The current issue of The New Criterion features James Piereson’s essay entitled “The Fourth Revolution,” and it wouldn’t surprise me if it takes its place alongside Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 National Interest essay on “The End of History” as one of those markers of intellectual ferment that plants itself firmly in the national conversation for months and years to come.
Piereson’s rich article is difficult to summarize adequately, but let’s start by observing that it is an historical extension of Walter Russell Mead’s well-formed argument about the collapse of the “Blue State model” of governance, i.e., high taxes, ever-increasing spending, and over-regulation. As Mead puts it:
The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.
Piereson takes this undeniable fact of our political economy today and puts it in the context of the entire sweep of American history, suggesting that our current era bears comparison to three previous periods of intense political instability and conflict that gave birth to entire new eras of governance that lasted for two or three generations. Political scientists and historians will recognize this as a variation of classic “realignment” theory, by which one party displaces another as the durable governing majority in watershed elections or moments in time.
But Piereson’s argument goes beyond Samuel Lubell’s classic outline of the idea in The Future of American Politics. He identifies three decisive, “revolutionary” political shifts in our history as a way of setting up that we are on the cusp of a fourth: the rise of the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democratic Party in the early 1800s; the rise of the Republican Party because of the acute crisis of slavery in the 1850s; and the rise of the New Deal Democratic Party in the Great Depression. (Piereson skips over the Progressive Era as a key inflection point in American politics, but perhaps rightly so as it did not see a party realignment. I know from Jim’s great book on JFK, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, that he understands fully the intellectual and political importance of the Progressive Era. But it does remain the great anomaly of American political history for a number of reasons.)
Piereson offers a compelling survey of the strengths and weaknesses of our two evenly matched parties at the present time that account for what the superficial media see as “gridlock,” but argues that the current instability cannot last. The current impasse arrived because the two parties have evolved into a stark contrast:
This evolution has now produced a volatile and potentially destabilizing alignment between the two major parties, with one rooted in the public sector and the other in the private sector, and with each communicating mainly with its own supporters. In the past, political parties were coalitions of private interests seeking influence over government in order to facilitate their growth within the private economy. This was true of early party conflicts that pitted commerce against agriculture or the later splits between slavery and free labor or business against organized labor. The regional and sectional conflicts of the past were also of this character. This was in keeping with the small government bias of the Constitution in which the government itself was never supposed to emerge as a political interest in its own right.
The conflict today between Democrats and Republicans increasingly pits public sector unions, government employees and contractors, and beneficiaries of government programs against middle-class taxpayers and business interests large and small. . . This impasse between the two parties signals the end game for the system of politics that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. As the “regime party,” the Democrats are in the more vulnerable position because they have built their coalition around public spending, public debt, and publicly guaranteed credit, all sources of funds that appear to be reaching their limits. The end game for the New Deal system, and for the Democrats as our “regime party,” will arrive when those limits are reached or passed.
After surveying the possibilities for further drift, confusion, and potentially catastrophic conflict, Piereson offers a note of optimism:
If the three previous revolutions offer any lessons, then there is every chance that the United States will emerge from this crisis with new momentum to develop its economy and provide leadership for the world.
But what of Obama and the election in front of us? Piereson concludes by counseling that we should not put our hopes in the short-term:
No matter how it turns out, this year’s presidential election is likely to sharpen, rather than to resolve, political divisions in the United States. Despite all this, President Obama is unshaken in his presumption that he is a herald of a new era, a revolutionary on the models of Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR. But is it possible that he will instead turn out to be something much different, a modern day Adams, Buchanan, or Hoover—that is, the last representative of a disintegrating order? Such a denouement is not only possible but, in view of our situation, more and more likely.
Read the whole thing, as the saying goes. Among other things, it is a fitting prologue to what may be the political book of the year, coming in September: Charles Kesler’s I Am The Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism. I’m reading the galleys right now. It harmonizes quite well with Piereson’s essay. I won’t give anything away, except to say: You should preorder your copy right away.