The American Republic: The Vision and the Transformations

A review of "The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic" by Stephen M. Krason

From the earliest years of the fledgling American Democratic Republic, there was great uncertainly about the limits of the authority of Congress.  While the federal government was considered to have limited and enumerated powers, even in these early years, there were concerns that the authority of the federal government would grow.  On September 22, 1832, John Marshall, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, confided to a colleague: “I yield slowly and reluctantly to the conviction that our constitution cannot last.”  Having written the unanimous decision in Marbury v. Madison (1803) overturning an act of Congress as “unconstitutional” for the first time in history, Chief Justice Marshall was among the first to truly understand the threats to the Constitution from our own government. 

We can only imagine what Marshall might have thought of the regulations issued by the federal government requiring religious institutions’ health insurance plans to cover contraception—including sterilization and abortifacients—under the current federal health care law.  The mandate is something that the Founders could never have imagined. To understand how this transformation of the power of the national government occurred, we can turn to The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic, a new book by Dr. Stephen M. Krason, professor of political science and legal studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville.  

Krason’s analysis builds upon two key questions: “To what degree are the principles of the Founding Fathers either maintained or changed?”  And, “To what degree does the surrounding culture either support or oppose the original vision.”  Coupling an historical overview with a sociopolitical analysis of specific periods throughout history, Krason identifies pivotal historical periods in contributing greatly to what he calls the “transformation” of our democratic republic.  The eras included: the era of  Jacksonian Democracy; the era of Civil War and reconstruction; the gilded age, the progressive era and World War I; the roaring twenties, the great depression, and World War II; the Cold War; the Welfare State Cultural upheaval of the 1960-1980s; and the upsurge of conservatism, economic transformation and post-Cold War America of the present. 

Coupling an examination of the political, constitutional and legal developments of each era with an analysis of the economic, technological, political and philosophical developments of each era, including the religious developments, Krason provides readers with a rigorous analysis of how the events of each era contributed to the dramatic transformation of the republic. 

This book could not have arrived at a better time for all Americans—especially Christians—who are struggling with threats to our freedom from public policies like the HHS mandate. The early chapters of Krason’s historical analysis help us to understand how the origins of the politics of the past continue to influence the decisions of today.  He demonstrates that from the earliest days of the Republic, as the courts began in a small way to exercise the power of judicial review, the politicians “flip-flopped in their view of court power depending on whether they agreed with the outcome.” And if this sounds familiar to contemporary readers, Krason points out that this attempt to politicize the courts began the practice of treating the courts as basically a political institution. Even in these earliest days, Krason writes that politics “compromised the integrity of the notion of rule of law.” 

In some important ways, Krason’s analysis mirrors that of Talcott Parsons—a prominent sociologist of the past who used a macro-sociological approach to understand how institutions and structures function in a society.  Like Parsons, Krason argues that the disparate components of society contribute to the operation or the functioning of the system as a whole.  Krason attempts to explain how the relationship of these different parts of the system—including the family, the polity, the Church, the educational system, and the economic system—all relate to each other and to the whole.  Krason’s book helps us understand how change in any one part of society—like the breakdown of the family, or the decline in the authority of the teachings of the Church—affects others, requiring other parts to take account of the changes, modify its actions, and adapt to any changes necessary. Krason’s book helps us understand how this has occurred. 

While Krason presents a sobering analysis of our current plight, he holds some optimism for the future.  As the longtime President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, Krason argues that Catholics have a special contribution to make to the revitalization of the country.  Krason knows that faithful Catholics understand natural law, and they understand that the government cannot just “redefine” the family or expand reproductive rights without having an impact on the dignity of the person and the functioning of society. Catholics recognize that the government is attempting to diminish the role of the Magisterium through the healthcare mandate requiring Catholic employers to provide services counter to the teachings of the Church.  They also recognize that the Church is one of the last institutions left which has not been “transformed” to conform to the cultural zeitgeist.

Catholics know (or should know) there is a natural law basis for the teachings of the Church on the family, for the dignity of the individual—including the unborn—and for an increased commitment to morality.  There is a need to respect legitimate authority—including the authority of the Magisterium.  Catholics can and should continue to have an impact on the culture.  And, according to Krason’s analysis, Catholics and other Christians are uniquely suited to contribute to a revitalization of the country.

Krason has done a great service because his new book reminds us that each of us have a role to play in protecting the political order and the governing of our citizenry. Krason maintains that a democratic republic can exist, be sustained, and flourish “only when there is a deep commitment to it in the minds and norms of its people.” Focusing on concerned public-spirited citizens, Krason argues that contemporary law and public policy might be reshaped in accordance with the religious principles and cultural norms of the past. Some readers may find this argument unpersuasive because we have moved so far from those cultural norms.  But, the Tea Party, for example, has already had some influence and Krason maintains that such grass roots endeavors can continue.

Despite the “call to action,” Krason is not an ideologue. Rather, like Parsons, he argues that each individual occupies an important role within the structure of society.  By identifying the periods throughout our history when we seem to have forgotten that, he reminds us that as long as we recognize our need to take responsibility for carrying out our functions and roles, allowing a minimum of interference from the government, our country can again be revitalized.

The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic
by Stephen M. Krason
Transaction Publishers, 2012
Hardcover, 538 pages

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About Anne Hendershott 106 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH