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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Dispensationalist

In a post on Friday, I mentioned the quick-developing debate between those who view Obama’s victory as signaling a realignment, and those who think it was a more fragile accomplishment in reaction to Republican misgovernment and the recent financial crisis.
In the former camp, predictably, the true ultra is the somewhat cranky polymath Michael Lind, who’s published an article for Salon heralding the Obama win as representing a third major turning point in the history of the country.
According to Lind, our history can be broken down into three “Republics” which lasted almost exactly 72 years. It all goes back to the ancient federalist-republican rivalry of Hamilton and Jefferson. In each “Republic,” our politics was dominated by Hamiltonian “nation-building” for about three-and-a-half decades, and then equally dominated by Jeffersonian “backlash” until the next cycle. Thus, in the “First Republic” an activist government built and expanded the country before giving way, under Jackson and his successors, to the centrifugal forces that eventually culiminated in the Civil War. In the “Second Republic,” the Reconstruction Era created a powerful federal government and strong constitutional rights, which were gradually whittled away during and after the Progressive Era. And in the “Third Republic,” the New Deal and Great Society gave way to the conservative movement and the neoliberals, culminating in the disaster of the Bush 43 administration. With Obama begins the “Fourth Republic.”
As always, Lind is both brilliant and annoying. There’s a rough and insightful accuracy to everything he writes. But his quasi-Hegelian obsession with his System causes him to ignore inconvenient nuances (e.g., the difficulty of teaming up agrian populists and urban reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as “Jeffersonians”). And he wastes a lot of space in arguing that the Third Republic actually ended in 2004, presumably so that it can span the prescribed 72 years.
The bigger problem is that Lind gives no real idea what might characterize the Fourth Republic, or its first president, Barack Obama, other than to say that accomodation to new energy sources and new technologies have accompanied previous big shifts, whatever their subjective features. But he assures us that the Fourth Republic is likely to last until, oh, 2076.
Aside from its utility as historical and political analysis, Mike Lind’s theoretical Big Bertha (or outline of same, since you can definitely feel a book coming) illustrates the distinctive American taste for what is called in theology Dispensationalism–the division of history into large and predictable phases. It’s the impulse that has led so very many evangelical Protestants in recent years to engage in the previously esoteric practice (largely limited to adventist sects) of poring over the Book of Revelation to figure out what’s going to happen in the immediate future.
Among its many perils, Dispensationalism in religion or in history tends to produce a sense of fatalism about human control over human destiny. Flattered as Barack Obama might be to see himself depicted as a epochal figure comparable to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR (his fellow Republic-Launchers), let’s hope he doesn’t wait around for large historical forces to shape his administration.

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