Obama and the dawn of the Fourth Republic
His victory really may mark the beginning of a new era in American history.
By Michael Lind
Nov. 7, 2008 | WASHINGTON -- The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.
In the past generation Bruce Ackerman, Theodore Lowi and I, in different ways, have used the idea of "republics" to understand American history. Since the French Revolution, France has been governed by five republics (plus two empires, a directory and a fascist dictatorship). Since the American Revolution, we Americans have been governed by several republics as well. But because we, like the British, pay lip service to formal continuity more than do the French, we pretend that we have been living under the same government since the federal Constitution was drafted and ratified in 1787-88. Our successive American republics from the 18th century to the 21st have been informal and unofficial.
As I see it, to date there have been three American republics, each lasting 72 years (give or take a few years). The First Republic of the United States, assembled following the American Revolution, lasted from 1788 to 1860. The Second Republic, assembled following the Civil War and Reconstruction (that is, the Second American Revolution) lasted from 1860 to 1932. And the Third American Republic, assembled during the New Deal and the civil rights eras (the Third American Revolution), lasted from 1932 until 2004.
Yes, you read that correctly -- 2004, not 2008. A case can be made that the new era actually began four years ago. True, Bush, a relic of the waning years of the previous era, was reelected. But immediately after his reelection, the American people repudiated his foreign policy and his domestic policy, including Social Security privatization. In 2006 the Democrats swept the Republicans out of Congress, and in 2008 they have recaptured the White House.
To be sure, every shift in partisan control of government does not amount to the founding of a new republic. Obama did not win a landslide or have long coattails. His coalition is a slightly larger version of the Democratic Party that was forged in the partisan realignment of 1968-72. And the public is still divided among liberals, moderates and conservatives much as it has been for a decade or two. But my scenario does not depend on Obama's election or even on Democratic control of Congress. The Fourth Republic might have gotten off to a start -- a bad
Policy shifts, more than public opinion polls or election results, suggest that a truly transformative moment may be upon us. The first three American republics display a remarkably similar pattern. Their 72-year life span is divided into two 36-year periods (again, give or take a year -- this is not astrology). During the first 36-year period of a republic, ambitious nation-builders in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton strengthen the powers of the federal government and promote economic modernization. During the second 36-year phase of a republic, there is a Jeffersonian backlash, in favor of small government, small business and an older way of life. During the backlash era, Jeffersonians manage to modify, but never undo, the structure created by the Hamiltonians in the previous era.
We see this pattern of Hamiltonian nation-building and Jeffersonian backlash in the First, Second and Third Republics of the United States. Between 1788 and 1824, the ideas of the centralizing, nation-building Federalist Party of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton succeeded. Although Jefferson and his small-government allies controlled the White House and Congress for much of this period, in practice they implemented a streamlined, cheaper version of the Federalist plan for America. Jefferson's Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, for example, supported a program of infrastructure and industrialization not all that different from Alexander Hamilton's. And Jefferson himself, contradicting his small-government philosophy, exercised sweeping powers as president, purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France on his own initiative and promoting a federal embargo on U.S. exports to Britain and France. The first Jeffersonian backlash came later, under Andrew Jackson and his allies between 1824 and 1860.
The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 triggered the secession of the South, the Civil War and Reconstruction -- the Second American Revolution and the founding of the Second Republic of the United States. During and after the Civil War, Lincoln's Republican Party remade the United States. In addition to crushing the South and freeing the slaves, the Republicans nationalized the banking system, promoted U.S. industry through high tariffs, carpeted the continent with federally subsidized railroads and used the sale of federal lands to pay for state colleges. From 1896, the Jeffersonian backlash against the system created by the Lincoln Republicans was led by Southern and Western agrarian populists and middle-class Progressives in the Northeast who, for different reasons, were alienated from the new order. While they achieved some reforms, the Jeffersonians failed to modify the essential features of the Lincoln-to-Hoover Second Republic.