaders brought all the nation’s resources to bear against those threats to the Republic, and so must the next great leader in time of crisis.
Despite the requisite public-spiritedness of the great leader and their followers, it is by no means guaranteed that the elite of the Fourth Republic will be so selfless. Therefore, it is imperative that in navigating the crisis and forging new institutions, the great leader tie the elite’s particular interest and reputation to the fate of the Republic, just as Lincoln did with the industrialists and Franklin Roosevelt did with the bureaucrats. This can be done by tying in the elite’s particular modus operandi with the governance of the nation- in the case of the early 21st Century, building a governing process based on tech.
In forging the institutions of governance, the next social contract, and the next American System, the great leader should bear in mind what those of the past looked like and the purposes they served, and build something for the 21st Century with roughly similar contours.
The Fourth Republic will not be crafted in one fell swoop, with a preplanned design in mind and a flawless execution. It will be the result of fits and starts, new initiatives informed by existing ideas, lessons of the past misapplied onto the problems of the present. But in the end, especially provided that some overall unifying vision informs the instincts of the leader and elites crafting it, the Fourth Republic will be discernably unique, yet still well-within the American tradition of strong government intervention in the public interest.
And this Republic, too, will face its own decline- its internal contradictions will cause its decay, its elitism will enrage the populace. But it will provide the structure of American governance and public life for roughly the next century- and that means that the policy decisions and rhetoric of the next decade and a half or so will be crucial, in this “founding” moment, for informing the debates of the coming decades.
Greatness awaits those who seize it, and the crisis of the present moment is no different. We have, now, the opportunity to lay down the institutions of the Fourth Republic of the United States, with ample precedent before us in the three prior foundings. Let’s get to work.