One of the benefits of a representative system is its adaptability. Sensitivity to public will means that a representative democracy can pivot, incorporating new voices and accommodating new demands without the pain and disruption of a revolution.
However, even a highly representative system can sometimes descend into gridlock. Interest groups can hoard power and concentration of wealth can enable the few to forestall the will of the many. Mass hysteria can distort public opinion in ways that leave the political system chasing phantoms. When the pace of change outruns our ability to adapt, public consensus can break down and splinter.
Certain periods like the Jackson, T. Roosevelt, and Johnson Administrations, marked times of enormous, rapid political adaptation that still preserved the essential character of the government. Key institutions remained mostly intact while new interests were incorporated into the system with minimal violence and destruction. We are not always so successful.
America has survived two large-scale disruptions that effectively ended an older governing arrangement without providing a clear transition to a new order. In the 1850’s our political system collapsed, leaving no clear path forward. The Second Republic would not take shape for another twenty years, after a devastating Civil War and a tense rebuilding effort.
Again, at the end of the 1920’s, our system descended into dysfunction. Sparked more by economics than by politics, this disruption would not stabilize under the Third Republic until the late 1940’s.
A comfortable and prosperous period of stable evolution under the Third Republic has now come to an end. It is entirely unclear what new governing arrangements will emerge from the wreckage, or how long it will take to build something new. For that matter, no one can promise that there will be a Fourth Republic.
All we know for certain is that the partisan and institutional alignments we have taken for granted across our lifetimes have lost their relevance and ceased to be effective. At present, no one in either party is describing a vision for a Fourth Republic that seems like a credible rallying point around which to build. We could be in for a difficult ride.
Each previous governing order failed when a minority succeeded in gaining enough power to block necessary adaptations. From the earliest days of the First Republic, slaveholders and their institutions were blustery, violent, and recalcitrant. Saddled with a fundamentally unpopular ideology, their core political strategy was gridlock and obstruction. Successful use of stalling methods led both slaveholders and their opponents to overestimate the political sway of the slavery ethic.
Slave states made ever more absurd demands on the republic while launching a violent campaign of repression on the Kansas/Nebraska frontier. Opponents, who had for decades limited their activism to words and politics, began to organize resistance. When violence broke into the open the leadership in the slave states was jubilant about their prospects. Just a few years later they were ruined and a generation of their descendants was decimated.
A new republic had emerged by the late 1870’s, based on a more powerful federal authority and new capitalist economic order. With Southern obstruction diminished for a time, the country experienced a massive economic boom.
Full industrialization, at least in the northern states, changed the environment in ways that challenged the new order. Reforms promoted by Progressives in the early 20th century offered the potential to keep the Second Republic afloat. However, after World War I the country turned inward. Fears of white Protestants about the power of immigrants and the rising influence of cities sparked a regression. Necessary adaptions stalled. An economic collapse eventually destroyed the Second Republic.
As Americans in the 30’s struggled toward a new governing arrangement, many conservatives drifted toward Fascism. Prominent figures like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh worked to normalize Hitler’s “reforms” while radio propagandists like Father Charles Coughlin stirred up the grassroots. Openly sympathetic “Bund” movements sprang up around the country.
On the left, labor unions began to openly embrace socialism and even communism. In 1935 Wisconsin elected a Socialist Governor. Despite massive electoral victories, Roosevelt struggled to build a new order. The country’s direction remained unclear into World War II and the years that followed. Roosevelt’s reforms are often described as a shift toward the left. In fact, the Roosevelt Administration and the Third Republic it founded, was an enormous political and cultural shift back toward the middle.
Traumatic as that time was, fewer Americans died in World War II than in the Civil War. We came through that extremely dangerous transition literally on top of the world. The Third Republic would come to be called the Pax Americana, unquestionably the peak of American economic and political power, at least so far.
Fast forward to the 90’s and our victory in the Cold War placed enormous strains on the Third Republic. Much of the logic behind our political parties and even our deep state institutions like the military, intelligence services, and major law enforcement, was shaped by Cold War assumptions. With the Soviets gone their purpose was questionable, but no realignment emerged. America across these years experienced an enormous and unprecedented expansion of wealth and freedom without ever developing a fresh vision for the future.
A second Clinton Administration might have provided a transitional period in which we could have worked through these new challenges. Instead, time ran out on the Third Republic. We have handed control of our core institutions to a psychologically unstable TV star and professional grifter. In an alternate outcome, we might be debating policy questions and ACA reform proposals. Now, we are left to guess whether our new President is more likely to be a buffoon or a tyrant.
Robbed of credible leadership and frustrated by an absence of vision, our options for resolving economic and social contradictions through conventional politics have, at least for the moment, collapsed. Our most powerful levers of government are in the hands of con artists and cranks.
The Third Republic is over and there is no roadmap to the Fourth. Few channels remain through which the demands of a new era can be peacefully and democratically expressed. We will either build a new political framework, very quickly, out of a new set of alliances and policies, or experience the usual consequences of political collapse.
Through the fog, two possible endpoints emerge. In our happiest credible outcome, the Trump Administration focuses all its energy on graft. Trump himself hardly ever visits Washington, confining himself to the High Castle and emerging only to engage in symbolic and fruitless bullying of some random target that catches his fleeting attention.
Policy questions are left in the hands of a gridlocked and hopelessly dysfunctional Congress. Cabinet appointments are almost universally incompetent, too ignorant, delusional, or corrupt to impose change on a recalcitrant bureaucracy that outsmarts them at every turn. Almost nothing happens to the country beyond a sharp economic downturn, the collapse of our remaining diplomatic influence, and a continuing decline in the fortunes of lower-skilled, lower-educated Americans.
Thanks to demographic transition and the disenchantment of Trump’s neglected base, perhaps a major electoral shift emerges by 2020 to place a competent political figure in the White House and new political alignment in Congress. This could happen. It probably won’t.
More likely, we live through a brief lull, like the famously quiet spring of 1940, followed by a series of calamities. In the hands of Trump’s cast of cartoon characters, the simplest foreign and domestic challenges should be expected to spin out of control.
Dangerous deep-state institutions with colliding interests, like our intelligence agencies and the FBI, will have no competent authority to contain their rivalry. Political alignments will send different branches of the security services into covert competition. Corrupt, immoral, or simply uninterpretable commands from the White House to the military spark dissention. A general, or a collection of generals, refuse or obstruct orders while other generals or other military branches move against them. Splintered local security services are forced to choose sides.
Political pressures overwhelm our last competent economic institutions, the Fed and the Treasury Department, making an effective response to our next recession impossible. Blanket rejection of trade agreements combined with a generally daffy economic program strengthens China’s role as a stabilizing (and anti-democratic) power in the Pacific and Africa. Russia enjoys a free hand on its margins, forcing Europe to launch new, highly volatile defensive arrangements independent of American influence. Our military, despite its own increasingly dangerous internal divisions, becomes the last institution to which we can turn for political stabilization.
It sounds extreme, but this is a generic recipe for institutional decline that has played out hundreds of times over the course of history. Our decision to elect a man like Trump is proof that we are not exceptional.
Consider the most painful failures of George W. Bush’s Administration. Now imagine Trump and his collection of reality TV minions facing challenges even more complex. It is difficult to map out any credible end to the Trump era that does not place a sad new national holiday on the calendar to remember those we lost.
The longer it takes for us to collectively build the Fourth Republic, the greater the damage we will sustain and the lower our odds that it ever emerges. Electing Trump presents us with an emergency that cannot be resolved by merely electing some Democrats in 2018. Our lack of vision for a post-Cold War world is now a critical problem that threatens our survival. There is no status quo ante to restore. Now we must imagine, build, and promote a new political and economic order under dangerous conditions. The clock is ticking.