Future Tense, X: The Fourth Revolution


The United States has been shaped by three far-reaching political revolutions: Thomas Jefferson’s “revolution of 1800,” the Civil War, and the New Deal. Each of these upheavals concluded with lasting institutional and cultural adjustments that set the stage for new phases of political and economic development. Are we on the verge of a new upheaval, a “fourth revolution” that will reshape U.S. politics for decades to come? There are signs to suggest that we are. In fact, we may already be in the early stages of this twenty-first-century revolution. Read excerpt below...

The great recession that began in 2008 caused many to suggest that the United States is entering a period of “decline” during which it will lose its status as the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation state. The metaphor of “decline” presumes that the American people will sit by passively as their standard of living and international status erode year by year. That is unlikely to occur: Americans will do everything in their power to reverse any such process of national decline. Thus, what the United States is now facing is not a gradual decline but a political upheaval that will reshape its politics, policies, and institutions for a generation or two to come. There is no guarantee that the nation will emerge from this crisis with its superpower status intact, just as there were no guarantees that it would emerge from the Civil War or the Great Depression in a position to extend its wealth and power. The most that we can say is that, in the decade ahead, Americans will struggle to forge a governing coalition that can guide the nation toward a path of renewed growth and dynamism.

The financial crisis and the long recession, with the strains they have placed upon national income and public budgets, are only the proximate causes of the political crisis now unfolding in the United States. The deeper causes lie in the exhaustion of the post-war system of political economy that took shape in the 1930s and 1940s. One pillar of that system emerged out of the New Deal with its emphasis upon national regulation of the economy, social insurance, expanding personal consumption, and public debt; the second emerged out of World War II with the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the U.S. military as the protector of the international trading system. The post-war system created the basis for unprecedented prosperity in the United States and the Western world. That system is now unwinding for several reasons, not least because the American economy can no longer underwrite the debt and public promises that have piled up over the decades. The urgent need to cancel or renegotiate these debts and public promises on short notice will ignite the upheaval referred to here as “the fourth revolution.” There will follow an extended period of conflict in the United States between the two political parties as they compete for support either to maintain the post-war system or to identify a successor to it.

It is not possible to outline in advance the precise lineaments of the fourth revolution. After all, few Americans living in 1798, 1858, or 1928 could have foreseen what was going to happen to their country in the years immediately ahead. The best that we can do is to look for some general patterns in these earlier events that might serve as guides for what is likely to happen in the United States in the next decade or two.

Notwithstanding its reputation for stability and continuity, the U.S. political system seems to resolve its deepest problems in relatively brief periods of intense and potentially destabilizing conflict. These events are what some historians have called our “surrogates for revolution” because, rather than overthrowing the constitutional order, they adjust it to developing circumstances.

There are a few clear reasons why the American system adjusts in this discontinuous fashion. The constitutional system, with its dispersed powers and competing institutional interests, resists preemptive and over-arching solutions to accumulating problems. At the same time, America’s dynamic economy and highly mobile society are constantly creating new challenges to which the political system cannot easily respond. At times, these challenges have built up to a point where the differences between parties and interests have been so fundamental as to defy efforts to resolve them through the ordinary channels of politics.

There are a few superficial similarities in the structure of these earlier events that might provide clues as to what we might look for in any new upheaval. These events—Jefferson’s revolution, the sectional conflict, and the crisis of the 1930s and 1940s—extended over several election cycles before producing a stable resolution; the political settlements that emerged from these conflicts lasted roughly a lifetime—sixty or seventy years—until they began to unravel under the pressure of new developments; and each event ended with the ouster of the political party that had dominated the system during the previous era.

At a deeper level, each of these realignments discredited an established set of governing elites and brought into power new groups of political and cultural leaders. After reorganizing national politics around new principles, these new elites took control of the national government, staffing its departments and agencies with their political supporters. As they strengthened their control over the system, they also gradually extended their influence into important subsidiary organizations, such as newspapers, college and university faculties, book publishers, and civic associations. College and university faculties and our major newspapers today are overwhelmingly Democratic; from the 1870s into the 1930s, they were generally Republican. This is one of the factors that cements any realignment in place and gives it the stability to persist over many decades.

One can also identify in all three cases an abrupt change of policy, a broken agreement, or some perceived violation of faith that poisoned relations between the parties, drove them further apart, and closed off possibilities for compromise. The Federalists’ passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), which opponents saw as an attempt to criminalize criticism of the Adams administration, provoked all-out warfare with Jefferson’s fledgling party and convinced Jefferson and James Madison that their ultimate goal should be the destruction of the Federalist Party. The Democratic Party’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854 brought the Republican Party into existence and sharpened the sectional conflict by several degrees. In 1932, FDR claimed (falsely in this case) that the bankers and industrialists had caused the Depression by irresponsible speculation in stocks. Because of this violation of trust, he declared that their activities would have to be supervised more closely by federal authorities.

More fundamentally, each of these realignments was carried out and then maintained by one dominant political party. Following the election of 1800, Jefferson’s (and later Jackson’s) Democratic party defined the parameters of political competition until the outbreak of the sectional crisis in the 1850s. The Republican Party led the nation through the Civil War and maintained its dominant status throughout the post-bellum era of industrial development. In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR’s Democratic Party organized the modern system around the politics of public spending and national regulation. The Democrats completed this revolution after World War II when the United States began to assume responsibilities in the international arena commensurate with those it had already assumed in the domestic economic arena.

The dominant parties in each of these eras might be called “regime parties” because they were able to use their political strength to implement and carry forward the basic themes around which these political settlements were organized. Jefferson’s party pushed forward the themes of localism, democracy, and expansion; Lincoln’s, the themes of union, freedom, and capitalism; FDR’s, the themes of national regulation, public spending, and internationalism. In this sense, the United States has rarely had a two-party system but rather a one and one-half party system consisting of a “regime party” and a competitor forced to adapt to its dominant position. These competitors—the Whigs in the 1840s, the Democrats after the Civil War, and the Republicans in the post-war era—occasionally won national elections, but only after accepting the legitimacy of the basic political themes established by the regime party.

The question today, then, is whether or not the party system formed in the 1930s and 1940s is about to exhaust itself in a new upheaval that will lead to some new political alignment around a new constellation of issues. There is little doubt that many of the political signs present in earlier upheavals are increasingly in play today.

The Democratic Party established itself in the 1930s and 1940s as the “regime party” in modern American politics by building majorities around the claims that it pulled the country out of the Depression and won the war against fascism. Democrats won five consecutive presidential elections from 1932 to 1948, comparable to the six straight ones won by Jefferson’s party between 1800 and 1820 and the six won by Republicans from 1860 to 1880. Throughout the period from the 1930s into the 1980s, Democrats consistently maintained control over both houses of the U.S. Congress. This electoral strength gave the Democrats solid control over the institutions of the national government.

Given the popularity of FDR and the New Deal, Republicans had little choice but to accept the general contours of the new regime. Following their landslide defeat in 1936, Republicans nominated a succession of presidential candidates—Willkie, Dewey, Eisenhower, and Nixon—who did not challenge New Deal programs but promised only to administer them more effectively. Among Republican candidates between 1940 and 1980, only Barry Goldwater sought to roll back the New Deal, and his defeat in 1964 was taken as evidence of the futility of that strategy.

Over the decades, the Democratic Party has built its coalition around public spending and the recruitment of new groups into the political process, often by promises of new public programs. It has displayed a remarkable capacity to renew itself by adjusting its appeals to the ever-changing political marketplace. In the 1930s, FDR built his coalition around urban workers, farmers, and industrial unions with appeals that grew out of the grim realities of mass unemployment and destitution. By the 1960s, John F. Kennedy and his successors succeeded in broadening the Party’s appeal to the middle class and suburban home owners by pushing “quality of life” themes like environmentalism, civil rights, women’s rights, and government support for the arts. Later, as private sector unions began to disappear in the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats replaced them in several key states by organizing public sector unions and mobilizing them into their party. In many states, these unions provide the organizational backbone of the Party by supplying votes and money and serving as well-placed advocates for further public spending. The Democratic Party has gradually evolved into a “public sector party” that finds its votes and organizational strength in public sector unions, government employees and contractors, and beneficiaries of government programs.

Many thoughtful observers argue that the New Deal alignment came apart in the 1960s and was replaced by Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution in the 1980s. There is something to be said for this view. Since the 1980 election, Republicans have achieved rough electoral parity with the Democrats, winning five of eight presidential elections and winning control of the House and Senate in roughly half of the elections that have taken place since that time. The Republicans, much in contrast to the Democrats, have organized themselves in recent decades as a “private sector party,” winning votes and contributions from individuals and business groups committed to cutting taxes and reducing the size and scope of government.

Despite their electoral successes since the 1980s, Republicans never managed to reverse the flow of political power to Washington and failed to eliminate or substantially reduce any of the New Deal or Great Society social programs. Federal spending on domestic programs grew nearly as quickly under Republican as Democratic administrations. Republicans have on occasion tried to balance the budget or tinker with Social Security and Medicare but were rebuffed by Democrats who accused them of trying to destroy these popular programs. Republican governors and mayors, like their Democratic counterparts, continue to make their pilgrimages to Washington in search of grant money and subsidies for their states and cities, just as members of Congress from both parties run for reelection by pointing to the federal funds they have brought back to their states and districts.

Nor have Republicans had much success in penetrating leading cultural and educational institutions on behalf of ideas that have wide support among voters. College faculties and editorial boards are more resolutely Democratic and liberal today than they were in the 1960s. Republicans have so far been unable to parlay their considerable electoral success into commensurate influence over cultural, journalistic, and educational institutions. Conservatives, in fact, have done something altogether different: they have created their own newspapers, magazines, think tanks and research institutes, and colleges and schools to circulate their ideas. They have, in effect, formed their own “counter-establishment” through which they communicate with their supporters and wage ideological warfare against Democrats. The two parties increasingly live in their own political and philosophical worlds, a fact that obviously drives their members further apart and makes compromises between them ever more difficult to achieve.


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published this page in Media+Culture 2012-06-09 08:24:39 -0400