Notes on the Prospective Next Few Decades in American Politics, 2017-2047
How I feel when I write “Notes on ________”
Let’s assume that my friend Jason Willick’s pessimism about American institutional and civic decay is overly bullish; that the staying power of American democracy will get us through our current identity crisis, even if we do get as close to low-grade civil war as we got in the late 1960s. Let’s assume, too, that the general contours of the American state we all know and cherish but don’t necessarily love, are durable enough to last through this storm, so much so that the basic calculus of American politics fluctuates only gradually over the course of the next few decades.
Big assumptions, I know. But for projection’s sake, let’s assume that we’re going to make it through this mess easily enough.
SOME TRENDS TO THINK ABOUT
First, some trends. Willick has noted time and time again that the constitutional system, ideological inertia, and geo-demography make it increasingly likely for the Republicans to maintain their lock on Congress and most of the state legislatures. And although Trump is President, Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, and John Judis and Ruy Texeira, have pointed out that we appear to be at the end of an era of one-party dominance of presidential politics (GOP 1968-2004) and at the cusp of another one (Dems 2008-20??) not dissimilar to such eras in decades and centuries past.
Look at those two political trends in two other lights- first, the culturally conservative and geographically disparate nature of the current Republican Party, and second, the culturally progressive and geographically concentrated nature of the current Democratic Party- and it becomes clear that there is something like a significant chance that the next decade, and quite likely the next few decades, will see the Obama years, rather than the Trump years, as the model: powerful Democratic Presidents from the elite social liberal wing, extending the power of the Administrative State against an obstructionist and reactionary Republican Congress and network of Republican state legislatures. Of course the Democrats will still maintain some congressional and state legislative seats and governorships, sometimes edging into the majority, and of course the Republicans will sometimes win the Presidency. But the norm to be expected ought to be the dystopia Joel Kotkin keeps painting and the reality Michael Lind keeps seeing: hyper-powered coastal oligarchic Democrats battling and trying to suppress boisterous inland reactionary populist Republicans.
The reality of American politics will of course be much more complex than that, having to do with the underlying coalitional shifts of the parties, class structure trends, the shifting waves of public opinion, and the personalities and whims of ambitious individual men and women, alongside the institutional powers of the parties and elite classes. And in this reality there will of course be huge roles for benign public servants in the civil service, for red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans to temper their own parties’ extremisms and check the ruling parties in their states, and for moderates across the board in the middling levels of governance and civil society to reclaim a degree of sovereignty for the community.
This last point raises interesting questions. It should be assumed that if the Democrats find their main strength to be in controlling the Presidency, they’ll favor executive orders and regulatory edicts as their primary instruments of political power. If the Republicans find themselves consigned to Congress and the statehouses, they’ll of course argue for checks and balances and localism, with a passion they never did in the years their party generally controlled the White House.
There will be many interesting battles- unionists versus soft secessionists, cultural conservatives versus cultural progressives, globalists versus nativists versus internationalist nationalists, more- but one of the most interesting will probably be between coalitions of radical localists on the left and right, and radical centralists on the left and the right. The main fault line in this case, of course, would be control of the Presidency- the left will demand more sovereignty for blue urban cores and metropoles against the depredations of future Trumps, while the right will howl for states’ rights against the advances of future Obamas. Bipartisan and transpartisan thinking on localism, such as the type I’ve worked on with Joel Kotkin and Morley Winograd, will only increase in importance.
WHAT TO DO WHILE LOCKED OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE
If we do end up inhabiting an era where fiscally liberal and socially progressive Democrats control the Presidency, and thus the government, more often than not, and therefore can push forward a generally liberal, multicultural, big-government agenda for America (look at how far the New Deal advanced before the 1970s, and how far neoliberalism advanced before the 2010s!) one must beg the question- what are Republicans to do in the brief interregnums when they control the presidency?
The reasonable answer would seem to be, to do what Eisenhower did after the FDR presidency, and what Clinton did after the Reagan presidency: if the order is generally reasonable and just, and simply poorly administered and prone to excess, don’t bother building a new consensus- run the newly-established one better than the other side ever could. I despise many aspects of the left-liberalism of the Obama-Clinton Democrats and their certain successors, but I’m beginning to understand that making peace with that coalition, should it become dominant, and altering it from the inside, is probably more productive than the policy-free scorched-earth-ism of the Trump Presidency or, for that matter, what most other 2016 Republicans would’ve done. The union and the order beneath it is the most important thing; all political goals beneath that are secondary to the consensus that sustains our civilization.
If the order established is not reasonable and just, then it probably isn’t much of an order at all, and the majority of the American people probably aren’t buying into it. The founding of a new order is still necessary at that point, and it would be wise for a President Huntsman coming on the heels of a failed President Harris or President Newsom to depart from their follies as much as President Roosevelt departed from President Hoover (while of course taking what best can be taken from their experience.)
WHAT TO DO AS A BLUE-STATE REPUBLICAN OR RED-STATE DEMOCRAT
I mentioned earlier that there’d clearly be a big role for red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans. Senator Jacob Javits argued very eloquently, in the 1960s, that parties need to be multi-regional and multi-factional, so that they don’t devolve into becoming purely ideological parties prone to witch-hunts and such. Everything I’ve written now assumes that the Republicans stay in their suburban rings and rural areas, while the Democrats remain cloistered in their urban citadels. Blue states become ever more blue, red states ever more red.
Republicans in blue states and Democrats in red states can, ever so slowly, help moderate the parties by diversifying their constituencies and factional constellations. A Republican Party competitive in New York and California is clearly going to have to appeal to a broader coalition than Republican Parties in Texas and Iowa; same can be said of Democrats in Texas and Iowa versus in California and New York. Moreover, Republicans in blue cities and Democrats in rural areas and small towns have work to do on these issues, as well. Build up a fiscally liberal and socially moderate faction in the GOP, or a socially conservative and fiscally reformist faction among suburban Democrats, and you reduce the dogmatism of American politics, increasing its transactionalism. Pure transactionalism isn’t a good thing, but a little more of it nowadays, in these days of extremes, would be nice.
It’s not that moderation is important for its own sake. Rather, governance gets to be less a high-stakes winner-take-all game when the stakes are lowered a bit, which happens when officeholders are incentivized to compromise among multiple groups rather than tank successful bills to impress donors and activists. Distinct but muddier ideological coalitions in both parties would be welcome; and since that clearly is not coming on from a top-down intellectual strategy, it could be better achieved, perhaps, through a bottom-up electoral strategy.
TO THE FOURTH REPUBLIC
I’ve spilled too many pixels speculating what the fabled “Fourth Republic” will bring, and most of it’s been based on my own intellectual explorations and ideological preconceptions. I’ve realized, too late, that the contours of the next Republic are really not up to any group of intellectuals, and are more up to whoever the next Lincoln-like or FDR-like “Lawgiver” happens to be, and which circle of advisors influences him or her. And who that Lawgiver is, and what they’re able to do, is dependent largely on the complicated interplay of virtu and fortuna.
But there are some things that can be broadly prognosticated, I think. I have yet to publish my “Prolegomena to the Syncretic Theory of the Lawgivers” piece, which will be a historical interpretation explaining away what the hell I mean by “The Lawgivers,” and will document the complex historical “physics” at play in that theory. But for now, suffice it to say, in a nutshell: great, nation-shaping leaders synthesize multiple strains of thought as they forge civic ethoses and new institutions, and reactions to those institutions and ethoses shape subsequent movements and their strains of thought.
In the current iteration of this theory, Franklin Roosevelt synthesized some traditions from his own time, but mostly those of the generation before his- Woodrow Wilson’s, Theodore Roosevelt’s, and William Jennings Bryan’s. These in turn gave us the institutions of the Third Republic, which is almost dead, whose walking corpse we inhabit. But the traditions the Third Republic housed- New Deal Liberalism, Modern Republicanism, Conservative Republicanism, Progressive Radicalism- as well as their late-20th-century children, all of which are somewhat more neoliberal and market-friendly- will be the traditions for the next great Lawgiver to synthesize into a new set of institutions.
I continue to think Modern Republicanism (which in some ways looks like the Democratic Third Way, and in other ways certainly does not) offers a healthy “Ike-Nixon-Ford” model of policy reform for the next Lawgiver, just as FDR’s main inspiration was Woodrow Wilson and Lincoln’s was Henry Clay. And if that’s the case, the next Lawgiver will be a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat- Jon Huntsman, maybe, or god help us, Martin O’Malley.
But then, this may be very, very wrong- while they certainly won’t be any further right than Huntsman, they may be significantly further left, given where the values of the Millennial generation tend to lie. I hesitate to believe that a staunchly progressive Democrat like Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom could inhabit the same historical stance as Lincoln or FDR- in fact, I don’t believe it- but then, they might have similar Lawgiver-like effects if they do attain not only the Presidency, but that role in history.
Still- in terms of being the kind of Lawgiver who can unite the country, I really don’t see any way for someone not in Huntsman’s or Lieberman’s or Kasich’s temperament to make it. But given the probable likelihood of Obama-like liberal Democrats holding and even dominating the Presidency between now and, say, 2047, it is not too far off to expect them to have their Lawgiver either.
Or maybe I’m just too tired to write all this and should go to sleep, and think more about historical physics after I’ve finished more of my actual work. I don’t know.
But I will be writing that “Prolegomena to the Syncretic Theory of the Lawgivers” soon enough. That’ll clear a lot of this up.