The Fourth Consensus

After reviewing It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, I was ready for some other possible explanations for our polarization problem. As I mentioned at the end of my last post, James Piereson’s Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order seemed like it could be an antidote. Although the book is a somewhat disjointed collection of articles written for various periodicals (and thus not very tightly argued) it turned out to be a good next step for my inquiry into polarization.*

Before I dive into some of the ideas presented in the book, I have to get one thing off my chest: James Piereson, as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute is a conservative. He doesn’t try to sound unbiased or hide behind his academic achievements to make himself seem above the fray as Mann and Ornstein do. I found this honesty in his writing refreshing. This premise alone gets at one of the central points in Piereson’s book: the assertion often made by liberal thinkers that the conservative movement has taken a hard right turn and is solely responsible for our current polarization is really just a symptom of allowing the conservative movement to be “defined by its adversaries,” as Piereson puts it. If you click on a few of the above links and look at the synopses of those books and the bios of their authors, you’ll probably start wondering why there isn’t a recently published popular history of conservatism actually written by a conservative.

It’s a question that’s worth asking. Most accounts are written by people who believe a narrative akin to what Mann and Ornstein argue, that the last vestiges of the postwar consensus has been broken up by some conservative crazies who have taken over what used to be a benign Republican party.

What happened to the Republican moderates?

The reality, as Piereson points out, is a bit more complex. For most of the postwar period, the Republican party did include a large number of liberals and moderates like Nelson Rockefeller, Everett Dirksen and Dwight Eisenhower. The conservative element acted mostly at the fringe, only making itself heard in isolated instances like the McCarthy frenzy or the inauguration of Barry Goldwater. In general, the Republican party endorsed liberal ideas, the only contention being over which party could administer them better. There was, truly, consensus among American political leaders of the day. But this moment had passed by the early 7os.

There was discontent under the surface on both the left and the right. It boiled over in the late 1960s over the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution that aimed to undermine many of the civic and moral institutions Americans had relied on for much of their history. In Piereson’s words,

…many forget that in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Democrats reorganized themselves as well… effectively expelling conservatives from the party… the Democratic party broke decisively with the policies of postwar Democratic presidents, moving quickly to the left on issues of economic growth and the Cold War.”

This manifested itself in politics by “Democrats… doing everything they could to destroy Nixon and Ford… and in this they played a central role in bringing down the moderate alternative in the Republican party and opening up new opportunities for conservatives.”

Thus, arguing that the consensus era in American politics is being brought to an end solely by a radical faction within the Republican party is a fiction peddled by those who support the tired policies of that postwar consensus (big-government liberals). It is more honest and more accurate to argue that members of both parties have moved further apart ideologically as a result of changes in the electorate. Thus, there must be other forces at play here within the electorate itself. The problem goes much deeper than just the parties themselves.

I’ve already covered what Charles Murray has to say about some of those forces. Author Bill Bishop argues along similar lines that there are macrosociological forces at work here that are playing a more decisive role. (I’ll save more discussion on Bishop’s book for when I read it — it’s already on my shelf).


Another element of Piereson’s analysis that I found fascinating was his argument that there have been several moments in our history like the one we find ourselves in now. Indeed, there have been three such moments, each with increased partisanship and rancor, each one ending with a new consensus.

The first revolution was the Jefferson revolution of 1800, which ushered in a consensus period during which territorial expansion and opportunities for westward-bound homesteaders was seen as essential. The federalist vision of an energetic federal government was put on hold. The fatal flaw in this vision was its embrace of slavery that would bring about this consensus period’s downfall. The rancor between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans in the 1790s would not be matched until the rise of the abolition movement and the proliferation of anti-slavery sentiment more broadly throughout the young republic.

The second revolution was of course the run-up to the Civil War. Anyone who believes that we are seeing the worst polarization in our history need only study the rhetoric surrounding the issues that led to the war. The divide over slavery resulted in a virtual stalemate in every corner of the national government. The result was the downfall of the Whig party, the rise of the Republican party, and eventually, the Civil War. Over 600,000 men died in order to end that era of polarization.

The next era of consensus followed by revolution was the laissez-faire capitalist Gilded Age, which ended with the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Dealers as a result of the Great Depression. The end of World War II solidified even more the new Democratic-liberal consensus that took hold in the mid-20th Century. Polarization was rampant prior to FDR’s ascension as those who demanded action clashed with those who supported the toe-the-line policies of Hoover. However, nothing unites a country quite like an existential threat (as we saw just after 9/11) and the fact that World War II ended the lingering effects of the Depression with finality helped to vindicate the New Deal. Piereson argues that our current polarization is the result of this age coming to an end — that we are on the cusp of a “fourth revolution.”

This fourth revolution will happen after some sort of “terminal crisis” such as a “recession… stock market crash, war in the Middle East, or any far-reaching even that destabilizes the international economy.” Piereson then argues that although it would cause some pain and suffering,

…the United States will be forced to renew itself in the face of crisis, and identify a political coalition that can guide the nation into a new cycle of growth and development.”

I don’t know if I am in complete agreement with Piereson’s hypothesis that America will simply be able to realign itself before grave damage is done to the country as a result of this debilitating polarization. He argues that eventually money will run out to support our university system, public sector unions, vast federal bureaucratic apparatus, and our drastically underfunded welfare state. I agree with him that eventually the economy will be unable to support these programs. But he seems to be optimistic that when this happens, there will be a recession or a government default and then we will be able to pick up the pieces and carry on in a scarcely-diminished state.

But what Piereson doesn’t account for is the wider world in which each of these revolutions took place. Events in the United States during the 19th Century hardly mattered when the U.S. wasn’t a superpower, before globalization linked the nations of the world into a tightly-knit economic order. His overly-optimistic view doesn’t take into account the fact that we face massively consequential geopolitical challenges abroad from the likes of China, a resurgent Russia, and a growing South Asia. Each of these actors will not miss an opportunity to assert themselves in the event of such a massive stumble by the United States. Hence why I argue that conservatives must stick to their principles but in a way that strengthens the postwar consensus through compromise and building political consensus. Indeed, passing three or four pieces of legislation to address our unfunded welfare obligations, health care costs, and our convoluted tax code would go so far in putting America back on track.

Something along the lines of a conservative movement akin to the Progressive movement would bring about needed changes without a crisis. You might call it a “fourth consensus.” Citizens who reject the big-government approach will begin to vote with their feet and move to states where government services are more scare, but the tax burden is lower. This is already happening as people migrate from liberal-run California to the more conservative state of Texas. Economist Tyler Cowen argues along these lines. Long-term trends like these can and will gradually vindicate the conservative world view without a recession or war. Maintaining a more-level leadership in Congress, state houses around the nation, and the White House will help to make this happen at a more gradual rate. We can have our cake and eat it, too.

We as a people must see, as Abraham Lincoln did during the crisis of his time, that despite the ills that we see in the other side’s policies, the worst ill by far is the erosion of the Union and its institutions that have guided our country through the night so many times before.

Compromise and incremental gains toward this new conservative consensus that is probably going to happen either through crisis or consensus, will allow America to maintain its leadership in the world and put itself on a sounder footing for the future.

Next up, I’ll be reviewing Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities in order to see how special interest groups have contributed throughout history to debilitating polarization and if we face similar circumstances today. I hope to find yet more evidence that “It’s all the Republicans’ fault” really is a fairy tale.

*There are also some articles on institutional change and polarization that shed more light on the issue. I also recommend the work of Morris Fiorina for those looking for an alternate to the consensus narrative.

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