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