The End of the Third American Republic

by Sal on April 22, 2009

in Politics

For Political Science and History junkies out there, James DeLong has an interesting article at The American Enterprise Institute entitled “The Coming of the Fourth American Republic.”  The article is lengthy and scholarly, but it makes an interesting case that our current governmental system is on the crux of collapse and will be replaced in the relatively near future by another form of democratic government, still rooted in the Constitution, yet operating fundamentally differently from the way it does today.

If this seems far-fetched, keep reading.  It really isn’t.  DeLong argues that America is currently in its third republic since the ratification of the Constitution.  Unlike France, which has had five Republics with differing forms of government and different Constitutions, America’s “republics” are more in line with the relationship and role of the Federal Government to the States and the people.  DeLong argues that each “republic” is replaced about every 70 years or so, and defines each of the three Republics that have existed to date.  The First Republic was a loose alliance of states with a strong but limited Federal government.  During that period, people self-identified with their states moreso than with the American government.  The First Republic came to a crashing end with the succession of the southern states and the Civil War.  While fought over slavery, its practical after-effect was to alter the American system of government in such a way that the states now became subordinate to the Federal Government.

During the Second Republic, the Industrial Revolution hit full-force.  laisez faire government allowed industry to expand and government policy heavily favored industry at the expense of the individual.  The Progressive movement, born in the early 20th century was a response to this, which argued for impartial government civil-servants who would pursue the common good.  The Progressive movement came to a culmination during the Great Depression and subsequent “New Deal”, which gave birth to what DeLong calls the “Special-Interest state” of the third “Republic” which we live in today.

DeLong then argues that the current form of government is reaching critical mass and is  poised to go out with a bang.  While acknowledging that nothing is written in stone and that the third republic could find a way to continue, he sees the possibility of the current governmental system failing as far more likely due to its rapid expansion in the last several years (under both parties).  DeLong is optimistic about what the fourth republic will bring.  He sees it beginning at the grass roots and moving upwards, possibly through the amendment process or a new party.  While I don’t necessarily see it working that way, the recent Tea Party movement may be the seed of a grassroots movement that will bring about the end of the third American Republic, and move us into a new era more firmly rooted in the principles of limited government.  While it won’t be perfect (government never is), it will likely be preferable to the mess that we find ourselves in today.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan April 22, 2009 at 8:51 pm

I really liked the article and agree with your interpretation. The “Special Interest State” or (to look at it another way) “Big S.I.S.”, has been a system forged out of the well-meaning, yet quasi-fascist Progressive movement of the early 20th Century with a trademark American smile on its face. Building from there, FDR’s conscious move from a Republic governed by “the Law” to a Democracy run by assembling groups of voters dependent on government to get their individual interests heard (aka “interest groups” or to use an 18th Century term, “factions”) forever impacted our social contract. It’s easy to see why nearly all historians view the New Deal as a gateway in our history. I can also see that the direct descendants of this system, like Obama, want to fashion themselves like heroes out of the 1930s — Big Sis’ is alluring, comforting, and protecting (since it makes the Law fungible) until it breaks.

As has been noted many times on this site, the current welfare state as it exists in America is completely unsustainable — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will go broke without crippling tax increases or benefit cuts, and adding a layer of national health care will catalyze the complete system-meltdown process decades before anyone in power likely anticipates. Thus, the old social contract is on a collision course with a dose of reality — Big Sis’ can only tax us so much until a threshold is reached where the public revolts despite the current plea that everything being done is for our own benefit.

As DeLong indicates, this could be a peaceful or violent transition — “bullots or ballots” to quote Malcolm X. Given Obama’s recent attempt to criminalize politics by siccing Eric Holder on former Bush officials, shaking off Big Sis’ will likely have violence in it. Ultimately, Obama represents the perfect end to the era of Interest Group politics, or Big Sis’ — he’s attractive, well-spoken, with radical viewpoints he’d like to impose on us for our own benefit, but ultimately an Empty Suit, winging it to our collective peril. He’s everything the Special Interest State is and 2009 is not the time for empty rhetoric, nor is it a time for action we know will lead us down an unsustainable path. But that’s all Obama knows, that’s all the system knows, and ultimately that’s why it must change.

My big question is: what replaces it? We could see, as you point out Sal, a return to a more free country, with individual responsibilty and less government at its core. That would be the clear and preferred alternative of what we’ve been getting from the Washington crowd. Yet, given that so many people are dependent on this monster, coupled with the notion that during grave crises people tend to look to their government for solutions, a full-fledged soft-tyranny could be codified through the will of the people in exchange for material security — a nightmarish exponent of what we already have.

Think of the moment in “I, Claudius” when Claudius tells his son Britannicus that Nero must be the next Emperor so that Rome may be thrown in such turmoil that Britannicus may return from exile and herald a return the Republic… until Britannicus tells Claudius he never believed in the old Republic and gets mad that his father didn’t make Britannicus his heir in the first place! I’d hate to see America faced with that moment with that response from youth who’ve not grown up fully understanding what freedom really is, just the ever-hovering Big Sis’ come to take care of them when they get a boo-boo.


UNRR April 24, 2009 at 9:47 am

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