James DeLong argues that while the US has been operating under the same Constitution since 1789, the rearrangements since mean that the US is operating under what he terms the Third American Republic. DeLong reckons that the Civil War ushered in the Second, while the New Deal ushered in this last. The defining criteria, in each case, has been the extent of the Federal Government and its relationship with other elements in society. He maintains that the New Deal established the “special interest State”.
The real-world answer imposed by the New Deal and its progeny turned out to be special interest capture on steroids. Control comes to rest with those with the greatest interest or the most money at stake, and the result was the creation of a polity called “the Special Interest State” or, in Cornell University Professor Theodore Lowi’s terms, “Interest Group Liberalism.” Its essence is that various interest groups seize control over particular power centers of government and use them for their own ends.
It is this combination of plenary government power combined with the seizure of its levers by special interests that constitutes the polity of the current Third American Republic. The influence of “faction” and its control had been a concern since the founding of the nation, but it took the New Deal and its acolytes to decide that control of governmental turf by special interests was a feature, not a bug, a supposedly healthy part of democratic pluralism.
But DeLong thinks that the recent financial crisis and the impending bankruptcy of entitlement programs mark the eventual end of the “special interest State” and hence, the Third American Republic, which is doomed because it simply can’t be sustained. “We are in a crisis of legitimacy,” he says, a crisis of a different kind because the system is not designed to resolve it without a lot of pushing and shoving.
But it is difficult to see any self-correcting mechanisms in the Special Interest State. Quite the reverse; the incentives all seem to be pushing the accelerator rather than the brake. Observers as astute as Jonathan Rauch and Michael Greve came up with little in the way of recommendations for reform, beyond exhortations to change our ways. Rauch commented: “Government has become what it will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed” (italics from the original). He recommended “maturely diminished expectations.”
The problem of course, is that expectations cannot be diminished indefinitely. At some point the expansion of government will generate its own opposition. (And perhaps this is what the Tea Parties are about and why much the MSM, which is part of the special interest State, won’t cover them). And when that happens a discontinuous upheaval is inevitable.
If the evolution cannot be reversed, and mechanisms of gradual adjustment are lacking, abrupt tectonic shifts are the only alternative. Change will not necessarily be violent, though that is certainly possible, but it could be sudden. If one characteristic of political arrangements is to continue longer than one might think possible, another is that when they change, they change with amazing speed. …
Two possibilities for change seem most promising. The first is a third political party that explicitly repudiates the present course and requires that its members eschew the legitimacy of the Special Interest State. This would require a certain almost religious fervor, but the great tides of history and politics are always religious in nature, so that is no bar.
This second would be more bottom-up. The Constitution has a residue of the original alliance-of-states polity that has never been used. Two-thirds of the state legislatures can force Congress to call a constitutional convention, and the results of that enterprise can then be ratified by three-quarters of the states. So reform efforts could start at the grassroots and coalesce around states until two-thirds of them decide to march on the Capitol. There is already a lively movement along these lines. On the other hand, the states are no paragons, in that the model of the Special Interest State reigns triumphantly there as well, so a few comments about pots and kettles could be made. Realistically, though, organization from the bottom up is a real possibility.
While we await events, none of this analysis should be regarded as a counsel of pessimism. Political arrangements should change with time and experience, and to expect the political architects of any era to foresee all the problems inherent in their institutions is to demand the impossible.
Life’s interesting, and history never stops, even for the Sun King.