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November 26, 2008

America’s Three Regimes

A New Political History
Morton Keller – ISBN – 9780195325027

A new approach to history, indeed. Keller neatly separates our political history into three categories, distinct from one another, and distinctly different. The founders were driven to avoid the imperialism of England, establishing a deferential-republican period, long on independence and short on central control. This prevailed until Andrew Jackson’s presidency, whence followed the party-democratic period from 1830-1930. Finally, the great depression and FDR authored the populist-bureaucratic period, which continues to the present day (and is about to be invigorated “in no-trump,” I suspect.)

Old world revolutions were bloody carnage, with religious intolerance, intrigue, poisonings, treason, and executions—even kings. The miserable life predicated upon this was amongst the important reasons the colonists came to America in the first place, to escape overpopulation, poverty, crowded cities, disease, aristocratic conspiracies, oppression and death for any number of reasons. America offered an opportunity for a new life to both rich and poor.

Over 175 years Englishmen (and others) became American, and a new world was founded upon freedom and responsible democracy. The contrast instructed our founding intellects what to avoid. The rational tumult was also informed by understandings of market economics--formalized by Adam Smith--and the recognition of the rights of man, by others. The U.S. was indeed unique. Sherman, of Connecticut, noted that the arguments over the constitution were not “what rights naturally belong to man, but how they may be most effectually guarded in society.” While parties were not initially very potent, the founders were nonetheless ferocious partisans. Jefferson and Adams were at sword’s point on many issues, and the Federalists and Republicans disagreed robustly.

He does, however, differentiate between early politics . . . men who did what they did from a sense of duty, obligation, and responsibility—people who’s public persona was an ideal of honor and dignity—distinct from “politicos” of the modern stripe. Further, he concludes that the power of the later party system, and the requirements of mass politics, mitigated against the selection of the best and the brightest for office (which is increasingly apparent in recent years!)

The history of each period is covered comprehensively. At the end of the first period Tocqueville spent several years observing and many more writing about the country, explaining to Europeans—and Americans—what had been wrought..

As the U.S. became more industrialized, populous and complex, “Jeffersonian Democracy” (which it seldom really was) evolved into the “Jacksonian” variety, with clearly defined ideas, platforms and rigorous voting blocks. He observes that by the middle of the 19th century the American character type was recognized internationally: brazen, assertive, individualistic, and defined by the vibrant present and not by an imagined past. Not incidentally, along the way the problem of slavery was confronted with a bloody if definitive resolution, yet it hardly impacted upon governance.

A century later we entered the “New Deal:” the answer to the presumed need for a powerful government to apply bureaucratic notions of solutions to the calamitous depression . . . though bureaucracy had been authored by Wilson during WW I (which shriveled thereafter until the 30’s.) The sheer scale of the financial, human, material, and organizational demands required at least some of this, though the battle between [real] conservatives and progressives remains, and isn’t likely to depart any time soon.

Throughout, there is a fulsome discussion of the body and tangents of these concepts and divisions. Nonetheless it is done in a non-academic and informative way which reads comfortably, without an overindulgence in esoteric facts. Still, it’s not a “leisure” read. It is history, after all, and worth the read for those inclined.

Posted by respeto at November 26, 2008 1:07 PM