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In The New Criterion, James Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation, offers a challenging perspective of the possibility that the next few years will usher in a fourth fundamental realignment of the American political landscape -- he cites the first three as the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800, the Civil War, and the New Deal. Piereson finds significant historical parallels of our time with conditions that precipitated the three previous realignments:

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.

Piereson rejects the idea, still promulgated by many faithful conservatives, that the Reagan Revolution marked the beginning of the end of the New Deal era. As Piereson observes, despite their electoral successes since 1980, “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.”

If he’s correct that we are experiencing the preliminary tremors of a fundamental political shift, our re-considerations of the roles of civil society in providing the seed-bed for our habits of social cooperation, beneficence, and mutual trust may be more important than ever.

Dick Cornuelle, the visionary behind The Philanthropic Enterprise, offered a similar critique of the Reagan administration in 1983 in Healing America. Largely unimpressed with the Reagan administration’s success even to live up to its promise to reduce the rate at which government was growing, Cornuelle argued that overturning the political economy of the New Deal would require more radical changes, such as a fiscal policy that contained inflation and repudiated “structural” deficits and a grassroots social policy of entrepreneurial reclamation of the “American tradition of independent action on the public business.”

The Keynesian formula for government spending as “the ultimate weapon against unemployment,” argued Cornuelle, “gave government an overwhelming advantage in the continuing contention for social responsibility.” Chillingly, against Piereson’s likening of Herbert Hoover (with Adams and Buchanan) as “the last representative of a disintegrating order,” we must consider Cornuelle’s observation that Hoover had energetically advanced it as “a central task of government to stimulate independent action.” So, Cornuelle wrote, “when Hoover went down politically, he took the Third Sector with him.”

For all the hoopla about American philanthropy and civil society in “the American century,” by 1965, when Cornuelle published Reclaiming the American Dream to draw attention to the more Tocquevillean “independent sector” of American associational energy, volunteerism, mutual aid, and charity, the American philanthropic industry was largely a realm of Progressive political triumph, public-private partnerships, and expanding federal funds for nonprofit organizations.

Echoing the analysis of members of the Old Right, such as his one-time mentor Garet Garrett, Frank Chodorov, and Albert J. Nock, Cornuelle believed that the essential distinction between society and the state had been blurred and turned upside down by the New Deal and the expanding welfare state. For these opponents of the New Deal revolution, social power and political power (the State) were fundamentally different, and State power was swallowing up society.

For Chodorov, the key tool of this triumph of centralization was taxation.

All things considered, the Sixteenth Amendment made a shambles of the constitution of which it is ostensibly only a part. It gave the Executive branch the means of undermining the independence of Congress (which was supposed to hold it in check), for with the vast funds at its disposal it is able to purchase compliance from the legislative branch and to suppress opposition. It made possible the virtual liquidation of the states, first by sapping their sources of revenue and then by bringing them into line with subventions; the doctrine of states’ rights has thus lost all meaning. It provided political authority with capital enough to venture into the market place as a manufacturer, distributor, financier, publisher, farmer, physician, employer, to the disadvantage of private entrepreneurs. It set the State up as the largest eleemosynary institution in the history of the world. And along with all these interventionary measures came the vast bureaucracy dedicated to the perpetuation and extension of these interventions. Thus, one change in the constitution did away with its original character. (The Rise and Fall of Society, 143. emphasis added)

Only time will tell whether the Supreme Court’s validation of the individual mandate of Obamacare as a legitimate exercise of the Federal government’s power to tax will push us farther along the path toward revolutionary political realignment. Piereson can see such a denouement only dimly through the veil that separates the present from the future, of course, but we can be sure that this new penumbra cast by the power of Congress to tax will not make for fiscal health or the independence of philanthropy. Already, the new health care law tightens regulations requiring nonprofit hospitals to demonstrate the provision of community benefits (how long will it be before all charitable entities will be similarly scrutinized?), and nonprofit analysts are calling upon the sector to be ready to take up their roles in designing implementation.

There is great uncertainty ahead, but in preparing to meet the challenges, we must hope for a political disintegration that does not result in a complete social collapse. That is to say, we must hope that our tendentious politics has not snuffed out the spark of invention and those habits of the heart and mind that have long characterized the American spirit. When push comes to shove, we tend to be a people with affection for one another.

Piereson believes Americans will not sit by and watch a slow decline in which America will “lose its status as the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation state.” On that point, we may not fully agree. Americans will, I believe, do everything in their power to pull together before the social fabric of our communities are irrevocably rent, even if it means sacrificing some of our international status. We tend to be a people on whose shoulders the mantle of world power has never sat easily. The self-destruction of Europe in World War I was the historical crisis that catapulted us into our current status. We became a global power with a deep-seated antipathy to political imperialism. We rose to our present role less out of a quest for imperial conquest than out of a Progressive crisis of identity that gave rise to a desire to be accepted among the “league of nations.” It was that crisis of identity and the economic devastation that followed the Great War that largely shaped the New Deal realignment modeled after the social welfarism of Prussia.

Despite a century of the projection of American power around the world, there is still, in the American heart, I believe, a wish we continue to share with George Washington, for a society in which “every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

We must live in history, and to that extent must sustain vigilant attention and robust capacities to protect our national security. But our eleemosynary impulses are ideally anchored in our social rather than our political institutions. The more we can reconnect our philanthropic endeavors with the “commerce” of society and reacquaint ourselves with the skills of working together to solve problems without the intermediation of bureaucracies, the more we will strengthen our society and make it resilient in the face of cyclical political turmoil.

3 thoughts on “The next American revolution?”

  1. Perhaps the new revolution will not be led by political figures. They might only end of leading it in the sense of someone jumping in front of a parade that is already in progress.

  2. John McClaughry says:

    For forty years I have searched – and hoped – for the emerging realignment that would enthrone liberty and civil society. As Cornuelle noted in 1983, Reagan, who believed in both and had superior communications skills, didn’t have much luck producing a lasting realignment. Today I am hard pressed to identify a rising political leader who is grasping for that torch. Can it be that only a small, aging remnant of us get this?

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