America at an Ominous Crossroads
by

Shattered-Consensus-Decline-America%C2%92s-Political/dp/1594036713">Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order
By James Piereson
(Encounter, 389 pages, $27.99) 

Authors of history books often design them with a unifying theme, a so-called theory of history. Henry Steele Commager, one of the most ardent promoters of liberal politics in the 20th century, once explained his partisanship by saying, “History is a jangle of accidents, blunders, surprises and absurdities, and so is our knowledge of it, but if we are to report it at all we must impose some order upon it.”

Arnold Toynbee, whose prodigious A Study of History won worldwide acclaim in the 1950s, built his structure around the theory that a common religious belief has driven the rise of civilizations. His fellow Englishman Paul Johnson, whose Modern Times won popularity in the 1980s, followed a similar theme in citing “moral relativity” with its absence of firm values and standards as the acid that dissolves civilizations.

James Piereson, one of America’s leading public intellectuals, introduces yet another interesting theory of history in his new book, Shattered Consensus. He divides American history into three periods of political consensus in which certain principles were widely agreed upon by the electorate. The first, in his view, was the long period of anti-federalism that began with Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and extended through the presidency of Andrew Jackson. It was shattered when the southern states extended the idea of states rights to an unacceptable limit by claiming a right to secede from the union. A bridge too far.

The second, he argues, was the capitalist-industrial era running from the end of the Civil War to 1930, “when the regime collapsed in the midst of the Great Depression.” The third was the postwar [World War II] welfare state that took shape in the 1930s and 1940s and extends to the present, “but is now in the process of breaking up.”

In the Piereson view, these regimes lasting approximately a lifetime, each accomplished something important and was organized by a dominant political party, the Democrats in the pre-Civil War era, the Republicans in the industrial era, and the Democrats again in the post-World War II era.

The crises that brought down the first two regimes were vastly different. The secession that brought on the Civil War was a constitutional crisis, whereas, in Mr. Piereson’s analysis, “the Great Depression was a crisis of capitalism.”

His book draws its title from the author’s belief that we are on the cusp of another shift in American opinion equivalent in magnitude to those that occurred in 1800, 1865, and 1930. The consensus that is being shattered, he avers, is the climate of approval for the welfare state and internationalism that has swayed politics since World War II.

Piereson cites an early 2015 Gallup opinion poll that purports to show that the “American public is now more divided politically than at any time in the postwar era.” That’s a rather expansive claim when you consider how much contention there has been in American politics throughout postwar history. But it gains a certain plausibility by suggesting that a major source of the division is Barack Obama and his unwillingness to seek middle ground with Republicans on major questions of policy. Gallup concluded that “Each of Obama’s six years in office ranks among the most polarized in the last 60 years,” a finding that has a certain ring of truth. That we now have a sharp split between the White House and Congress on almost everything supports Mr. Piereson’s idea that a long-standing political consensus is collapsing.

Mr. Piereson believes that unsettled periods such as those of the 1860s and 1930s mark the beginnings of a fundamental transition in American politics, which in the present case would be a move away from the welfare state politics of the last 80 years and the post-World War II internationalist consensus.

In each period an old order collapsed and a new one emerged out of the unprecedented crisis and in each case, the resolution of the crisis opened up new possibilities for growth and reform. No particular consensus or set of political arrangements can be regarded as permanent in a dynamic country like the United States.

As Commager either advised (or alibied, take your choice), Mr. Piereson imposes a certain order by neatly categorizing long periods of American history as eras of consensus. He does do in a provocative and highly readable way. But such sweeping theories of history leave an author open to nit-picking, as it did with the likes of Toynbee and Johnson, and will certainly do with Piereson.

For example, did the Welfare State consensus really begin with the New Deal? Social insurance, the initial central pillar of the Welfare State, was invented by Otto von Bismarck in 1889; Teddy Roosevelt found it to be great vote getter in 1912 and Herbert Hoover signed the $300 million Federal Relief and Construction Act, the first major federal social welfare legislation, in July of 1932, almost a year before the New Deal came into being. The 1935 Social Security Act passed with an overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats. So yes there was a consensus, but maybe its beginnings predated the New Deal.

As to the Great Depression being a crisis of capitalism, that indeed was the New Deal narrative. That narrative asserts that the 1929 stock market crash brought on the Great Depression. The “capitalism failure” theme gained widespread acceptance among opinion makers in support of their radical economic interventions.

But the stock market also had crashed in 1920, and after a sharp and brief recession the economy boomed. After the 1929 Crash the market also was recovering nicely in 1930 and the economy would probably have healed itself had it not been for the manic intervention of Herbert Hoover and the Republican Congress. Their worst among many offenses was the Hawley-Smoot tariff act, which virtually shut down world trade, deepening and prolonging what could have been a routine recession. So, was the Depression a failure of capitalism or government?

The “crisis of capitalism” trope was used to justify an attempted federal takeover of the economy in 1933 by means of government-controlled cartels. Fortunately, the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act was mercifully stomped out of its misery by the Supreme Court in 1935. Capitalism slumbered through the 1930s as New Deal experiments made investors gun-shy, but it was alive and well when its marvelous organizational and productive skills became vital for winning World War II. It emerged even stronger afterward and is still with us today, although somewhat battered by progressive interventions.

I cite these issues not to denigrate Piereson’s abilities as a scholar and author. I raise them merely to illustrate that it’s not so easy to compartmentalize human history in an entirely credible way, and particularly to divide it into distinct 60 to 80 year segments. It captures attention but is perhaps a bit too tidy.

Yet Piereson is quite plausible when he argues that we are in a period of transition. He makes an excellent case that there has been a political consensus of sorts in the U.S. since World War II in support of social programs and the concept of America as the prime defender of world peace and generator of economic and social progress. U.S. Congresses over the years have consistently devoted a major share of the government’s budgets to social programs and the maintenance of a Pax Americana.

One wonders, however, whether what we are experiencing is not a breakdown of consensus on the desirability of these two goals, but a dawning and unwelcome realization that the U.S., rich and productive as it is, can no longer afford them. Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor were pushed through a Democrat Congress by Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s as an adjunct to existing welfare programs. The cost came high, an economy crippled by inflation and price controls in the 1970s, but the productive U.S. private sector eventually managed to shoulder the burden.

Obamacare, passed in 2010, may well have been another bridge too far, just as secession was for the anti-federalists of 1861. It was poorly designed; the authors of Social Security look like geniuses when compared with builders of the massive, tottering Obamacare edifice. Falsely billed as a money saver, it is of course proving to be anything but, as its contradictions and bureaucratic overhead cause insurance premiums to soar. It was dumped on an economy that had already collapsed as a result of federal meddling with the mortgage industry. As for the Pax Americana, social spending usually trumps foreign policy in the absence of a major war. U.S. military power has been degraded and we are seeing the unhappy results as the administration appeases rogue states like Cuba and Iran.

The Federal Reserve has helped finance the government’s deficits with rock bottom interest rates that grossly penalize savers. It has bought trillions of dollars of federal debt. In short, the government can no longer depend on the tax base to support its excesses. What we may be seeing is not simply a fracturing of consensus, but an intrusion of the reality that the government is living beyond its means, and the national disquiet that results from that realization.

Mr. Piereson has written a thoughtful book that offers an opportunity to ponder these questions. What he doesn’t tell us is what comes next? But then, who can?

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