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The Fifth Republic

- February 24, 2009

For a bracing bit of provocation, Theodore Lowi‘s new essay is worth the read. A tidbit:

bq. …the media treat the presidency as the personification not only of his party but (echoing LBJ) the entire government. One parting case in point is taken from the cover stories of presidents in 2008 campaigns alone: “How he’ll fix the economy” (cover, Fortune); “Which one can fix the economy?” (cover, American Prospect); “How the next president can make America grow again” (cover, Time); “But could he deliver?” (cover, The Economist); “How would he govern?” (cover, Congressional Quarterly); “Who can restore American power and security?” (with variations on several covers). Emphasis added. This is so unbelievably primitive…

And elaborating the “Fifth Republic,” his characterization of the current American political system:

bq. …One of the principal goals drawn from the new state theory has been to denigrate the separation of powers and, indeed, government itself: Anti-judiciary, for lack of respect for original intent, for states’ rights, and for “legislating from the bench,” with intrusion of rights issues. Anti-Congress, for its inability to do its job and for interference with national security issues, interference in war and resistance to “supporting the troops”; and anti-bureaucracy, for interference in the market. What’s left is the presidency and the highest echelon of the executive branch: That is the Fifth Republic…The Fifth Republic is a true constitutional revolution. What shall we call it? Constitutional dictatorship? Plebiscitary authoritarianism? Authoritarian democracy?

And lest this appears a partisan attack on George W. Bush:

bq. The Fifth Republic seems to be legitimate. It is a bipartisan compact. Regardless of party, the 44th president will seek, accept, and embrace the transcendent presidency because that is the only solution to the new president’s recognition that he must have “power commensurate with his responsibility.” And, since there can never be enough power to meet mass expectations, the masses must be mobilized on a permanent war footing.

bq. And it deserves repeating: Any president elected in 2008 will do this, whether he is a Democrat or a Republican. He will foster “permanent war,” a revival of the Cold War mentality and the Cold War culture. In fact George W. Bush can claim this as his legacy—a simple transposition from the war against world communism to the war against world terrorism.

bq. This is not an illusion. It is an integral part of Fifth Republic state theory. Since the beginning of the Cold War our foreign policy has been theory driven. In Hot War, the objective is force against a defined enemy, ending in victory as measured by destruction or lack of capacity to continue. In Cold War, the objective is deterrence—mobilization for war in order to prevent war. But since there is no way to measure prevention—by non-events, non-happenings—it has to be driven by a theory that violent events are inevitable wherever and whenever we are weak. Every act of violence confirms the theory; and when there is no violent event, the theory is also confirmed. QED: the theory is self-confirming. That’s the war footing.

In a postscript written in December, Lowi seems dubious that Obama will prove much different. My thoughts at this point:

* The economic crisis seems to have shifted the focus of American politics and governance away from the “war footing.” Does this matter, or is presidential transcendence as salient in economics as in national security?

* Obama seems less prone to self-aggrandizement, which could lead him to reposition the presidency within the political system. The Newsweek book I discussed before describes that Obama has bouts of what we might call “self-awareness” if not necessarily self-doubt.

* Obama has repudiated the essence of the “unitary executive,” if not (yet) every one of its manifestations in the national security arena.

* I am hard-pressed to see Obama as “anti-judiciary.” And not necessarily even “anti-Congress.” He basically let Congress write the stimulus bill. I thought it smart not to expend political capital on every line item in the bill. The question is whether he intends to be as collaborative with regard.

And yet, I suspect that Lowi would call me naive. He would see “presidential transcendence” as too ingrained in the system, and would see my use of “Obama” in the preceding points as evidence of the “primitivism” of which he accuses the media in the passage quoted above. I certainly don’t think that institutions, formal or informal, are often revolutionized by a single person. But neither is politics static — or else we’d still be in the Lowi’s First Republic, not the Fifth. So there is the question of what might create change. Lowi’s essay (originally a lecture) isn’t intended to be a full-fledged theory, so I won’t fault him for failing to answer this question. But at least as important as any periodization is an account of the transition between periods. My ultimate guess is that Obama’s presidency may not thoroughly dismantle the Fifth Republic — at least to Lowi’s liking — but I am hard-pressed to see that, 4 or 8 years down the road, the American political system will truly resemble a “bipartisan compact” that reifies the executive.

The article is here (gated).