“The Coming of the Fourth American Republic”

Summary:  Slowly realization spreads that we are at the end of an era.  Here is an interesting look at one aspect of that transition, and what might lie ahead.  This is just a brief excerpt; I recommend reading it in full!  At the end are links to other posts on this site about the death of the American Constitutional regime — and what might come next.

The Coming of the Fourth American Republic“, James V. DeLong, The American (published by the American Enterprise Institute), 21 April 2009 — “The Special Interest State that has shaped American life for 70 years is dying. What comes next is uncertain, but there are grounds for optimism. ”  Hat tip to the Instapundit


The United States has been called the oldest nation in the world, in the sense that it has operated the longest without a major upheaval in its basic institutional structure.

From one perspective, this characterization is fair. The nation still rests on the Constitution of 1787, and no other government can trace its current charter back so far. Since then, France has had a monarchy, two empires, and five republics. England fudges by never writing down its constitutional arrangements, but the polity of Gordon I is remote from that of George III. China’s political convolutions defy summary.

Shift the angle of vision and the continuity is less clear, because we have had two upheavals so sweeping that the institutional arrangements under which we now operate can fairly be classified as the Third American Republic. Furthermore, this Third Republic is teetering (these things seem to run in cycles of about 70 years) and is on the edge of giving way to a revised Fourth Republic with arrangements as yet murky to our present-bound perceptions.

This prediction should be seen as optimistic, not pessimistic, despite the stresses the transition puts on those of us standing on the ice as it cracks. At the risk of practicing “Whig history”—a term applied to the interpretation of history as a story of progress toward the enlightened present—the infelicities of the Third Republic grow tedious, and reform is needed to clear space for the progress of American, and world, civilization.

Understanding the current upheaval is aided by a brief description of the earlier ones.

The first was the Civil War and its aftermath, which established that sovereignty belongs to the nation first and the state second, and that the nation rather than the state claims a citizen’s primary loyalty.

… The next great institutional upheaval was the New Deal, which radically revised the role of government. … The crisis of the Great Depression provided a great opportunity, and it was seized. Starting in the 1930s, the theoretical limitations on the authority of governments-national or state-to deal with economic or welfare issues were dissolved, and in the course of fighting for this untrammeled power governments eagerly accepted responsibility for the functioning of the economy and the popular welfare.

… This Third Republic has had a good run. … It is characteristic of political arrangements that they go on long after an observer from Mars might think that surely their defects are so patent that they have exhausted their capacity for survival. … But it is more likely that the Special Interest State has reached a limit.

Few Washington lawyers and lobbyists know that it was once questioned whether the Special Interest State is an appropriate form of organization for a polity.This may seem a dubious statement, at a time when the ideology of total government is at an acme, but it is not unusual for decadent political arrangements to blaze brightly before their end. Indeed, the total victory of the old arrangements may be crucial to bringing into being the forces that will overthrow it. … A catalogue of its insoluble problems includes: …

While we await events, none of this analysis should be regarded as a counsel of pessimism. Political arrangements should change with time and experience, and to expect the political architects of any era to foresee all the problems inherent in their institutions is to demand the impossible. By 2090, it will probably be time for the Fifth American Republic, and, Heaven willing, more after that.

On the other hand, it would be unwise to treat the issues with anything other than utter sobriety. The nation made a fundamental political transition peacefully on one occasion, and only with appalling bloodshed on another, and it is hard to buy ammunition these days because the dealers’ shelves are bare. So all patriots would be well advised to pick up a copy of Crane Brinton’s classic The Anatomy of Revolution, and figure out how we can achieve the necessary segue to the Fourth Republic without becoming a chapter in the next edition.

About the author

James V. DeLong is a former research director of the Administrative Conference of the United States and a former book review editor of the Harvard Law Review.


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM site about America’s political regime:

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
  3. Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
  4. See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
  5. Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
  6. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  7. Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
  8. What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008
  9. Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009

13 thoughts on ““The Coming of the Fourth American Republic””

  1. translation from a blog in German:

    Septimus Severus was the first black Emperor of Rome. Before and after him, who died in peace, a death that was a rarity in those times, the emperors were either maniacs or simply insane. Maybe he was not an African, he came certainly from North Africa, had maybe just a shade darker skin as the Romans, still the analogy to Barak Obama is not inappropriate. We had before Obama some maniacs as presidents, Bush II certainly would have fit in as Emperor in Rome. We don’t know who comes after Obama, but we know, the Barbarians are at the gates, what’s more, they are already inside the gates.

    My addendum: Septimus’s main achievements were: the increased involvement of the provinces and of the Roman military into the political process. Maybe this is simply the key to the next 4 years.
    FM note — From the Wikipedia entry on Septimus Severus:

    “Lucius Septimius Severus (or rarely Severus I) (145-211) was a Roman general, and Roman Emperor from 193 to 211. He was born in what is now the Libyan part of Rome’s historic Africa Province, making him the first emperor to be born in the Roman province of Africa.”

  2. Fabius, at first I thought you were slipping…

    Really, this is a terrible analysis. What state is not a special interest state? Especially, what American regime? Railroads had the country in their pockets from the civil war to the 1890’s, and cotton interests before that. The notion that the New Deal era is some kind of historic anomaly is a flase one, driven mostly by the fact that the author doesn’t much like New Deal interests – especially labor, for whom his contempt is palpable.

    So this idea that there used to be some kind of Golden Age of interest-free politics is a ridiculous one. That being said, there is some substantial food for thought here. Delong is straight on here:

    “Over the past few years, political winners have become increasingly aggressive, culminating in President Obama’s recent “We won” as an assertion of an unlimited mandate. Losers have become increasingly restive, ready to attack the legitimacy of the winners’ victory. Bush, in particular, was the target of an amazing and consistent campaign of de-legitimizing, and the opposition to Obama is on a hair trigger.”

    Entrenched interests can fall out of favor with shocking quickness – witness cotton after Lincoln’s election, railroads after the Pullman strike, or (on a smaller scale) the Taiwan lobby after Nixon’s trip. It does look like we’re heading toward a serious re-alignment of interest groups.

    Delong is also wrong when he implies a sort of limited-government, federalist character to the coming realignment. Ha!
    * The Lincolnian realignment brought about a massive increase in federal power.
    * The Progressive-Era realignment brought a bigger one.
    * The New Deal, bigger still.
    * And the Reagan realignment, completed in Bush, wrapped itself in limited-government swaddling, but resulted in a vast, vast expansion of the state, especially in the areas of defense and domestic policing.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I find this difficult to understand.

    (1) Magnitudes matter. To say that the 19th century US was a “special interest state” is bizarre, with its (by our standards) microscopic Federal and State governments. US Federal and State governments have been in the infrastructure-building biz since the Founding, but their scale of operations expanded greatly in the New Deal, which is Delong’s point.

    (2) Your last paragraph seems to be a re-statement of Zeno’s “motion is impossible” theory. Delong is speculating about the future, and your flat assertion “he is wrong” merely asserts that trends must continue forever. They do not.

  3. Slaney,

    The problem is not that special interests exist. It is a question of how many!

    In the immediate post war era, how many special interests with the ability to influence votes or policy existed? I can name only a handful – the military-industrial complex, farmers, labor and capital. Now we have racial grievance groups for every ethnicity imaginable, even made up ones. We have one for old people. We have a group for county sheriffs, and another one for city police chiefs. Nor is this merely a phenomena of left – we have Focus on the Family and the Catholic League.

    They all have one of two things in common – they want to vote themselves a bigger share of the pie, or they want to control what other people do. For an example of how egregious it is, please read MADD about Regulation:

    President Obama’s pick to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration raises a few red flags. If confirmed by the Senate, Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, will drive motorists over the cliff with regulation.

    The nation’s traffic-safety czar has broad powers to control the roads and road-going habits of Americans. Mr. Hurley has a history of pushing laws that harass millions of law-abiding citizens to ensnare a few lawbreakers. He supports returning the 55 mph speed limit to our highways as well as roadblocks and random pullovers to make sure drivers aren’t doing anything wrong. This methodology is based on a presumption of guilt – not innocence – of the average driver who is doing nothing wrong.

  4. If you’re keeping a “How the constitution died” scrapbook, here’s one for you. We have a new, and undisputed world champion in the “Doing hard time without any trial” department: Martin A. Armstrong. Excerpt from the Wikipedia entry:

    Armstrong was indicted in 1999, and was ordered by Judge Richard Owen to turn over a number of gold bars, computers, and antiquities that had been bought with the fund’s money; the list included bronze helmets and a bust of Julius Caesar.[8] Armstrong produced some of the items, but claimed the others were not in his possession; this led to several contempt of court charges.[9] Armstrong was jailed for seven years for contempt of court, and only went to trial when the NY Court of Appeals removed Judge Owen from his case; in 2007 he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five more years in prison.

    This guy is, I believe, the new record holder. But I’m sure he deserved it. Nothing to see here people, now move along.

    After more research, the record is 14 years (source)

  5. viz. the HR 1913 which I categorised as mainly being just adding more federal layers of rules on top of things FM replied:

    “I am glad you find these bills so innocuous. It’s amazing how often foolish people worry that legislation will have effects easily foreseen but beyond the drafters’ stated intent.”

    I was reading it because I wanted to check the original documentation versus various reports I had read about it (and others of late). Like I read about the new Food/Agriculture one (can’t remember the Nr.) that all organic farmers would be closed down. I read through it carefully but was not convinced that is really what it is saying. But maybe it is and I am too dense to understand.

    Same with 1913. Maybe it is a bad thing to add the ‘hate’ layer to violent crime statutes, but what it did NOT have – which is what I had read – were provisions that would demand that any expression of ‘hate speech’ was immediately to be judged as a crime. I couldn’t find that in HR 1913.

    Again, maybe I am just too dumb to pierce through the fog of legislative verbiage.

  6. This comment could also go into your recent Global Warming thread (because there IS confluence in the posts you choose to make no doubt). I very much enjoyed the 4th Republic article. At the same time, something was nagging me about it.

    Then much later I was reading a recent piece about GM food altercations in the EU:

    Now what does the GM issue have to do with the 4th Republic article and the Global Warming theme?

    For me the convergence, which I believe is important and valuable to explore further and I warmly supplicate you to do so, is

    a) one of the main dynamics in the 4th Republic and related article on the evolution of the Supreme Court involves the dynamic between States and Union especially where that involved/involves inter-state corporate practices.
    b) an important theme was the difference between ‘structural’ and ‘rights’ Courts.
    c) The Monsanto suit insists that there is no scientific basis for denying their product in Europe (even though that is highly debatable of course)
    d) The GM topic in general to my mind is a much more immediate and interesting one to delve into than Global Warming because, as most fair-minded people can admit, the ‘fact’ is that we simply don’t have the ability to evaluate the difference between long-term and short-term climate shifts, let alone distinguish those that are anthropogenic or not, let alone evaluate the effect of depopulating the fish population in the oceans on the plankton population and how THAT effects carbon monoxide etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. GM on the other hand involves stuff we eat every day. It involves national, regional, local, international, legal and political issues playing out all the time. I think it’s a better topic, frankly.
    e) and most important: the tussle between a single corporation Monsanto and the entire EU organisation is the further evolution of the fault lines between State and Federal that the Supreme Court dealt with so often in the formation of the United States after the Civil War (i.e. during the 2nd Republic) but now this fault line is extending trans-nationally even though it is essentially the same dynamic.

    So you often raise the issue of ‘self-governance’. Rightly so (though I am still not sure what you mean by it!). But here we live in a world where a corporation – with good reason from its point of view – can insist that its product be introduced into the soil and air and water of a country and that country – let alone States/Counties in that country – does not have the right to object.

    So here the Structural and Rights Courts issues come together in a way that the US-centric analysis of the Courts article linked in the 4th Republic article didn’t quite address. And they were both excellent, intelligent, substantive pieces.

  7. addendum to point d) last sentence: AND we eat the stuff every day, i.e. it is immediately immediate!

  8. re #9/10

    On the one hand, you can’t buy Japanese made tractors here anymore because they got tired of losing their ass in liability suits in jurisdictions from hell, particularly in Texas. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem right that people can have genetically modified crops literally shoved down their throats. I say, let the courts, and Congress sort that stuff out, just make sure it’s constitutionally impossible to throw my ass, or anyone else’s ass in jail without trial, no exceptions.
    That was a good article you linked to though.

  9. “The Special Interest State” sounded like a useful concept, until the author revealed that by special interests he means first of all those like “environmentalists” and “labor”. He’s too smart not to notice the influential role of Wall street on government, but nary a word about oil, the military industrial complex, agribusiness, the pharmaceutical, the mainstream media, and the medley of special interests behind NAFTA and other trade and deregulation measures. These are the special interests that have driven American policy for the last fifty years, some more than that.

    Missing the real actors of the drama, the writer is not very convincing when he claims their day is over.

  10. The problem is not that special interests exist. It is a question of how many!

    I’ll grant you that! And lot of them are on the verge of a shocking, precipitous fall from grace. Like I said, 1890’s: one day the railroads straight up own every politician and you’d have to be a fool to think it could be otherwise. Practically the next day, no one wants to be seen with them.

    (2) Your last paragraph seems to be a re-statement of Zeno’s “motion is impossible” theory. Delong is speculating about the future, and your flat assertion “he is wrong” merely asserts that trends must continue forever. They do not.

    Well, that’s fair. I don’t see the scope of federal spending increasing that far above where it is now. But I don’t find it obvious it will decline any.

    In some particular areas, maybe. I think the drug war is coming to a breaking point. Politicians are looking for a way out of spending so much on prisons. But on the other hand, all kinds of corporate interests are crying out for top-down healthcare regulation and greater support for industrial research (they used to call it ‘indicative planning’). So I see at best a net break-even on the scope of federal power.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Such large government spending requires ever-larger borrowing, beyond the savings generated by the US economy. It is a test of Stein’s law — “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Like testing gravity, there is little doubt who will eventually win.

  11. What DeLong attempts is an interesting bit of historical revisionism against the ‘court’ histories taught in our public and private schools, where the heroic epic of the march of American history is unbroken from ‘The Glorious Revolution’ to date. I believe DeLong’s revisionism has merit, though the architecture of his historicism’s are unfortunately surfeit with his ideological biases. He proposes that 3 republics have reigned in the US and that the 3rd is on life support and the dawn of a 4th is around the corner. I believe he is wrong on the number of republics by one too many, or that the US can endlessly replicate an evolving republicanism into ‘more perfect’ forms.

    The early or first republic was characterized by extreme localism in that all power was local. The Township counted for everything, the Federal nearly nothing, if at all. If we dare to speak of democracy in America I submit there was far more of it then, than today. Many would probably consider that absurd, but than what could be more absurd than describing today’s Leviathan a ‘democracy?’ Today’s republic to my thinking is the second version. Its violent origins were birthed during the Civil War and nursed into being during Reconstruction. Its the killer of the First, Liberty and the great centralizer of national power, corporatism and statism. Before 1860 there was a ‘united States of America.’ A union of countries in a federal system. Afterwards there was a ‘United States of America.’ There inheres a great and massive difference a mere captilization makes between these two political expressions, of two radically different historical realities separated by time in the same geophysical spaces.

    I see continuum since 1860 in this republics ever expanding welfare/warfare statism, domestic aggrandizements and unconstitutional centralizations of power at the federal level. I do concur with DeLong’s premise that today’s republic is under terminal duress. However, I am not persuaded by some of DeLong’s reasoning for this state of affairs. I regard mythic digressions as fanciful abstractions that prove nothing. I also doubt that the public, separate from the people have lost any sense of ‘legitimacy’ or notions of the ‘right to rule.’ Nor are they clueless of the political terrain they swim in. This isn’t saying DeLong hasn’t raised some important and interesting points worthy of discussion and inquiry concerning the ‘insoluble problems’ he has raised, but seemingly ideological differences and partisan ire regarding Obama and the Democrat regency isn’t conducive to a broad engagement of these complex issues he has raised.

    Thomas Jefferson anticipated this by doubting that the constitutional compromises and norms of republican governance during his generation could be perpetually cemented onto the backs of future American generations. There is nothing new here and his insights were vindicated by the Civil War. I believe a singular and very decisive factor in the continuance of republican governance lies in your remark; “if the Constitution dies in our hearts the words (no matter how fine) will no longer matter.” I believe that dying began no later than 4 July 1826 with the passing of the two titans of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Per my perspective its been a down hill racer at varying speeds and angles of descent ever since. If there is one overarching cause for the crises and diminishment of our republic today, it seems to me that the problem lies in the chasm between the stories we tell ourselves and what we have become. That a substantial number of Americans no longer believe or are conflicted in embracing the fictions justifying the obvious unconstitutional and liberty killing goals of our current nature. In other words, its getting increasingly harder to lie to ourselves, about ourselves.

  12. Re, #10

    Senecal, DeLong fully admits his bias and gives qualifiers, so I don’t think he’s unaware that there is a long list of special interests on the right. I don’t think it invalidates his hypothesis. Two examples:

    “…Wall Street favors high taxes on incomes to force savers to use 401(k)s and similar plans, and these, to qualify as tax exempt, must be channeled through financial houses, which make a fortune in management and brokerage fees by swapping stocks with each other. Indeed, wherever one finds a public policy disaster, it is likely that the tax code is involved. The wreckage wrought in part by the favored treatment given to home mortgages now litters American exurbia.”

    “As a free market man, I see the Democrat Party as consisting of a collection of parasites… [who are] determined to loot as much as possible for as long as possible, regardless of the long term. Democrats make corresponding claims about the Republicans, of course.”

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