Diagnosing Our American Illness


The irony of Obama’s presidency, with its ambitious calls for “hope” and “change,” is that circumstances have assigned him the duty of presiding over the last days of the old regime. Our postwar political order, it seems, has sown the seeds of its own dissolution.

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Speaking to a crowd in 2008, Senator Barack Obama claimed victory in his quest for the Democratic nomination for president. “If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it,” Obama assured his supporters,

generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment—this was the time—when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very better selves, and our highest ideals.

Obama’s claims that evening were grandiose, even by the standards of the 2008 campaign. On a stage in St. Paul, Minnesota, the first-term Illinois senator positioned himself as a visionary leader ushering in a new era of American politics, shedding past partisan divisions and uniting a generation around the promises of hope and change.

So what went wrong?

Perhaps we were just not willing to work for that vision, to fight for it and believe in it. Or perhaps—as James Piereson suggests in Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political OrderObama misread the moment, trying to make it into something it was not. In his new book, Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that the Obama presidency marks the end of a political era rather than a beginning.

Most of the book’s chapters were previously published as stand-alone essays in publications such as The National Interest, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and the Claremont Review of Books. There are limits to how far a collection of essays can drive a single thesis or theme, and the parts of this book are often greater than the whole. Still, the individual essays demonstrate why Piereson is one of the foremost political and cultural critics writing today. He brings to bear a sharp and penetrating intellect on arenas—such as higher education, politics, economics, and philanthropy—that he knows both as a theorist and as a man of action.

The End of an Era

American political history can be divided into three major chapters, according to Piereson: the age of Jefferson and Jackson (1800-1860); the age of capitalism and industrialism (1860-1930); and the modern age of Keynesianism at home and military intervention abroad (1930-present). Each of these chapters corresponds to a distinct political regime made possible by a broad national consensus on certain fundamental political commitments. The post-war political consensus was twofold: (1) the national government would enact Keynesian economic policies to promote full employment at home and (2) the American military and diplomatic corps would intervene strategically in world affairs to promote democracy, capitalism, and free trade abroad.

Political regimes, like the men who create them, are allotted a finite number of days and often die in crisis. New regimes emerge to address unique historical challenges. Each of America’s political regimes, Piereson notes, “accomplished something important for the United States; each period lasted roughly a lifetime; and each was organized by a dominant political party: the Democrats in the antebellum era, the Republicans in the industrial era, and the Democrats again in the postwar era.” Major crises brought about the end of each era, and strong political leaders—Jefferson and Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR—built the coalitions that sustained the next regime.

Each of the nineteen chapters in Shattered Consensus investigates some aspect of the liberal post-war consensus, ranging from its political economy to its foreign policy and touching on the ideological polarization that now marks the worlds of politics, philanthropy and higher education. A major premise of Piereson’s book is that broad consensus “is required in order for a polity to meet its major challenges”; his thesis is that “such a consensus no longer exists in the United States.” Without a consensus on basic priorities, Piereson predicts, our “problems will mount to a point where either they will be addressed through a ‘fourth revolution’”—ushering in a fourth major chapter in American political history—“or the polity will begin to disintegrate for lack of fundamental commitment.”

The Coming Crisis

The next crisis will probably come about as a result of “debt, demography, and slowing economic growth, compounded by political polarization and inertia.” Although predicting the future is always dangerous, the next crisis is an undeniably predictable one. We have known for years about the economic and political cliff looming before us.

Our current $18.5 trillion debt amounts to 74 percent of our gross domestic product, a number that is artificially being kept down by the Federal Reserve’s low-interest-rate policies. Despite the modest cuts from 2013 budget sequestration, the federal government remains the largest employer in the world and boasts a nearly $500 billion defense budget. This year, we will spend over $1 trillion on our major healthcare programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and $882 billion on Social Security. Mandatory spending on major government welfare programs continues to rise even as falling birthrates make those financial obligations unsustainable.

Simply put: we have a greying population with fewer workers and no consensus about the purpose and mission of our vast military infrastructure. At the same time, many of our state and local governments face unsustainable pension obligations born of the same demographic trends and short-term political calculations. As John DiIulio notes,

America’s gargantuan government is not a recent development. It is not simply the doing of Barack Obama or of George W. Bush. It is the result of a transformation in our expectations of government—one that dates back at least a half a century.

Expectations forged in the prosperity of the American century created a government that has promised far more than it can deliver. Our postwar political order, it seems, has sown the seeds of its own dissolution.

The irony of Obama’s presidency, in light of his ambitious campaign and calls for unity, is that circumstances have assigned him the duty of presiding over the last days of the old regime. American political elites are no longer united by a commitment to Keynesian economics at home and anti-communism abroad, and we will be forced very soon to make difficult economic decisions just to keep our national and state governments solvent in the twenty-first century.

A Fourth American Revolution?

What, then, comes next? According to Piereson, a new political order must eventually replace the postwar regime. To be successful, the new regime will have three central elements: (1) a focus on private sector economic growth needed to sustain our permanent entitlement programs and defense infrastructure; (2) a reinvigorated federalism that will decrease national gridlock and promote innovation at the state level; and (3) a “campaign to depoliticize the public sector” by dismantling public sector unions and removing the perverse electoral incentives that public unions create. The successes of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Governor John Kasich in Ohio attest to the political traction this agenda can gain, even in blue or purple states.

Piereson’s book, however, is not primarily about what comes next but what came before. As he notes in the preface, the aim of Shattered Consensus is “to make sense of the rise and decline of America’s postwar political order.”

Piereson talks frequently about our contemporary political polarization, but he does not quite establish its precise character. This is a weakness, since his thesis and his prediction of a coming “fourth American revolution” rest upon the claim that our nation is dangerously polarized. Scholars such as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina have argued for years that Americans are not becoming more politically polarized. Instead, American voters are sorting into more ideologically homogeneous parties. In his view, party polarization is real, but mass polarization is probably overblown. Considering the tumult of the 1960s—when police met civil rights protesters with dogs and water cannons, college students took over campus facilities with the force of arms, urban riots wreaked havoc on American cities, and several major American political figures and civil rights leaders were assassinated—it is plausible that Americans generally have not gotten more polarized in the intervening half-century.

One thing both parties generally agree on is maintaining those government programs—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security—that require massive amounts of money we don’t have. As Piereson suggests, the blueprint for a successful political order in the twenty-first century will require meaningful entitlement reform, pro-growth economic policies, regulation or elimination of public sector unions, and a reinvigorated American federalism. To this we undoubtedly must add a vibrant and healthy civil society.

It is, of course, easier to diagnose an illness than to cure it. Piereson has offered an insightful diagnosis in Shattered Consensus. Now—before the next revolution—it is time to think on a practical level about what it will take to restore health to the American political system.

Justin Dyer is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri. He is the editor of American Soul: The Contested Legacy of the Declaration of Independence, and the author of Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition, and, most recently, Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning.

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