Americans were shocked to witness the assault on the capitol building on January 6, the day Congress was scheduled to ratify the presidential election. Washington DC and the nation’s state capitals remained on high alert through the inauguration as rightwing groups promised more violent attacks.
It’s easy to trace the proximate cause of this assault, a president who has long cultivated the lie that the 2020 election was somehow stolen. Prior to the capitol assault, he exhorted his “Save America” rally on the Mall to “stop the steal” and “fight much harder,” asserting “You have to show strength, you have to be strong.”
Much has been made of the fascist overtones of Trump’s efforts, but it is important to understand how we got to such a place. It goes well past Trump to forty years of dysfunctional, neoliberal American politics, and beyond that to the racism deeply embedded in this nation’s history. Both political parties share responsibility for our current condition.
The Republican Party role is the most obvious.
In 1968, President Nixon rode a law and order campaign into the White House, appealing to a so-called “silent majority” frightened, if not alienated, by the images of antiwar protesters, inner-city “rioters,” and counterculture “freaks” during the 1960s.
The corporate mass media, of course, fed this dynamic by refusing to take seriously the actual claims of black, antiwar, New Left and feminist activists, instead, making sure the public saw the most inflammatory examples of their behaviors and appearances. In mass mediaspeak, “radical” was used to describe militancy, whereas any system-challenging argument vanished from mainstream discourse –sound familiar? That’s a story I have documented elsewhere.
Nixon’s racist “southern strategy” set in stone the future of the Republican Party, although it remained for Ronald Reagan to seal the deal. Reagan’s rhetoric about basic “decency” and “family values,” effectively played on the feelings of those disaffected by the 60s. Yet Reagan’s actual policies focused on eliminating ways the government addresses public needs, cutting taxes on the wealthy, rebuilding a huge military complex, regenerating an aggressive foreign policy, and deregulating the economy.
However, the people drawn to Reagan’s so-called “conservative” rhetoric and his tax-cut pitch – whether religious traditionalists, rural folks, or members of the white working class – actually lost more and more ground, economically, under Reagan’s and the Republicans’ neoliberalism. They got symbolic gratification while their attention was diverted to the Democrats, liberals, and “Eastern elites” who allegedly caused their problems.
That’s the Republican path that leads directly to Trump and his True Believers. It also echoes the post-Reconstruction Democrats’ austerity pitch that reinforced white supremacy in the South.
What, then, of the Democratic Party?
Smarting from Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984, Democratic centrists – names like Dick Gephardt, Sam Nunn, and Bill Clinton – took steps to move the Party away from its more liberal wing, into the corporate-dependent center. In its more liberal moments the Party voiced hopeful rhetoric about defending the rights of minorities, women, and LGBTQ people, defending the environment, etc. The reality has consistently fallen far short of the rhetoric.
Indeed, the two “liberal” Democratic presidents of the neoliberal era – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – were responsible for a host of repressive and “free market” (e.g., neoliberal) policies. Clinton’s contributions are perhaps better known: the “end of welfare as we know it,” NAFTA, financial and telecommunications deregulation, and the 1994 Crime Bill that accelerated mass incarceration, among others.
Riding a campaign of “hope” and “change” into the White House, none of Obama’s “liberal” accomplishments – the Affordable Care Act, Supreme Court appointments, the negotiated settlement with Iran, and initial steps on climate – diverged from the neoliberal playbook. At the same time, Obama pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other so-called ‘free trade” agreements, escalated both domestic surveillance and drone killings abroad, supported the anti-democratic coup in Honduras, and withdrew the public option for health insurance, among others.
The right-wing Republican attack machine kept its rank-and-file in line with attacks on Clinton’s “60s-style” licentiousness and Obama’s being of African descent. For their part, the corporate media repeatedly turned the 60s era into a “good sixties” of a romanticized civil rights movement and a hopeful John Kennedy administration, and a “bad sixties” of violence and narcissistic rebelliousness – the latter a useful hook for selling entertainment and commodities to younger generations.
Dysfunctional Neoliberal Politics:
Republicans, in short, have been all about giveaways to the rich while manipulating the emotions of less well-off white Americans. Democrats have ignored the latter populations, becoming increasingly dependent on corporate money while effectively manipulating the aspirations of marginalized communities.
In their more liberal moments, what Nancy Fraser has called “progressive neoliberalism,” Democrats embrace what is often called “identity politics” – race, gender, and sexuality in particular. Republicans use Democrats’ rhetoric to cement the emotional attachment of their rank and file supporters. As Republican “reactionary neoliberalism” becomes more and more outrageous, Democrats gain popular support. The corporate center, with all its sanctimonious rhetoric, is reinforced when something like the Capitol assault occurs.
As Fraser has observed in The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born, “To reinstate progressive neoliberalism [e.g., Joe Biden and the Democratic mainstream] … is to recreate –indeed to exacerbate – the very conditions that created Trump. And that means preparing the ground for future Trumps – ever more vicious and dangerous.”
Thus, the country remains stuck in a see-saw battle that utterly fails to address the deep crises we face. Neither party speaks a word against a capitalist system that feeds inequality, threatens the planet’s ability to sustain life, and generates a foreign policy marked by militarism and war. The “problem” is always the “other party.” Such are the boundaries of what Noam Chomsky called “legitimate discourse.”
And neither party dares to confront class inequality. Unlike identity concerns about white supremacy, hate speech, harassment and abuse, and the like – all profound problems – class analysis reveals the systemic forces that keep both parties’ rank-and-file in their place at the margins of American politics.
Ultimately, the only way out of this will occur when enough people become aware, not only of the seriousness of the crises facing us, but of the need to come together in a well-mobilized mass movement addressing systemic concerns. We already can see where we’re heading if we don’t do this.
Ted (Edward) Morgan is emeritus professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and the author of What Really Happened to the 1960: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.