Contours of the Fourth Republic, Updated

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.

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