11 May 2022

This American moment of reälignment

A Twitter thread from Thomas Zimmer describes very well my own read of the mechanics of the dangerous fecklessness of the Democratic Party in this moment. Here’s a taste:

The fundamental asymmetry of American politics is captured precisely by the fact that Pelosi won’t stop with the “strong GOP” nostalgia while no one on the Republican side would even consider saying something like this about the Democratic Party. It’s so bizarre.


One important explanatory factor is age: People like Pelosi came up in a very different political environment, when there was indeed a great deal of bipartisan cooperation in Congress — and they are longing for a return to the days of amity across party lines.

Additionally, this inability to grapple in earnest with the post-Obama reality in which Democratic politicians are almost universally considered members of an “Un-American” faction by most Republicans has deeper ideological roots.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. (I archived it at the bottom of this post, in case Twitter fails.) And it got me ranting on Twitter, which I have refined here.

Geezer Democrats’ confused nostalgia for Working With Republicans is driven by memories reaching all of the way back to the Nixon era, misunderstanding the history of major American political reälignments. So we have to talk about that history to understand the dynamics on the right side of the aisle which brought us here.

FDR created a political era shaped by the New Deal and its legacy of the regulatory and social insurance state. The Democratic Party became the party of New Deal liberalism; Republicans became the party of Sure, But Slow Down There Bucko.

Through the long middle of the 20th century, the parties were ideologically incoherent in today’s terms. The Democrats were the more liberal side but their coalition included the racist whites of the South who still refused to vote for Lincoln’s party, which is why many New Deal policies set terms for “universal” benefits which in practice excluded Black people. The Republicans largely opposed Democrats’ liberal social insurance policies, but had to respond to those policies’ popularity. These ideological coalitions shaped by the popularity of New Deal policy explain why Republican Presidents Eisenhower & Nixon seem oddly liberal on policy to contemporary eyes.

Nixon started the process of breaking the New Deal political order with his Southern Strategy of appealing to racist whites in the South. Reagan secured that shift, bringing millions of former Democratic voters into a new Republican coalition which would become the new lodestar of US politics replacing the New Deal: movement conservatism.

Movement conservatism bound together pseudo-libertarian neoliberalism dedicated to tearing down the regulatory and social insurance state of the New Deal (for the benefit of corporations aka rich people) with “social conservatism” of racism, sexism, and Christian nationalism. This coalition does not really make sense, but Reagan figured out how to say that New Deal universal social insurance and public goods are bad because they benefit undeserving (Black) people without it sounding harsh or nonsensical, which is why conservatives still revere him.

Reagan made movement conservatism the new lodestar of US politics, just as FDR had done with the New Deal. The Democrats became the party of Sure, But Slow Down There Bucko.

Geezer Democrats like Biden & Pelosi learned to do politics during Reagan’s administration as this new US politics took shape. New Deal liberalism was bleeding but not yet dead, so Democrats held enough power to force Republicans in Congress to work with them for a while. Though the neoliberal turn by the Dems had its organic element — in retrospect we can see Carter as a proto-neolib — since movement conservatism crushed Democrats in elections time and time again when they tried the old New Deal playbook, the neolibs were the last Democrats standing, and Clinton’s administration secured their hold on the Party. The long Reagan moment, in which there was politics to do be done by slowly capitulating to movement conservatism as the new center of US politics, is the lost Arcadia which Pelosi describes yearning to return to. Her cohort came to understand the Slow Down There Bucko moves of WJC & BHO — NAFTA, balancing the budget, financial de-regulation, welfare “reform”, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Heritage Foundation’s healthcare plan — as how effective operators win elections and pass legislation. In their experience, any other moves are dangerously naïve, a loser at the ballot. They had an intense formative experience in the last quarter of the 20th century which taught them that working the playbook progressives advocate would be catastrophic, leaving Democrats with nothing.

As Zimmer’s Twitter thread shows, though, those geezer Democrats have not registered how Republican politics came to work under the long reign of movement conservatism. The True Believers of the movement conservative coalition are the “social conservatives” who think that they are the only Real Americans. The nihilists of the coalition just care about winning for their corporate friends, rather than about good governance … or democracy. Both parts of this electoral crew framed Democrats not merely as political opponents who were wrong — since that would have required arguing against liberal policy on the merits, which is hard — but rather framed Democrats as entirely illegitimate.

Many liberals draw an unwholesome comfort from believing that the Republican denial of Democrats’ legitimacy reflects a racist rejection of BHO and a sexist rejection of HRC and nothing else. I have talked about that before with respect to HRC’s Presidential candidacy:

If the Republican candidate for President in 2016 had been a movement conservative — Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or one of those guys — she would have crushed him like a bug.

But that was not the race we got.

The vitriol HRC & BHO faced from conservatives certainly was full of sexism & racism … but it was also there from Republican press and politicians during Bill Clinton’s Presidency. He faced endless absurd bullshit extending to the Wall Street Journal editorial page crediting crackpot nonsense routinely. As did Al Gore. As did John Kerry. As did Howard Dean. As does Joe Biden. The vast rightwing conspiracy has been working the refs for so long that a blizzard of nonsense for anyone left of the center of the Republican Party is baked in.

This refusal to actually engage with Democrats was the core strategy of the Gingrich cohort of Republicans in Congress elected in ’94, and conservatives and the Republican Party extended this denial of legitimacy to any small-d democratic institutions which denied them power in the fight over the 2000 Presidential election results. Republicans defied the popular vote, cheated in plain sight, and sacrificed the independence of the Supreme Court … to win against Al Gore of all people, the square white guy whom neolib centrist Bill Clinton picked as his campaign running mate in order to secure his right flank.

Figures like William F. Buckley had purged the far right wackos when they were building movement conservatism in the 1960s, but in the 1990s conservative media brought the nuts back in. Limbaugh and Fox “News” and the rest have skimmed the crazies looking for ideas which stick for the last 30 years now, leading conservative media further and further toward the far right each year.

Conservative media parallels the Republican Party leadership’s weird alliance of True Believer zealots and opportunistic Nihilists. All of these people benefit from denying Democrats’ & liberals’ fundamental legitimacy. The True Believers want Republican voters radicalized this way, because they really do believe that liberals are not Real Americans, while the Nihilists do not care so long as it buys them victories. After a few decades of this, the Republican Party and conservative media have pushed their voters further and further into denying liberals’ legitimacy in governance, or even as citizens.

This puts Republican electeds in a trap of their movement’s own making. If they engage in good faith with Democrats at all, they lose primaries against challengers who will oppose Democrats out of obstinate anti-liberalism. The Republican Party cannot bring back the Arcadia which geezer Democrats dream of, even if they wanted to.

At this point, the original dynamic of movement conservatism has completely reversed. Instead of Nihilist pseudo-libertarian neolibs with corporate money driving Republican policy by coating it in “socially conservative” rhetoric pushed through controlled media to bigoted voters, the Nihilists desperately chase after the True Believers. The tail wags the dog.

The success of DJT’s candidacy for the Republican nomination in 2016 emerged from these dynamics. The Republican Party establishment tried to discredit him, but they no longer called the tune. Even had DJT lost the election, his candidacy would have left movement conservatism as shattered as it is now, since movement conservatism had been barely holding togther, cracked beyond repair. The Republican Party — the entire conservative complex — dreads their nuttiest supporters. Conservative media platforms need the audience, so they feed the crazy; the Party needs the voters, so they pander. True Believers do not control the Republicans — at this moment no one does — but more and more of them now hold elected office.

One can miss how big this shift was because Trump’s disinterest in any actual governance kept the movement conservative policy zombie on its feet; rich sponsors of the destruction of the regulatory state still got their legislative victories. But the True Believers no longer need the Nihilists’ institutional support and thus no longer need to follow their lead on policy.

With this implosion and reversal, the Republican Party currently undergoing an internal reälignment as profound as the emergences of the New Deal and movement conservatism — and since the Democrats settled into standing for The Movement Conservative Agenda But Less for the last 30 years, they too will necessarily undergo a corresponding transformation. But Democratic leadership only know how to run the playbook that weathered the long neoliberal winter of movement conservatism, a world we cannot return to even if that were desirable.

The current Republican Party is terrifying. The term for politics which rejects the legitimacy of any politics or citizens occupying any other position, which uses liberal democratic norms in bad faith to destroy libdem institutions, which cares more about theatre than policy, which has a cult of personality around a hateful blatherer is … fascism. I do not think we arrived at a new era with a fully fascist Republican Party and a Democratic Party of Just Not Fascism. Things remain in motion. The Republicans could land in a different place, like maybe Strong Social Democracy But Only For Married People With Kids or something like that — but most of the possibilities are bad.

And a Republican Party which does go fully fascist would be a nightmare. Just Not Fascism describes most voters but it does not constitute either an electoral coalition or a governing coalition. A fascist Party would lose a lot of elections because fascism is unpopular, but determined fascists only have to win once because they will make sure to never allow a free election again.

The music will stop soon, and anyone who has not found a chair will be locked out of American politics for at least a couple of generations. The Democrats must seize the tiller and make sure that they, and not this Republican Party, define the new lodestar of US politics which will replace the movement conservatism which replaced New Deal liberalism. Yet sclerotic Democratic Party leaders cannot even see a need for a response to this moment of reälignment, much less offer a path through it.

Here is Zimmer’s entire thread:

I want the Republican Party to take back the party to where you were when you cared about a woman’s right to choose, you cared about the environment. Here I am, Nancy Pelosi, saying this country needs a strong Republican Party. Not a cult.

The fundamental asymmetry of American politics is captured precisely by the fact that Pelosi won’t stop with the “strong GOP” nostalgia while no one on the Republican side would even consider saying something like this about the Democratic Party. It’s so bizarre.

In a vacuum, yes, a functioning democracy should have several democratic parties competing with each other. But this type of fact-free nostalgia only perpetuates the myth of a GOP that was only recently captured by extremists — an aberration from the noble Republican norm. That mythical tale is utterly inadequate historically — the Republican Party that “cared about a woman's right to choose” and “cared about the environment” hasn’t existed since at least the 1970s, when conservatives became the dominating faction within the GOP.

What Pelosi is saying is significant, however, as a manifestation of much of the Democratic establishment’s inability to reckon with the radicalizing Republican assault on democracy and civil rights. I wrote about this a while ago for the Guardian:

The Republican party is abandoning democracy. There can be no ‘politics as usual’.

Many in the Democratic establishment act as if politics as usual is still an option and a return to “normalcy” imminent, even as Republicans could not be clearer about the fact that they consider Democrats the real enemy and Democratic governance fundamentally illegitimate.

One important explanatory factor is age: People like Pelosi came up in a very different political environment, when there was indeed a great deal of bipartisan cooperation in Congress — and they are longing for a return to the days of amity across party lines.

Additionally, this inability to grapple in earnest with the post-Obama reality in which Democratic politicians are almost universally considered members of an “Un-American” faction by most Republicans has deeper ideological roots. Some establishment Democrats seem to feel a kinship with their Republican opponents grounded in a worldview of white elite centrism and status-quo dogma — they seem to believe that it is high time to push back against the “radical” forces of “leftism” and “wokeism.”

This helps explain why so many who are supposedly in the Democratic camp reflexively defend reactionary Supreme Court justices against relatively tame protests, defining peaceful demonstrations for civil rights and against the powerful as an illegitimate breach of “civility.” Much of the (older) Democratic establishment seems to be looking at the mobilization of civil society against reactionary conservative elites less as “We’re finally coming for you” and more as “They’re coming for all of us”. Not exactly a defense of democracy and civil rights. The Right’s dogma that the world works best when it’s run by (predominantly wealthy, predominantly male) white elites — that this is, in fact, the “natural order” of things that needs to be defended and upheld — evidently has some appeal beyond the conservative camp. Many Democratic elites also seem all too willing to accept conservative ideas of who represents the “real America,” and they still seem to operate from a premise of defining “white” as the American “normal” — which leads them to emphasize the interests of the GOP base.

The GOP has been focused almost solely on the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives for decades and Republicans are explicitly claiming to be the sole proponents of this “real” (read: white Christian patriarchal) America. That’s why conservatives are willing to dismiss numerical Democratic majorities: They don’t count because they are based on a coalition of people whose status as members of the body politic is, at best, considered provisional and can always be revoked.

Many Democrats seem to have a hard time shaking such ideas of the (white) “normal,” of who does / doesn’t count as “real America.” And so they seem unwilling to go against those “real” Americans, opting to go against the interests of their own majority coalition instead.

The constant attempts to normalize a radicalizing Republican Party also have a lot to do with two foundational myths that have always shaped the collective imaginary: the myth of American exceptionalism and the myth of white innocence. Much of the Democratic elite still subscribes to an exceptionalist understanding that America is fundamentally good and inexorably on its way to overcoming whatever vestigial problems there might still be. It builds on a mythical tale of America’s past, describing democracy as old, consolidated, and exceptionally stable, ignoring the fact that multiracial democracy started not even 60 years ago. Acknowledging what the GOP has become goes against the pillars of that worldview.

To the extent that Democrats acknowledge, as Pelosi does, that there is something very wrong with the current GOP, they tend to present this as the result of an unfortunate and very recent departure from the Grand Old Party’s true noble self. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of this aberrationist tale: If the problem is just that the true Republican Party has been captured by a few extremists, then all we need to do is to encourage all those good Republicans to stand up and take back their party. In this interpretation, what’s currently happening in American politics is basically just an unfortunate hiccup. No deeper ideological struggle detected, no need to revise the fundamental tale of America’s ever-progressing, ever-perfecting democracy.

In this way, the Democratic establishment’s “Make the GOP Great Again” nostalgia is also shaped by the paradigm of white innocence: Whatever animates white people’s extremism, it must not be racism and they cannot be blamed for their actions. The myth of white innocence has a sanitizing effect on the American political discourse: Economic anxiety, anti-elite backlash, or just liberals being mean — the incentive for politicians and pundits alike is to reach for non-incriminating explanations. The idea of white innocence also clouds the perspective on Republican elites: Since they cannot possibly be animated by reactionary white nationalism, they must be motivated by more benign forces — maybe they are just cowards, or they’re being seduced by the mean demagogue.

What about white Christian nationalist extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene who so very obviously don’t fit into the “Just seduced/scared to speak up” framework? They are exceptionalized: The fringe, the cult, as Pelosi says, an occupying force separate from the real GOP.

The president often tells the world how he likes Mitch McConnell, considers him a friend — perpetuating that same myth of the noble GOP that just temporarily lost its way: No matter what those “good” Republicans do, underneath they’re nice guys, they’ll snap out of it.

I get on with Mitch. I actually like Mitch McConnell. We like one another.

Politically, Democrats are in a tough situation. Pelosi gets a lot of applause for her “Strong GOP” nostalgia; Biden is measured by whether or not he can “unify” the country — not just by much of the established media, but also by a significant portion of Democratic voters. But what’s on display here isn’t just politics — it’s a specific worldview that prevents Democratic elites from acknowledging the depths of GOP radicalization, and from grappling honestly with the very difficult question of how to counter it effectively.

Ultimately, the “Strong GOP” nostalgia obscures the long-standing anti-democratic tendencies on the Right, the role of “normal” Republicans like Mitch McConnell, or the conservative legal movement’s decades-long crusade against the post-1960s civil rights order. Pretending the Republican Party was a noble, (small-d) democratic force for good until very recently is just political fiction; wishing such a party into existence won’t work.

Better to grapple with the GOP that actually exists — the one that’s an acute threat to democracy.

I made numerous small clarifying edits to this post 23 June 2023.

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