APSA: Death to the Fifth Republic! Long Live the Sixth!

In general, political science conferences tend to be staid, sober affairs.
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In general, political science conferences tend to be staid, sober affairs.

Panels of graduate students who are presenting for the first or second time, full of tepid caution lest somebody criticize them ("Well, I wouldn't want to suggest we should actually conclude anything from what I'm saying, or that it even really matters")

How refreshing, then, to walk into Theodore Lowi's over-the-top James Madison lecture, which ended with an impassioned plea to scrap the current Constitution and start anew ("We're so bloodied"). And also to have a special congressional committee investigate and expose the "criminal element" of what Lowi calls the "Fifth Republic" of the United States. Heady stuff indeed.

A bit about Lowi: He's a professor of Government at Cornell whose 1969 book, The End of Liberalism, is a major political science classic. (In it, he argues that liberalism has failed because most of the important decisions are now made by far-flung administrative agencies that are largely inaccessible to public.)

Lowi has a reputation of possessing the irrepressible ardor of a Southern Baptist preacher, all fire and brimstone, all the time.

Well, that seemed about right. His talk -- "Being Sinister: How the Constitution Saved the Republic and Lost Itself" - was a barn-burner.

So about that "Fifth Republic" ... Well, Lowi's got this story about American political history as a history of "illegitimacy." Right from the beginning. You see, first, we had the constitutional convention of 1787, which was illegitimate because one, the Founders wrote a whole new constitution when they said they were only going to revise the Articles of Confederation, and second, they even didn't have the honesty to call what they had created the "Second Republic."

We got our "Third Republic" with the 14th Amendment, and our "Fourth Republic" arrived with LBJ and all the unrealistic expectations that a president could fix everything with state power. But how could a president govern under these conditions? Only with Machievellian means of placating the public.

This, naturally led to the "Fifth Republic" of -- a time of dangerous executive overreach, or "Presidential Transcendence." (Edwin Meese III is our age's Lenin, Lowi pronounced -- the great theorist of the revolution.)

Troubling times indeed. "This is not my country," bemoaned an impassioned Lowi. But he left us with a note of optimism: "May the Fifth Republic live in infamy. Long live the Sixth Republic!"

A standing ovation followed.

And well deserved! What a great change-up from all those bootstrapping autoregressions with conditional heteroskedasticity of unknown form.