- - Tuesday, August 18, 2015


By James Piereson

Encounter Books, $27.99, 416 pages

You don’t have to be a weatherman to know there’s an ill wind blowing. Given current trends, within two decades every federal dollar will go to paying for mandated programs, and interest on the debt will approach unsupportable levels. The money is running out, as are the ideas.

Today, on the eve of a presidential election in which the most popular candidates at the moment seem to be an ex-president’s tired wife running on tired ideas, a loud, rich realtor with no discernible ideas about issues or governing, and a frazzled, aging socialist with ideas straight out of the Eugene Debs political playbook of the 1930s, there seems to be a remarkable lack of thought, freshness, energy and initiative.

It’s this apparent national malaise, to borrow a phrase from President Jimmy Carter, that James Piereson, president of the Willam E. Simon Foundation, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and author of “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,” addresses in this collection of wide-ranging, thoughtful and well-written essays.

Mr. Piereson believes that the United States, since its Founding, “has been shaped by three far-reaching political revolutions Jefferson’s ‘revolution of 1800,’ the Civil War, and the New Deal.” Each of these upheavals was followed by “lasting institutional and cultural adjustments that set the stage for new phases of political and economic development.”

Today, Mr. Piereson believes, we’ve reached the limits of what can be accomplished by the third revolution, which resulted in today’s “regulatory and entitlement state,” established during the 1930s and 1940s. That this model cannot be sustained is a matter of arithmetic, with its antithesis perhaps clearly visible in the current administration.

“It is hard to see how any new government programs can be paid for; indeed, it is hard to see how those already in place will be paid for. In this light, the Obama presidency may represent the end of an era rather than the beginning of a new one.”

In short, with the federal system of social programs and entitlements finally reaching the point of consuming all the monies available, with states and cities collapsing under the weight of pension demands from unionized workers, and with the national debt approaching insupportable levels, the Obama presidency may have set the stage for Mr. Piereson’s “fourth revolution.”

That “fourth revolution,” Mr. Piereson writes, need not have adverse consequences. “Quite the opposite — it could launch a new phase of growth and dynamism in the American experiment.”

Among the particulars of the synthesis growing out of that fourth revolution, Mr. Piereson believes, will be a model that is “more sympathetic to business and [the] private sector” with “a focus on growth, and the fiscal and regulatory policies required to promote it, as an alternative to the emphasis on redistribution, public spending and regulation that has characterized the Obama years.”

There will be “an emphasis on federalism,” encouraging experimentation and innovation, and removing those issues from the national agenda where they contribute to division, stalemate, and endless controversy, as well as “a campaign to depoliticize the public sector so that governments are no longer active in the political process and public workers can once again be viewed as ‘civil servants’ rather than as active agents of one of the political parties.”

This synthesis, Mr. Piereson concludes, will require more reorganization among Democrats than Republicans because the Democratic Party “has organized itself around public spending and the ‘nationalization’ of most political issues.” This means that “Democrats will have to accommodate themselves to a new system just as Republicans were forced to do once the New Deal and it various programs were in place.”

“We do not know precisely what this new synthesis will look like,” writes Mr. Piereson, although he believes that some of its features are visible in places like Wisconsin, a traditional liberal Democratic state where voters have approved measures “to decertify and strictly regulate public sector unions to save taxpayers’ money, introduce more flexibility into the public sector, and promote economic growth.”

But wherever the new synthesis manifests itself, concludes Mr. Piereson, “the postwar era is expiring, if it has not expired already. The consensus that sustained it is a thing of the past. It cannot be resurrected.”

However, he continues, “Americans are an optimistic and forward-looking people,” and nostalgia for past successes will fade, giving way to efforts “to build a new order on the foundations of the old, and to open the way for a new chapter in the unfolding history of the ‘American idea.’ “

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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