The First Three Americas
Consider the contrast between three countries. One is a preindustrial, 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 farmworkers 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.
In a little more than two centuries, the United States has evolved from an agrarian republic with 4 million inhabitants to a high-tech continental nation with more than 280 million citizens. American history has been marked by catastrophes like the Civil War and by injustices like racial discrimination and extreme social inequality. Nevertheless, by comparison with other countries, the United States has been a remarkable success. What is the secret of America's success, and what kind of society is the United States?
Some argue that the central value of the American tradition is liberty; others, equality; still others, communal solidarity. These schools of thought are all partially correct, but ultimately wrong. The perennial American tradition cannot be defined in terms of any single value. Rather, it consists of a complex of values--values that are complementary, not contradictory. The more accurate formulation would therefore be liberty and equality and community--each in its appropriate sphere of the market, the state, and civil society.
Most political theories tend to view only a single aspect of society, focusing on just one of its particular sectors and using it to define the totality. For example, socialists have long described the United States as a "capitalist" or "bourgeois" regime, while libertarians are equally focused on the "market," though far more favorably. Yet both capture only the economic dimensions of American life. Likewise, describing the United States as a "democracy" or "liberal democracy" captures only the political aspect. In recent years, it has become fashionable to portray America as a "market democracy," but this neglects the equally important "third sector" of religious, charitable, and voluntary associations that cannot be assigned either to the state or to the market.
Since its inception, the United States has been committed to a division of social authority between three distinct yet interdependent realms of society--market, state, and community--each of which has been governed by its own norms. In the realm of the state, for instance, people should be treated the same on the basis of their common citizenship; to distinguish among them on the basis of their wealth or their personal characteristics is wrong. In the realm of the market, however, what counts most is how much wealth a person has; citizenship is irrelevant, and so are personal characteristics like race and gender. The very personal characteristics that are illegitimate in the realm of governance and the marketplace, however, are central to identity in the realm of the community. The fact that you are a Baptist should not influence how you are treated by the IRS or Wal-Mart, but if you want to go to a summer camp run by and for Mormons, then you can be rejected legitimately because of your religion. One can argue about where to draw the boundaries between these three realms of society and the norms that should govern each. But there is little question that America has been defined since its beginning by its preservation of relatively autonomous public, private, and communal spheres.
The United States is hardly unique in its commitment to a division of social authority between the market, state, and community. To the contrary, we inherited this tripartite arrangement from Britain and other liberal democracies, which themselves developed it in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nor is the United States unique in its territorial expanse, in its bounty of natural resources, or in the size of its population--these, too, have counterparts elsewhere. If not to these defining features, then to what does the United States owe its remarkable success in progressing from a small agrarian republic into the world's predominant superpower in a mere two hundred years?
The secret to America's success has been its capacity for continuously reinventing its private, public, and communal sectors as circumstances change. These changing circumstances have included technological, demographic, geopolitical, and cultural transformations. Of these, it is the technological changes that have served as the greatest catalysts in each of the previous remakings of America.
Since the founding of the American republic in 1776, there has been one "great transformation" (to use the historian Karl Polanyi's term) and, as lesser waves within that tidal wave, three "revolutions" (to use the conventional word for dramatic technological and economic change). The great transformation has been the shift from an agrarian world order to an industrial world order--from a civilization powered by wood, wind, water, and animal and human muscle, to a civilization of machines powered by minerals (first coal, then, increasingly, petroleum). This transformation has taken place in three phases of technological change: the First Industrial Revolution, the Second Industrial Revolution, and the Third Industrial Revolution (now usually called the Information Revolution). The First Industrial Revolution was based on coal-powered steam engines, while the Second Industrial Revolution was based on the widespread use of electricity and internal combustion engines. The Information Revolution is based not on a new energy source but on a combination of computer information and genetic technologies.
These successive waves of technological and economic change, originating in the North Atlantic nations, have reverberated across the globe. Most of the political, economic, and social structures that existed at the beginning of the industrial era--empires, hereditary monarchies and aristocracies, slavery and serfdom--have been obliterated in the past two centuries. In much of the world, the collapse of the old order under the stress of change produced wars, revolutions, and tyrannies. Two abortive attempts to create a high-tech civilization along illiberal lines, fascism and communism, plunged the world into a series of wars and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions as a result of deliberate genocide or artificial famines.
Unlike most of the polities that existed in 1776, the United States has not only survived and expanded, it has retained its defining character in the process. The secret of our republic's survival and progress has been the ability of the American people to reinvent our institutions repeatedly in order to take full advantage of new technological breakthroughs, such as the introduction of the steam engine in the 1800s and the emergence of electricity and the internal combustion engine in the 1900s. Without the steam-powered factories and railroads that Lincoln used to defeat the Confederacy, for instance, the American republic may well have dissolved. Indeed, the survival of the United States and the end of slavery owe as much to James Watt's invention of the steam engine as to James Madison's theory of federalism.
To simplify a complex history, we might speak of three previous American republics. Each of these 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 nineteenth 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 nineteenth century, gave birth to a third American republic, defined by the New Deal consensus that coalesced between the 1930s and the 1960s.
America's historic challenge has been to continuously reinvent all three sectors of society--market, state, and community--without allowing any one of these to overpower or stifle the others. Despite occasional disasters and failures, we Americans have proven ourselves to be remarkably successful in periodically remaking our republic in response to changing conditions, while simultaneously improving all three sectors of our society--making our government more democratic, making our economy more dynamic and inclusive, and making the associational life of the American community richer and more diverse. It is this dynamic capacity for institutional reinvention that has enabled us to not only take full advantage of new technologies and circumstances, but, increasingly, to ourselves become a seedbed of technological and social innovation.
It is time now for another historic remaking of our nation's 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 twenty-first century. The challenge of sketching a fourth republic suitable to the new realities of Information Age America is the subject of the following chapters. In this chapter, we will sketch the historic evolution of American society from 1800 to 2000. Only when we understand how America has reinvented itself in the past will we be prepared to reinvent America in the future.
By one of the ironies of history, the thirteen colonies that became the United States seceded from the British empire at the very moment that Britain was becoming the laboratory of the Industrial Revolution. Far from being one of the first societies of the dawning industrial era, however, the first republic of the United States--in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries--was one of the last countries to be born in the final years of agrarian civilization. A few visionaries--among them Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's Secretary of the Treasury--understood the importance of the new, steam-powered industrial economy arising in Britain, and wanted the United States to become a great manufacturing power. But the Hamiltonian vision of America's future was defeated by the rival vision of Thomas Jefferson and his allies, whose hopes that the United States would remain a republic of farmers resonated with America's rural majority.
The American economy was almost wholly agrarian well into the nineteenth century. In 1790, only 5 percent of the 4 million inhabitants of the United States (including 757,000 nonwhites, most of them slaves) lived in urban areas with 2,500 or more residents. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, 10 out of every 11 Americans lived on family farms. In its technology and economy, the United States of 1800 was closer to ancient Greece and Rome or medieval Europe than it was to the United States of 1850 or 1900 or 1950. The major sources of energy were still wind and water. Mills still had to be located on streams, and just as in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, canals were the major infrastructure projects. Before 1840 inland waterways like the Erie Canal were much more important than railroads in providing transportation. Steamboats made it possible to extend commerce up previously unnavigable rivers; between 1817 and 1840 the number of steamboats in the trans-Appalachian West grew from 17 to 536. Nonetheless, travel remained so difficult that Jefferson believed it would take centuries to settle the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, and speculated that Anglo-American settlers on the remote Pacific coast would form new countries.
The market in the first American republic was rudimentary and weak. Modern capitalism is based on national and international markets, a complex division of labor among workers, and large-scale economic enterprises. All of these were missing or poorly developed from the 1780s until the mid-nineteenth century. Corporate capitalism and banking were stuck at a primitive stage. Joint-stock corporations usually had to be chartered for specific public purposes by state legislatures--a relic of the medieval idea of the corporation as a monopoly chartered by the king. The formation of an integrated national market was retarded by the powerful tradition of states' rights localism. Despite the political independence of the United States from Britain, the southern plantation economy in effect was part of the British economy. Cotton, which displaced wool as the chief raw material for the British textile industry by 1801, could only be grown in tropical climates like that found in the Caribbean and the American South. The South became Britain's principal supplier, and before the Civil War the South got most of its capital from Britain.
In the first republic of the United States, the government sector was as undeveloped as the business sector. Indeed, in most respects the state governments were more important than the federal government. The main source of federal revenue was the tariff, a tax on imported goods. The largest federal government agency was the post office, which provided presidents with a source of patronage appointments. The federal presence in the economy was minor. The states, rather than the federal government, paid for most infrastructure projects like canals and early railroads.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Radical Center by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind. Copyright © 2001 by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.