Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Obama and the dawn of the Fourth Republic
richard on Wed, 12 Nov 2008 03:16:31 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Obama and the dawn of the Fourth Republic


Here's an optimistic & McLuhanist take on the election of Barack Obama...



Obama and the dawn of the Fourth Republic

His victory really may mark the beginning of a new era in American

By Michael Lind

Nov. 07, 2008 |

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than
the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and
conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic
of the United States.

In the past generation Bruce Ackerman, Theodore Lowi and I, in
different ways, have used the idea of "republics" to understand
American history. Since the French Revolution, France has been
governed by five republics (plus two empires, a directory and a
fascist dictatorship). Since the American Revolution, we Americans
have been governed by several republics as well. But because we, like
the British, pay lip service to formal continuity more than do the
French, we pretend that we have been living under the same government
since the federal Constitution was drafted and ratified in 1787-88.
Our successive American republics from the 18th century to the 21st
have been informal and unofficial.

As I see it, to date there have been three American republics, each
lasting 72 years (give or take a few years). The First Republic of
the United States, assembled following the American Revolution,
lasted from 1788 to 1860. The Second Republic, assembled following
the Civil War and Reconstruction (that is, the Second American
Revolution) lasted from 1860 to 1932. And the Third American
Republic, assembled during the New Deal and the civil rights eras
(the Third American Revolution), lasted from 1932 until 2004.

Yes, you read that correctly -- 2004, not 2008. A case can be made
that the new era actually began four years ago. True, Bush, a relic
of the waning years of the previous era, was reelected. But
immediately after his reelection, the American people repudiated his
foreign policy and his domestic policy, including Social Security
privatization. In 2006 the Democrats swept the Republicans out of
Congress, and in 2008 they have recaptured the White House.

To be sure, every shift in partisan control of government does not
amount to the founding of a new republic. Obama did not win a
landslide or have long coattails. His coalition is a slightly larger
version of the Democratic Party that was forged in the partisan
realignment of 1968-72. And the public is still divided among
liberals, moderates and conservatives much as it has been for a
decade or two. But my scenario does not depend on Obama's election or
even on Democratic control of Congress. The Fourth Republic might
have gotten off to a start -- a bad start, but a start -- under
Republican auspices.

Policy shifts, more than public opinion polls or election results,
suggest that a truly transformative moment may be upon us. The first
three American republics display a remarkably similar pattern. Their
72-year life span is divided into two 36-year periods (again, give or
take a year -- this is not astrology). During the first 36-year
period of a republic, ambitious nation-builders in the tradition of
Alexander Hamilton strengthen the powers of the federal government
and promote economic modernization. During the second 36-year phase
of a republic, there is a Jeffersonian backlash, in favor of small
government, small business and an older way of life. During the
backlash era, Jeffersonians manage to modify, but never undo, the
structure created by the Hamiltonians in the previous era.

We see this pattern of Hamiltonian nation-building and Jeffersonian
backlash in the First, Second and Third Republics of the United
States. Between 1788 and 1824, the ideas of the centralizing, nation-
building Federalist Party of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton
succeeded. Although Jefferson and his small-government allies
controlled the White House and Congress for much of this period, in
practice they implemented a streamlined, cheaper version of the
Federalist plan for America. Jefferson's Treasury Secretary Albert
Gallatin, for example, supported a program of infrastructure and
industrialization not all that different from Alexander Hamilton's.
And Jefferson himself, contradicting his small-government philosophy,
exercised sweeping powers as president, purchasing the Louisiana
Territory from France on his own initiative and promoting a federal
embargo on U.S. exports to Britain and France. The first Jeffersonian
backlash came later, under Andrew Jackson and his allies between 1824
and 1860.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 triggered the secession of
the South, the Civil War and Reconstruction -- the Second American
Revolution and the founding of the Second Republic of the United
States. During and after the Civil War, Lincoln's Republican Party
remade the United States. In addition to crushing the South and
freeing the slaves, the Republicans nationalized the banking system,
promoted U.S. industry through high tariffs, carpeted the continent
with federally subsidized railroads and used the sale of federal
lands to pay for state colleges. From 1896, the Jeffersonian backlash
against the system created by the Lincoln Republicans was led by
Southern and Western agrarian populists and middle-class Progressives
in the Northeast who, for different reasons, were alienated from the
new order. While they achieved some reforms, the Jeffersonians failed
to modify the essential features of the Lincoln-to-Hoover Second

The Third Republic of the United States was built by New Deal
Democrats and liberal Republicans between 1932 and 1968. During the
initial Hamiltonian phase, even more power was centralized in the
federal government, which carried out national economic regulation,
built power plants and electric grids, highways and airports, created
Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance, and used
federal power to dismantle racial segregation. Inevitably the period
of Hamiltonian reform was followed by a Jeffersonian backlash that
lasted from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. Once again, populists
and libertarians emphasizing different parts of the Jeffersonian
legacy tinkered with the new order but failed to overturn it. Under
Reagan and the second Bush, the right managed to cut income taxes and
capital gains taxes. But their failure to shrink the size of post-New
Deal government meant that their tax cuts, instead of inspiring less
spending, merely produced enormous deficits.

George W. Bush was not only the final president of the Jeffersonian
backlash period of Roosevelt's Third Republic, but the last president
of the 1932-2004 Third Republic itself. The final president of a
republic tends to be a failed, despised figure. The First Republic,
which began with George Washington, ended with James Buchanan, a
hapless president who refused to act as the South seceded after
Lincoln's election. The Second Republic, which began with Abraham
Lincoln, ended with the well-meaning but reviled and ineffectual
Herbert Hoover. The Third Republic, founded by Franklin Roosevelt,
came to a miserable end under the pathetic George W. Bush.

The election of 2004 was a fluke, like the election of 1824. The
Jacksonian era -- that is, the Jeffersonian backlash period of the
1788-1860 First Republic -- began in 1824, even though John Quincy
Adams became president after losing the popular vote to Andrew
Jackson. (Jackson won the next two elections.) Likewise, the Fourth
Republic arguably began in 2004, the narrow reelection of George W.
Bush notwithstanding. 2008 is Year Four of the Fourth American

If this analysis is right, what causes these cycles of reform and
backlash in American politics? I believe they are linked indirectly
to stages of technological and economic development. Lincoln's Second
American Republic marked a transition from an agrarian economy to one
based on the technologies of the first industrial revolution -- coal-
fired steam engines and railroads. Roosevelt's Third American
Republic was built with the tools of the second industrial revolution
-- electricity and internal combustion engines. It remains to be seen
what energy sources -- nuclear? Solar? Clean coal? -- and what
technologies -- nanotechnology? Photonics? Biotech-- will be the
basis of the next American economy. (Note: I'm talking about the
material, real-world manufacturing and utility economy, not the
illusory "information economy" beloved of globalization enthusiasts
in the 1990s, who pretended that deindustrialization by outsourcing
was a higher state of industrialism.)

Naturally, the Americans alive during the founding of new American
republics have other issues on their minds. The Civil War was fought
over slavery, not steam engines, and the New Deal, for all of FDR's
commitment to nationwide electrical power fed by hydroelectric dam
projects, was animated by a vision of social justice. The broad
outlines of technological and economic change merely provide the
frame for the picture; the details depend on the groups that emerge
victorious in political battles.

That is why it is too early to predict the outline of the Fourth
American Republic. Its shape depends on the outcomes of the debates
and struggles of the next generation. But it is possible to speculate
about its life span. If the pattern of history holds, the Fourth
Republic of the United States will last for roughly 72 years, from
2004 (or, if you like, 2008) to 2076. And if the pattern of the past
holds, we will see a period of Hamiltonian centralization and reform
between now and 2040, followed by an approximately 36-year long
Jeffersonian backlash motivated by ideals of libertarianism and

And even if I am right that the new era began four years ago,
historians are likely to identify the first president of the Fourth
Republic of the United States as Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.
Obama may join Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on
the short list of American presidents who, thanks both to their own
leadership and the fortuitous timing of their elections, presided
over the refounding of the United States. Yes, he can.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org