A conversation with with James Piereson.
The University Bookman is pleased to present this discussion with James Piereson on his recent book, Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order, from Encounter Books. Mr. Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
The central idea for the book came out of my reflections on Barack Obama and his attempt to remake American politics on the model of FDR. I felt that this was a misreading of what happened in the 1930s and that, in any case, the circumstances of our present era are so different from the 1930s era as to make any comparisons look naïve and foolish. It seemed to me that the New Deal order, or the postwar order as I refer to it in the book, was nearing a point of exhaustion by the time Obama was elected due to the accumulation of debt, the aging of the U.S. population, slowing economic growth, and the disappearance of the moderate voice in national politics.
Obama, due to a misreading of history, was bound to make the situation worse, which I think he has done by trying to extend a regime that was already on precarious footing. The postwar consensus was already unraveling when he was elected, but instead of trying to repair the consensus he managed to disrupt it even further. My book addresses the question as to what is likely to happen now or how the nation can move forward in this kind of political environment. The next serious recession is likely to create a crisis in national politics of the kind we have not seen since the 1930s or the 1850s. In this sense, I do not see Obama as another FDR or Lincoln—that is, as a president who inaugurated a new era—but as one of the last presidents of an era that is ending.
What is the postwar consensus that has been shattered, in your view?
The consensus I describe is the broad agreement after the Second World War over the general purposes of the government and certain elements of what we could call the American belief system, which some refer to as the nation’s “civic religion.” These elements included a belief in free enterprise, though with a social safety net of various kinds, a general respect of religion, and the protection of freedom here and abroad especially in the face of the Communist threat.
There have been earlier periods where a general consensus holds sway, such as the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian era, which was broken by sectional strife and slavery; andthe post–Civil War period leading to the Great Depression. The current postwar consensus, I argue, lasted largely until the late 1980s or early 1990s, but is now going through its own transitional period.
You describe the Obama presidency as having the consequence of fraying “the postwar consensus beyond the possibility of repair.” Why is that?
That consensus collapsed as a result of several factors. The 1960s, for example, saw a social and cultural revolution in the universities that has expanded into the wider culture. I also describe the rise of “advocacy” philanthropy, which is a movement largely of the left. This kind of philanthropy seeks large-scale social change, and as I describe in the book, it often joins with government bureaucracies to further the interests of particular groups.
The Obama presidency is a culmination of those trends. He was declared by his supporters to be a “postmodern” president who would usher in a postpartisan politics. That did not happen. In fact, the culture war in some sense became more intensified with perceived attacks on religious groups and the enactment of a huge new government program in the form of the Affordable Care Act. The postwar consensus had frayed over the last thirty years because of movements like the 1960s counterculture and the rise of identity politics, as well as the role of the university described above. After several decades of attack from the Left, the consensus is deeply frayed. It has been replaced, in elite circles, by a new kind of liberalism. The Obama administration simply furthered this new version of liberalism rather than the older liberalism of the postwar and Cold War era.
What has been the conservative role in this period from the 1960s on? Have they played more of a rearguard action against an inevitable dissolution of that postwar order?
In the early part of the postwar era, most liberals thought conservatism was dead, and that liberalism was America’s defining creed. That was wrong, of course; as I write in the chapter titled, “Conservative Nation,” one of the most significant historical trends of that postwar era was the rise of conservatism as a rival “to liberalism as the nation’s most influential public doctrines,” which reached its highpoint arguably in the late 1980s. Although conservatism is still only rarely the dominant political movement, nevertheless it retains a lot of cultural vigor through the network of institutions, foundations, journals, and other organizations conservatives have built over the last few decades. These will sustain the conservative sentiment in America even if—as is the case now—liberalism remains dominant among so-called elite cultural institutions.
Conservatism is in this sense, always an opposition movement and so may be seen as something of a “rearguard.” Butconservatives are not simply acknowledging liberal victories or defending remnants of a political order; as in the 1980s, conservatives have stood for a positive program that was broadly popular with the American mainstream.
Yet in some sense the news is not all bad, right? Conservatives can sometimes forget we are living in something of a golden age?
Yes that’s right. In terms of living conditions and innovations in the economy, the last thirty years have been extraordinary. And another thing to remember is that the nation leaving the gold standard, while not without cost, allowed both financial innovation and the expansion of credit. This in turn fueled economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet the current political climate where the two parties are basically stalemated and cannot speak to one another has in turn exacerbated the economic crisis.
You describe our current period as transitional and compare it to other times in American history, such as the 1850s and 1860s and the 1930s and 1940s. What hopeful signs do you see that the transition will be a peaceful one to form a new consensus?
America has weathered these kinds of transitions before, though admittedly one was resolved only through civil war. This new period of transition may yet be one of opportunity for the country if we understand how the nation moves from one period of transition to another, and the present forces working today.
A conversation with James Piereson, author of the new book, Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order.