Sunday, February 3, 2013

Where's Your Fourth American Republic Now??

I know I said I was going to go ahead with the theory of computing series, but a response to this piece of tribalistic nonsense has been sitting around for years, and I've decided to put it up now. History has already rebutted the article with both the past election and also with the completely lack of political realignment that the author says was "inevitable", but I think it's important as the fallacious spirit behind it seems to still be alive and well.

While I suppose anyone who has taken High School level U.S. History can agree that there are, roughly, three American "republics", the article begins its take with a complete misreading about the "death" of the first republic, i.e., the U.S. Civil War. The author claims that the civil war and its aftermath was primarily about State's rights and deciding that the nation came before individual states. He even goes so far as to say that it was this reasoning that led "a generation of southern West Point graduates [to follow] their states into secession in 1861."

But this is simply not true. The war was not primarily about State's Rights, but about a disagreement over enforcement of a change that threatened the livelihoods of the agrarian south. The South didn't go to war to protect the idea of a separate and intact "Virginia" or "Alabama", but because to not fight meant they would lose their plantations which was their primary source of wealth and which were unsustainable without slavery. State's Rights was merely the legal framework they used to try and settle the issues without violent conflict. They lost that claim through ordinary politics, and then they went to war, but if the issue was anything less important than the foundation of their entire economic and social structure at the time, there likely would not have been a war.

The increased national identity and reorganization of federalism was simply the result of having to organize these huge national armies over years of war and reconstruction. It was much harder for most people to continue to view a national conflict through the prism of individual states when they all had to fight in unison to win so they dropped that idea and instead pushed towards greater union. The way this worked out was similar to how WWII planted the seeds of racial equality as having to fight alongside diverse kinds of people broke down racism on one end, and being treated as equals in the army made the Black G.I. want to be treated as equals at home.

Another huge misreading was the author's take on the Great Depression and the transition from the "Second" to the "Third" American republic. The New Deal coalition was not so much a collection of "special interests" as it was the mobilization of the have-nots, who lost everything, against the haves. So, to rebut one of the key points in the analysis, the party that presides over a depression is not the one that loses the mandate, but rather the one that loses the mandate is the one that does the worst job of meeting the needs of those affected by the crisis. Only when no one meets these needs does a major swing take place and a new group seizes control of one or both of the parties.

This is readily apparent when you realize that the Republican Party of 1930 is dead. That coalition, which entirely favored the rich and big business never came back. What has replaced it is a party that links the rich and powerful with the populists, which used to be part of the Democrats but were ran out by differences with liberal wing of the party. If this was merely about government as arbiter of special interests, the populists would have no reason to do so as they did. And, in fact, it is this new fusion that is causing alot of the disfunction in the current GOP as the Republican leadership has to serve the populists' needs in order to get elected, even though alot of what the leadership wants to accomplish is contrary to the populists economic interests. So the leadership is forced to placate alot of extreme views in order to be seen as accepted, but they don't care as much about them as they do about the financial rear-guard action regarding taxation and regulations.

This also shows why there has not been some kind of major realignment in government structure in the last four years. The necessary condition for any kind of "New Republic" is a government that ignores or undermines the interests of a large number of people. That hasn't happened in the last four years and likely won't happen any time soon as the division is so close that neither party can afford to ignore or make unhappy any part of their coalition.

The author's incorrect prediction about both the political realignment and the nature of any future political action comes from a misunderstanding of what the "Third republic" is about. The "Third republic" is about equality of opportunity and a move towards large government solutions to problems, like environmental degradation or large financial crises, that are too large for any one segment of society to handle on its own. The other issues he lists, like pork spending and special interest capture, are not a product of the "Third Republic" but are a function of the unprecedented wealth America and the West has enjoyed since the 1950s and the parasites that are always attracted by it. To put it simply, under the "Third republic", pork spending is a luxury, clean air, clean water, and a safety net for the old and the sick is not.

This same sort of thing happened in the "Second republic" as well, only the big players then were business oligarchs. What ended their government capture was a combination of financial crisis and the rise of populism which led to increased regulation and accountability. What makes this time different is that the people who should be acting as a damper, that is, the populists in the GOP, are hugely dysfunctional and have been captured by a nihilistic ideology that forces them to keep moving away from government accountability instead of helping the government to find workable solutions. While the end result could be a "Fourth republic", I think the more likely outcome is that the fever finally breaks and the hard decisions about what to cut, or which taxes to raise, and what other limits to place on government can finally be made.