the fourth Republic

Billmon has a lengthy response to Nicholas Confessore's landmark piece in the Washington Monthly about the GOP dominance of K-street lobbying. What struck me the most, however, was where he parts ways with Confessore's thesis and introduces the idea that the United States has had three distinguishable forms of its history, and that we may now be entering the fourth. Intriguingly, each of these phases has lasted precisely 72 years:

As Confessore notes, the next election just might determine whether the Republicans can carry their one-party project through to an enduring hegemony:

If the GOP can prevail at the polls in the short term, its nascent political machine could usher in a new era of one-party government in Washington. As Republicans control more and more K Street jobs, they will reap more and more K Street money, which will help them win larger and larger majorities on the Hill. The larger the Republican majority, the less reason K Street has to hire Democratic lobbyists or contribute to the campaigns of Democratic politicians, slowly starving them of the means by which to challenge GOP rule.

If that's true, then the United States may be approaching the end of the third great cycle of its political history. This thought is especially (if morbidly) fascinating to me, because it would mean all three of these cycles have been of almost precisely the same length. Consider:
  • From the ratification of the Constitution (1789) to the outbreak of the Civil War (1861): 72 years.

  • From the outbreak of the Civil War (1861) to Roosevelt's First Hundred Days (1933): 72 years.

  • From the Hundred Days (1933) to the next presidential inauguration (2005): 72 years.

What's so special about these 72-year cycles? Each constitutes a clear and distinct epoch of American constitutional history -- amounting almost to a series of separate "Republics" on the French model. The first two of these epochs ended in a major constitutional overhaul, either through amendment or a radical reinterpretation of the existing text by the Supreme Court:
  • First Republic: A loose federation of sovereign states, led by a weak central government controlled by a quasi-aristocracy of Southern planters and Northern lawyers, it died in the Civil War. The post-war constitutional amendments (13 through 15) were the death certificate.

  • Second Republic: A unitary state, dedicated to the laissez faire principles of 19th century economic liberalism. It died of the Great Depression. The New Deal legislation, combined with the Supreme Court's new and expansive reading of the Interstate Commerce Clause, was the obituary.

  • Third Republic: Our existing, though dying, incarnation of American democracy, which combines the unitary institutions of the Second Republic with a watered-down version of European Social Democracy. It's been fading since the 1970s, and looks increasingly vulnerable to a GOP-led overthrow.

What might a Fourth Republic look like? The creation of an LDP-style political machine can't really be considered a constitutional revolution on par with the Civil War or the New Deal -- although it might, in time, pave the way for such a thing, once the Democrats have declined beyond the point of no return. Just imagine Tom Delay and John Ashcroft with the power to amend the U.S. Constitution.

Canada is starting to sound pretty good, isn't it?

There was a time when I would have said that any GOP hegemony would prove fleeting -- in part because of the demographic changes coming down the pike. (If my post so far has had the emotional effect of a visit with the dementors, then by all means go and read The Emerging Democratic Majority by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. It's as good as chocolate.)

But my biggest and strongest argument against one-party rule would have been that Americans are just too cantankerous and contrary-minded to accept it for long. However, looking at how passive, malleable and disinterested the voters seem to have become, I do have to wonder: Is this national submissiveness entirely due to the creation of a war mentality since 9/11? Or, are Americans on their way to becoming like the Japanese -- perpetually disgusted by their one-party oligarchy, but unwilling to do anything so radical as vote them out of office?

I don't know. But to our triumphant conservative opponents, I'd offer one word of warning: Every political cycle since the ratification of the Constitution has ended with a major expansion of federal power and influence. Given the trends in Washington, I wouldn't be surprised if this one does, too -- albeit with a corporate twist. You may get your hegemony, but you also may not like what you get.

No comments: