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Sean Wilentz in the New Republic argues that while the plethora of strange candidates and jockeying in
the Reform Party makes for high amusement, the Reform Party is
essentially dead as an influential factor in American politics. He
quotes historian Richard Hofstadter to the effect that “Third parties
are like bees; once they have stung, they die.” The Reform Party reached
its peak with Ross Perot’s 1992 showing of 19 percent and its issue then
– the federal deficit — went mainstream and disappeared.

The Reform Party has personalities now — oh, boy, does it have
personalities — but aside from vague notions about political and
campaign reform it doesn’t have an overriding issue. And the
personalities are drawn in part by an artificial circumstance — the
fact that the last round of so-called campaign reform created a pot of
almost $13 million in taxpayers’ money as a plaything for the party’s
nominee.

Maybe.

The New York Times’ Maureen
Dowd
, after a ride on the Trumpster’s campaign plane, opines that

    Our politics is warped by money, celebrity, polling and crass
    behavior, and our culture is defined by stock-market high-rolling,
    boomer narcissism, niche marketing mania, rankings and a quiz show
    called “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

    “I love Regis,” Mr. Trump says.

    Why shouldn’t billionaires play “Who Wants to Be a President?”

I think Maureen Dowd is onto something about the political
culture, although she concentrates on the superficial. Beneath the
oddities, I believe, is a deep-seated disillusionment with politics as
usual. Though most Americans didn’t want Bill Clinton impeached, they
recognize him as a deeply flawed and profoundly dishonest human being.
Congress has become a scramble for the taxpayers’ money, with the
Republicans proving that once they achieved a majority they could almost
make the Democrats look like pikers when it comes to pork-barrel
spending. A green Texas governor with no particular knowledge of
governing or interest in issues can look like a winner on the basis of
family connections. We’re involved in fruitless war and aggression
abroad and malaise at home, despite widespread prosperity.

Time for the revolution, says David Nolan.

Dave founded the Libertarian Party in his living room in Denver in
1971, after watching Richard Nixon impose wage and price controls and
declare that “we are all Keynesians now.” The LP hit its high point in
1980 and might not make much of an impression next year unless it gets
its act more together than it seems to now. But it has stuck around, a
third party founded more on ideology than on personality and
transient issues, and elected local and even state officials here and
there.

Dave isn’t deeply involved in day-to-day LP matters these days. But
he has long been a close student of American political history. For
several years he has been researching and explicating a cyclical theory
of American political change.

When he and I co-hosted a radio talk show a few years ago, we called
it “The Fourth American Revolution.”

The basic idea is that there have been events in American history
that made a sea-change so profound in the way the country is governed as
to deserve to be called revolutionary.

He uses the term in a way that doesn’t necessarily imply bloodshed
and folks rioting in the streets, but more as classical political
philosophers have used it. The Greeks thought of forms of governance
going around in a circle, from democracy to autocracy to monarchy to
dictatorship and back to democracy, with each form eventually
displaying its own inherent weaknesses and being replaced by another in
an almost circular manner. When the political wheel turned from one form
to another that was a revolution. It might be accompanied by violence
and bloodshed, but that was optional.

When we asked befuddled callers which three events in American
political history caused changes profound enough to be called
revolutionary, they usually didn’t have much trouble coming up with the
same ones after a few moments of thought.

The first was the adoption of the Constitution, which replaced the
decentralized Articles of Confederation and established the American
state. The second was the Civil War, which prevented states from
seceding and led to the end of slavery in the southern states. The third
was the New Deal, which placed the central government in charge of
numerous things that had theretofore been handled by the states, like
economic regulation and the provision of welfare benefits.

If you’ll count, you’ll notice that these revolutionary episodes were
separated by 72 years. That makes a certain amount of sense. It’s about
the length of a healthy American’s life. In 72 years those who made the
previous revolution, fired as they were with ambition and idealism, will
have died out and have been replaced by timeservers and bureaucrats. The
weaknesses inherent in the new order of things (I would argue that no
political system is without weaknesses and shortcomings that will
eventually become apparent even to Americans) will be widely resented.
People will be ready for a new order and sooner or later political
leaders will figure it out and furnish them with one.

Well, the New Deal began with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in
1932. If the 72-year cycle holds, the next revolutionary episode in
American history should take place in 2004 (if we get past Y2K). So what
we are seeing amidst all the discontent, confusion and hilarity, is
pre-revolutionary ferment.

The 72-year period might not be set in stone. It might be anywhere
between 70 and 80 years. But it’s not hard to imagine that with all the
discontent and criticism of the welfare state and the bureaucracy
erected during the New Deal — and amplified and buttressed during the
Great Society and other periods — that people are ready for something
quite different.

The change might not be apparent on the political surfaces at first.
Remember that Roosevelt ran in 1932 as an opponent of big-spending,
profligate and irresponsible wascally Wepublicans, and by birth and
instinct he was an aristocrat. Yet he ended up increasing the power of
the government to rein in the free market and its “economic royalist”
ways and establishing numerous regulatory and welfare institutions.

Here’s a cautionary note. Each of the revolutionary episodes in
American history to date has resulted in increased centralization of
power. The Constitution created a more powerful central government than
had been in place before, the Civil War eliminated many of the putative
rights of the states and made the option of secession a dead letter,
and the New Deal virtually eliminated the states as entities with even a
shred of independence.

It could be that the next revolutionary episode will have a similarly
centralizing impact. That could quite plausibly come about by folding
the United States ever more tightly into international institutions like
the United Nations, NATO and the International Monetary Fund,
attenuating the country’s last shreds of sovereignty.

Or it might happen that the American people decide they’ve had enough
of centralization and put in place governors who will actually devolve
power back toward the states and maybe even back toward the people. A
certain thirst for such a move does exist.

The Republicans used to talk about devolution of power, though their
record in partial power is hardly promising. They might be better or
worse with a Republican president. The Supreme Court of late has taken
baby steps in the direction of limiting the largely arbitrary power the
central government has claimed for itself by pushing authority back in
the direction of the states. But they have been baby steps done by
often-shaky 5-4 margins.

“May you live in interesting times,” went the old Chinese curse. We
certainly do.

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