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The Three Souls of America

How can the United States learn some political lessons about the rest of the world by looking at its own political history?

December 2, 2002

How can the United States learn some political lessons about the rest of the world by looking at its own political history?

Consider the contrast between three countries. One is a pre-industrial, agrarian nation with a population the size of Eritrea’s. Nine out of ten people live on farms. The cities — scarcely more than villages by our standards — have arisen chiefly along the coasts and rivers.

Roads and other forms of overland transportation are primitive. The distribution of wealth is highly unequal. A small number of land-owning families and a few urban merchant families are extremely rich.

The majority of the population consists of small farmers and farm-workers laboring on the estates of the rich landlords.

The central government is weak and dependent on customs duties for its limited revenues. National politics is constantly agitated by talk of rebellions and rival politicians — mostly members of the tiny upper class — accuse one another of plotting to dismember the country and planning military coups d’etat.

Now consider a second country. This one is much larger, with a population the size of today’s Philippines. Its economy is that of a newly industrializing nation.

Much of its population is still rural, but the number of urban factory workers and city dwellers is growing rapidly. Primitive, polluting “smokestack industries” are ravaging the landscape while enriching a new elite of millionaires who display their wealth by building palaces and importing fine art from abroad.

The national politics of this country is agitated by both sectoral and class struggle. Leaders of the impoverished farming sector denounce those of the booming industrial sector.

The government has to send troops to quell violence between striking workers and thugs hired by the corporations.

The ruling class, fearing insurrection by those who work in the urban sweatshops and live in filthy, crowded tenements, is building arsenals in the big cities. The standard of living in this country is higher than in the first, and it is steadily rising, but the society is deeply fissured.

The third nation is one of the most populous in the world, with more than a quarter of a billion people. The nation’s farming and manufacturing have been almost completely mechanized.

Four out of five workers are employed in the service economy. A majority live in single-family homes in spacious suburbs and the mass possession of automobiles, refrigerators, televisions, and computers has become so commonplace that many families own multiples of each.

This country has an enormous, centralized national government that takes in approximately one quarter of the national income, using the largest share to finance public pensions and health care for the retired.

The biggest political problem is the alienation of the citizenry, manifest in low rates of voter turnout. This high-tech superpower is also a military superpower, with a ring of worldwide bases coordinated by orbiting satellites.

Three countries as different as these might seem to have little in common. But all three are the United States. In 1800, 1900 — and 2000.

Each of these “countries” was adapted to a particular set of technological, economic and demographic circumstances. Each emerged after a period of political and social turmoil.

The first American republic, formed in the aftermath of the American War of Independence, was in place by the early 19th century. It was a decentralized, agrarian republic that lasted until the Civil War. The Civil War and Reconstruction produced the second republic, a regime better suited to the conditions of the first industrial revolution.

The next wave of change, the second industrial revolution of the late 19th century, gave birth to a third American republic, defined by the New Deal consensus that coalesced between the 1930s and the 1960s.

And what will the future bring? We believe the United States is destined once again to remake its private, public and communal realms.

As we have seen, the New Deal version of the American republic under which we still live is rapidly being rendered obsolete by the new technological, economic and demographic circumstances of the 21st century. A fourth republic suitable to the new realities of Information Age America will soon emerge.