In the past few weeks, I have been pondering Arthur Schlesinger's Cycles of American History. As I recall the thesis, Schlesinger posits 30 year cycles in U.S. history, featuring 30 years of reform, and then 30 years of retrenchment or of consolidation. (We should keep in mind Schlesinger's comment that, "Britain has already submitted itself to social democracy; the United States will very likely advance in that direction through a series of New Deals."
As I see it, however, the story is different. From 1800 to 1861, the Union had, as a rule, a Jeffersonian/ Jacksonian governing coalition. That order broke down in the run up to the Civil War, and was replaced with a Republican establishment, which held sway until the late 1920s or early 1930s. (It was starting to break down during Wilson's Presidency, but the Crash killed it). And then we had a third establishment, forged during the 1930s, which remained in charge, until it started to break down in the 1980s and 1990s. That order is failing now. What will replace it, is open for debate, and for political competition. In each era, there was an underlying consensus about what a democratic republic was, and about what the constitituion meant. (In every era, however, there have been important dissents from the majority view).
A couple of recent comments reflect this reality. Nancy Pelosi's now famous, comment that elections "shouldn't matter as much as they do" reflects one of the big ideas of the Progressive establishment. Meanwhile, John Judis's lament over the "demise of impartial institutions" grows from the same ideology.
The key institutions of this establishment grew in the first part of the 20th century, Judas notes:
The Brookings Institution also dates from this period. Retired St. Louis businessman Robert Brookings, who founded it in 1916, said he wanted an institution "free from any political or pecuniary interest" that would "lay before the country in a coherent form the fundamental economic facts." Brookings's first president, Harold Moulton, was a laissez-faire economist, yet, when coal operators complained bitterly about a Brookings study in 1928 calling for the nationalization of the industry, he rebuked them for demanding that his think tank heed their interests in its research.
The key elite publication of the era was The New York Times. Prior to Adolph Ochs's purchase of the Times in 1896, most newspapers were either party organs or sensationalistic rags that had little regard for the truth. Ochs insisted that the paper be "non-partisan," that it "give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect or interests involved," and that it "make of the columns ... a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end ... invite intelligent discussions from all shades of opinion."
In their heyday, both Brookings and the Times built upon the premise that there is such a thing as apolitical analysis of political subjects. That premise, combined with the idea that experts, trained as professionals, with PhDs in economics or political science (reflecting new ideas in education. The social science PhD was new then), or in schools of journalism (and there was a compliment to that idea in the law schools, and the bar), should study issues dispassionately and disinterestedly, and they would come up with the most reasonable solitions to society's (and the world's) problems. From this point of view, elections were not the defining feature of what was still called "democracy."
Strictly speaking, that was always a myth. Politics is inherently political. For quite some time, however, this establishment was new enough, and small enough, that it remained close enough to the ideas, mores, and prejudices of the common people that it was able to fudge the line. In time, however, that broke down. That is the crisis we are seeing now.
As I read it, this establishment always leaned Left, and that's because the idea of escaping politics is inherently Left, since the Left was founded during the French Revolution, with its worship of what it called "reason." But the Left tilt of that establishment did not become such a large problem until its center started to be increasingly far from the republic's political center.
Judas shows his cards at the end of his essay. He concludes:
Ultimately, the success of disinterested institutions depends on two things: the character and views of the individuals who serve them, and widespread public support for their existence. This second pillar appears to be eroding. . . .Will this challenge to disinterestedness fade with time? . . . I certainly hope so, because, if it does not, we could be looking at a political system that begins to resemble that of the late nineteenth century, with its sharp and seemingly unresolvable clashes between different groups in American society. The next big test will be the Supreme Court's ruling on Obama's health care plan. If the court rejects the plan on the kind of spurious grounds that its opponents have endorsed, then it will have abandoned its historic commitment to disinterestedness. And American democracy will be in very big trouble.
Judas notes that the establishment he praises replaced the U.S. political system as it existed in the late 19th century. Were American politics to become more open again, and the 20th century establishment to fall, that might not be so bad. There might be more liberty, and diversity in American political life.
I too worry about the consequences of the Court striking down Obamacare. (A side note: In its heyday, the Progressive establishment would not have passed such major legislation without large majorities in both houses, and bipartisan support. That the bill was pushed through with some sketchy tactics is a sign that that establishment is on its last legs)
My concern is that our Lefty establishment is so closed minded that it thinks, with Judas, that there is no good constitutional case against Obamacare. And that establishment still has a great deal of power, and can still throw quite a tantrum.
What that tells us is that we might be, once again, in an era in which there is no constitutional consensus in the U.S. Such eras are always interesting times.