James DeLong pens a fabulously thought-proovking piece called, ”The Coming of the Fourth American Republic.”
He divides American history, now in its 24th decade into three roughly 80 year groupings. The first is the period from the founding of the nation to the Civil War, a period during which the states were supreme over the federal government, but it was based on an idea which collapsed under its own weight resulting in the Civil War itself.
The second period lasted until the New Deal, and it was characterized by the ascendancy of laissez-faire, which collapsed during the Depression and was replaced by the third period, which DeLong calls the Special Interest State.
This is a period when, since the federal government had assumed for itself the power to redistribute private money for the public interest, it had done so more and more to the point where we are now, where he argues that the system is unsustainable, and like the first two periods, will inevitably collapse under its own weight.
I think DeLong is right, although, if past is prologue, I’m not as optimistic that the transition to the fourth period will be as painless as he apparently hopes. After all, the first transition between American periods was accompanied by a war that killed 600,000 Americans and the second saw one quarter of American families without a wage earner.
DeLong is also right that there is something magical about the period of eighty years. I think it is probably because that is about the length of time that it takes for those who have lived through a traumatic event, along with their direct progeny, to pass into the minority. Take the Depression as an example. To have a clear memory of it and its causes and effects, one had to be at least eighteen years old in 1939 when it basically ended. Consider that those born before 1921 and their early-baby-boomer children are now a minority of voters, and it’s not surprising that Depression-era countermeasures have disappeared–there just aren’t enough people around to remember why things the Glass-Steagall Act were once considered important.
My favorite example of the eighty-year period required to forget the past was 1864 to 1941. On July 4th 1863 Union forces finally crushed Confederate forces occupying the bluff city of Vicksburg high above the mighty river. It was the last Confederate holdout on the Mississippi, and along with the success at Gettysburg, which happened the day before, signalled the coming Union victory. A year later, Union forces, still occupying the southern city, celebrated the nation’s birthday and the first anniversary of the battle’s victory with a fireworks show. It was the last time Independence Day was celebrated with fireworks in Vicksburg, Mississippi for 77 years.
So I think DeLong is on to something. But what I also worry about is the trend. The first American period ended with the federal government ascendent over the states, the second with the government’s rise over business, and the third, looks like it might result in the demise of the individual at the hands of groups who are supported by, and in turn, support the governing class. However, while that’s the trend, I’m not sure that the public is going to play along. It could, as I predicted before, get very ugly, very quickly.
Where it goes, I don’t know. But I feel safe in predicting this: for better or worse, by 2019 we won’t recognize the America of 2009.