The Fourth Republic

>> Friday, November 14, 2008

Over in Salon, Michael Lind is suggesting that Barack Obama's election to the Presidency marks the beginning of the Fourth Republic in American History, or at least tags it.

The idea that there have been prior Constitutional reformations or Republics, and that the American idea of political continuity is kind of illusory, isn't really a controversial one among historians or legal scholars. The notion is essentially that there have been two massive Constitutional crises in American history since the establishment of the American Republic, after each of which the Republic was fundamentally different despite ostensibly working under the 1787 Constitution. The first of these crises was the American Civil War, the second was the economic collapse of the 1930s. After the American Civil War, of course, the issue of state supremacy was effectively dead (notwithstanding the ongoing blatherings of some naïfs about "state rights"). And in the turmoil of the Great Depression and Second World War, there was a massive centralization and consolidation of Federal powers, with the states ceding most of what independence remained after Reconstruction to Washington DC.

There are all sorts of people who think this is a bad thing; that point-of-view is frankly a bit foolhardy, and few or none of the advocates of decentralization seem to realize they want to have their proverbial cake and eat it--after all, the reason the United States Of America is a global superpower is precisely that there's effectively one government, not fifty, to handle economic, diplomatic and military matters in a globally-enmeshed world. To revert to the pre-Reconstruction Constitution is to revert to pre-Reconstruction economics: the disparate states at one another's throats over tariffs and transportation standards, the rest of the world bemused at the antics of the hick federation across the sea. Much the same can be said about a reversion to the pre-New Deal Union, during which American power was ascending but inchoate. You cannot have a strong national military or moral leadership in the world or a powerful position in global trade when you're a cluster of individual states with their own political agendas, militias, and economic interests.

Not, of course, that those who advocate greater power to the states really want to wind back the clock. What they really want, of course, is the New Republic on their own terms: if individual states legalize same-sex marriage, they want a Constitutional amendment to define marriage. If individual states try to impose controls on firearms, they're happy to have the U.S. Supreme Court full of otherwise-"activist" judges rule against it. Should a state-court judge find against the advocacy of God on currency or in the classroom or at sporting events, they won't be happy about that at all, and will seek redress in the federal courts if they can find it; though, inevitably, if they don't like the federal court ruling, it's back to the rights of states.

So, anyway, the idea that we've had two prior Republics: the Republic of 1789 and the Republic of somewhere-around-1863 isn't especially radical or controversial. And the idea that we're in, at least, a Third Republic--the Republic of the New Deal--also isn't radical or controversial. But what of Lind's idea that the Fourth Republic is underway, having started with a partial repudiation of President Bush's policies in 2004 and symbolized by President-Elect Obama's victory of 2008?

Well, the answer right now has to be: meh.

Lind could even be right. The problem is that it's too early and close to tell. I don't think much of his claim the Fourth Republic began in 2004, to tell you the truth: I don't think the 2006 Democratic-sweep of Congress has counted for all that much so far--rather than repudiating Bush's policies, the Democratic-led Congress has tended to tolerate or even renew them. And President Obama might be a visionary agent of change or he might be something else: I hope he isn't a crushing disappointment, but it's possible; more likely, he seems poised to be a stabilizing force and a reversion to the Constitutional ideals of the Third Republic, which would make his Presidency a restoration, not a revolution. So Lind may be wrong; indeed, he probably is.

We're living in undeniably historic times. But the fact that the cultural and historical significance of Obama's election can't be understated is no excuse to overstate the situation. If President Obama is in fact the herald of the Fourth Republic in American history, if his election is indeed not merely transformative but a transcendental event that marks a complete restructuring of the present system--well, we'll know in about fifty years, give or take, or our kids will when they're writing history books for their kids.

Some of us, good health allowing, will see, won't we?


Robert Reed III Monday, November 24, 2008 at 2:15:00 PM EST  

I think we are beginning of the Fourth Republic, but then again, I am very much into "The Fourth Turning" and "Generations". Check out the theory:

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