James Piereson’s Fantastic Lecture On America’s History And Future

If you want to know what the long view of our political analysis is here at the Hayride, you might spent about 72 minutes on this video. In it, James Piereson, the president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, outlines a view of American history as having been shaped by three great disruptive upheavals – the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800, which led to American territorial expansion and settlement, the Civil War of 1860-65, which brought in a free-market capitalist regime which led to massive economic growth, and the New Deal era beginning with the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, which saw the creation of the welfare state and an internationalist foreign policy.

And the three eras he describes were marked by the dominance of what he calls “regime parties,” meaning that in the first era it was the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democrats who held sway over the national discourse and drove national policy and the Federalists and later Whigs weren’t capable of beating them without accepting their formulation of what American politics was all about. In the post-Civil War era, it was the Republican Party which dominated American politics; even when Democrats managed to get elected in presidential politics you saw a greatly restrained view of federal power and responsibility where public policy was concerned (see Grover Cleveland as a perfect example). This was offset to a small degree with the rise to power of Teddy Roosevelt and later Woodrow Wilson (Roosevelt was a Republican, but as we saw he was less-than-representative of the party’s political ethos of the time), but the Harding-Coolidge regime of the 1920’s was more emblematic of the earlier Republican administrations than those of the previous decade’s Progressive era.

And in the New Deal era we currently live in, while Republicans have had some degree of success getting presidents elected, they have failed to change the dynamic of interest-group politics and the runaway entitlement state created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and exploded by Lyndon Johnson. Even Ronald Reagan couldn’t put much of a dent in the fundamental public policy regime he inherited from Jimmy Carter.

But Piereson believes we’re at the end of the New Deal era. He believes Barack Obama is a vestige of a dying era – and he’s believed that even though he’s thought Obama would be re-elected for some time and saw that prediction vindicated last month.

He thinks the New Deal era is on the way out because the numbers don’t add up and the country’s economic performance simply isn’t good enough to generate public confidence in the regime. He believes a major upheaval is coming, and the result of that upheaval puts our political character into the fire. What comes out of that fire is anybody’s guess.

Piereson is optimistic that the fourth era of American history will be marked by a more free-market, small-government agenda, and there is reason to believe he’s correct. If you watch the video to the end, Charles Lane of the Washington Post asks a great question – namely, since America is a graying nation with so many baby-boomers hitting retirement age, why should he believe that we’ll be a dynamic enough country for a major upheaval to change our politics. Piereson’s response is spot on – namely, that while old people might vote against maintaining unsustainable policies like Social Security and Medicare, young people who are going to be asked to pay for that unsustainable spending will at some point revolt against that burden.

That might well be the crux of the issue, and it may well be that the annoying Ronulans we see so much of on Facebook and elsewhere on the internet hold the key to Piereson’s revolution. To date, Ron Paul’s political movement has not become a transformative one, largely because his legislative and presentation style comes off as uneven and his foreign policy extremism is difficult to defend. But with the elder Paul exiting the scene and his son Rand stepping into the limelight, the “Liberty” movement may have a leader more capable of building coalitions and modulating policies which can appeal to the 20-somethings who consider themselves libertarians but yet voted for Obama by a comfortable margin. Imagine the political sea change possible if those 20-somethings – and the future young voters who come after them – can be galvanized into a movement of small-government, anti-tax voters animated by the 10th Amendment and opposition to waste, fraud and abuse in Washington they’ll be stuck footing the bill for.

Outside of electoral politics, what Piereson describes is quite similar to the message one might hear from Bill Whittle. After the election Whittle had a fairly long riff we embedded in a post here about how conservatives can begin to build non-governmental, voluntary institutions to compete with those the Left has co-opted. Piereson notes that conservatives have begun to create our own media and to a large extent educational institutions; there is a great deal of potential growth in this regard, something Glenn Reynolds explored in a terrific New York Post column today about how if rich conservatives want to attack the media imbalance perhaps a very cost-effective way to do it might be to buy up a bunch of women’s magazines.

The point being that while conservatives have been mired as a political counterculture within the current New Deal era, Piereson views the fiscal disaster that era is producing and sees an upheaval that will blow it away. Whittle makes the point that we can resist that dominant culture by building our own institutions which survive the collapse of the New Deal regime, and whether intentionally or through serendipity picks up on Piereson’s formulation of history in terms of the Agricultural, Industrial and Information Revolutions and notes that our government structure is an unsustainable relic of the Industrial Age. I’ll contribute my own thought to this, which is that we should learn as much Saul Alinsky as possible and apply his tactics to the destruction of the Democrats’ cultural resources, under pressure as they are from their own failures (see the newspaper industry as an example, or the horrid state of Hollywood’s offerings at the theater; or maybe the soon-to-collapse higher education bubble) and attempt to drive the upheaval in a direction which favors our side.

There is danger in this, of course. Because the Alinskyite Left has been using the Cloward-Piven strategy as a map to transform the New Deal era into what could be termed an American Soviet era, and they might well be ahead of us in strategizing what the next phase will look like. And the fight to frame America’s future beyond the end of the current entitlement state could well be a bloody one.

But there are more of us than there are of them. We’ve got better skills – perhaps not in political terms, but amid massive political upheaval and economic turmoil, you’re in better shape knowing how to, say, hunt and fish or drill for oil (or conduct a military operation, should it come to that) – and we have more money and more guns. If there is to be an upheaval like that of 1860, for example, we’ll win. And what’s more, as Piereson references Walter Russell Mead’s discussion, the Red State model of governance on display in places like Texas, Arizona and Indiana actually works. The Blue State model of California, Illinois and New York, doesn’t. And if you can’t govern your own geographical base, you’ll struggle to win a revolution – violent or otherwise.

And this is the source of our optimism. Democrats know how to win elections when they’re mobilized by competing interest groups, and they should – they created and nurtured the current political model. But when the curtains fall on the entitlement state and the country descends into upheaval, the math which re-elects an Obama no longer adds up. As Piereson notes, political upheaval has properties in this regard.



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