America's Civic Deadlock and the Politics of Crisis

America's Civic Deadlock and the Politics of Crisis

Mini Teaser: Congress is paralyzed. National debt is skyrocketing. America’s political consensus can no longer address the country’s most basic problems. We must resolve the question of what will replace it.

by Author(s): Robert W. Merry

The American people embraced this new order—within limits. When Roosevelt sought to aggrandize his political position after his huge reelection victory in 1936 by “packing” the Supreme Court, the voters slapped him down at the next election and thwarted any further major initiatives. Nevertheless, subsequent American political struggles unfolded within the FDR consensus. The first post-FDR Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, made no effort to dismantle the New Deal because it was too thoroughly entrenched in the country’s political consciousness. After Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s successfully expanded federal power on behalf of civil rights and other liberal causes, a backlash ensued that brought the FDR consensus back toward what voters considered an appropriate equilibrium. When Americans concluded in the late 1970s that the government was no longer working, they elected Ronald Reagan based on his promise to thwart federal expansionism and return power to the states. But Reagan, a former Democrat and FDR admirer, still operated within the FDR consensus. After Reagan’s eight-year presidency, the Old Order remained intact.

But there was one element of Roosevelt’s political schema that contained the seeds of an eventual crisis, and that crisis is now at hand. FDR delighted in fostering the emergence of new national constituency groups beholden to his party and thus intensely dedicated to it—workers flocking to unions under the Wagner Act, senior citizens mobilized by Social Security, farmers appreciative of agricultural subsidies, artists and intellectuals stirred by the Works Progress Administration, and rural Americans focused on the prospect of cheap electrical power. This was a significant political development in America—“special interests” fostered by federal policy making—and precisely the kind of development that Jefferson and Jackson had sought to prevent. There was also an elitist element in this push to establish a vast federal bureaucracy of officials—essentially a new governmental elite—empowered to direct events in multiple areas of American life.

THIS POLITICAL system worked for a long time, but now it is sputtering under its own weight. The government can’t seem to get at the problems of our time because too many entrenched interests possess the power to prevent it. Favoritism is rampant throughout the system—in a tax code riddled with special breaks and preferences for well-placed citizens; in crony capitalism that favors big corporations averse to fair competition; in favored treatment bestowed by Congress on its members to enhance their everyday lives and reelection prospects; in congressional favors to special interests with easy legislative access and quick cash for reelection campaigns; in governments at every level expanding their power and feathering the nests of their workers; in Wall Street’s ability to game Washington to protect itself from its own folly; and in public-sector unions conflating money grabs with rights.

David Brooks writes that this has undermined the country’s traditional ethos of responsibility and fairness—that hard work, merit and enterprise should be rewarded while laziness and sly manipulations should not. “The result,” he writes, “is a crisis of legitimacy. The game is rigged. . . . The United States suffers from a horrible crisis of trust that is slowing growth, restricting government action and sending our politics off in strange directions.”

Put another way, we are facing a crisis of the Old Order, just as those congressional representatives did in 1849 and as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933. The FDR consensus is breaking down—in part because it can’t address the country’s looming financial crisis and in part because it has simply lost its civic steam. What will replace it has become a defining issue for America. It may be a European-style social-democratic system, as Democrats under President Obama seem to want. Under this concept, the crisis will be addressed by transferring even greater increments of power to the government and giving greater societal sway to governmental technocrats. Another possibility would be a return to some kind of Jacksonian ethos, as Republicans advocate. This would entail flows of power in the other direction, from the federal government back to the states and the people. Meanwhile, the status quo forces will seek with might and main to preserve and protect the Old Order even as its demise becomes increasingly discernible.

Thus does the country face an epic struggle along a fault line that goes back to the days of Jackson and Clay. The stakes for America in this time of political fluidity are immense. That’s why tempers are high, Congress can’t function and the deadlock continues. And it will continue further until a new political consensus emerges to replace the old—and a new political order emerges out of that new consensus. This process could take years, and in the meantime the country’s politics will be the politics of crisis.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His next book, on the U.S. presidency, is due out from Simon & Schuster on June 26.

Part of TNI's special issue on the Crisis of the Old Order.

Image: Getty

Image: Pullquote: Many in America cling to the old days, holding fast to the status quo as if that could somehow forestall the decline of that heady postwar era when abundance was the normEssay Types: Essay