Finding a Blueprint for the Fourth Republic

Luke Phillips, Assistant Editor

A friend of mine, Chris Ladd, runs an excellent blog called Political Orphans. I recommend readers of The New Hamiltonian take a look at it- excellent content there. Ladd wrote a piece the other day that explores a topic I think about a lot- the cycle of institution-building and institutional decay that so characterizes the history of the American Republic.

These cycles get so intense, Ladd argues, that there have in fact been multiple “Republics” of the United States, different institutional structures adapted by force to different political times, always forged during great upheavals or “Revolutions.”

His math is odd- he counts the 1850s-1870s as the upheaval of one Republic and the 1920s-1940s as the upheaval of another, and the Trump election as the next upheaval, but argues that the Trump upheaval would be the start of the Third Republic. But I count differently. By my measure, it would be the start of the Fourth Republic- the first was founded in the First Revolution of the 1770s-1790s, the second in the Second Revolution of the 1850s-1870s, the third in the Third Revolution of the 1920s-1940s, the fourth in the present Fourth Revolution of the 2010s-2030s or so.

In any case, he gets the cycle basically right, and he also rightly notes that there were less-cataclysmic cycles in between these revolutions that expanded the franchise and reaffirmed the Republic to new populations, specifically under the Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Johnson presidencies. I call these “Reformations.”

Something Ladd doesn’t note that I’ve written a bit about is the notion that the “Revolutions” and the organizing of the new Republics that took place during them, was not done in a total ad-hoc manner. In fact, there were certain statesmen and political movements during each “Reformation” that actually, for the most part, built up a political program which was forestalled during the Reformations, but later served as the intellectual blueprint for the next “Republic” during the subsequent “Revolution.”

For example, Henry Clay’s “American System” style of governance in the antebellum era largely formed Abraham Lincoln’s domestic political program and the reforms of Reconstruction. Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Square Deal addressed the major populist concerns of his day, and formed the basic blueprint of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. I’ve argued that President Nixon’s New Federalism and the general program of the Rockefeller Republicans offer a kind of blueprint for the next “Republic” to be forged in our present “Revolution.”

Ladd argues that after Trump, we’ve hit the point of no return, and that it’s time to start feeling our way towards the “Third Republic” (by my measure, the “Fourth Republic.”) There is no status quo to restore. Now we must imagine, build, and promote a new political and economic order under dangerous conditions. The clock is ticking.”

He’s right. But I do think we have at least some sort of a guiding star in the unfinished Nixon policy agenda– one that updates economic nationalism for a globalized world, one that balances power and force in a multipolar international order, one that reforms federal institutions rather than curbing or repealing them. The task of the builders of the next Republic is twofold- find a sustainable foothold for America in the world, and reform the domestic institutions of the American republic for a new age.

That’s our task. Let’s get to it.

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