The historian Thomas Zimmer has written a series of articles that he describes as “a reflection on what we are up against”. Below is the gist of part 1, part 2 and part 3.
A reactionary counter-mobilization against egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy.
That is the formulation I have been using to describe what is happening on the Right (and beyond), to capture what is animating conservative politics, and to grasp what, exactly, those who envision America as a truly functioning democracy are up against.
I think it’s worth reflecting on each of these terms:
- Reactionary – rather than conservative
- Counter-mobilization – rather than backlash
- Egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy – rather than just: democracy
Let’s start with what I think is the component that requires the least explanation: a counter-mobilization, rather than a backlash. The problem with the “backlash” narrative is that it tends to put the agency solely with traditionally marginalized groups who are ultimately at fault for causing an inevitable reaction, a predictable, near-automatic response. This makes the backlash narrative attractive to people who seek to delegitimize the supposed “excesses” of social justice activism and any kind of politics that aims to level traditional hierarchies. In such a tale, reactionaries have no agency and thus can’t be blamed, are only – and at least somewhat justifiably – reacting to marginalized groups going “too far”….
The term “counter-mobilization” … acknowledges that the reactionary ire is directed at concrete change. It is true that due to political, social, cultural, and, most importantly, demographic developments, the U.S. has become significantly less white, less Christian, more multicultural, more pluralistic over the past few decades. What the Right is trying to counter is, at least in this broad sense, real; these are not just figments of the rightwing imagination. But the key is to acknowledge that reactionaries are actively mobilizing, they are deliberately participating in a political project of preventing America from ever becoming an egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy….
Egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy
Why make things complicated? Why add a bunch of qualifiers in front of “democracy” that together make for a rather clunky phrase? Because the first question we should ask whenever someone says “democracy” is: What kind of democracy, how much, and for whom?
We should recognize that, historically, the term “democracy” applied to polities and societies that differed widely in terms of who was actually allowed and enabled to participate in the political process as equals – and even more so with regards to whether or not they extended the democratic promise to other spheres of life beyond politics, to the workplace, the family, the public square….
Democracy should be explored and assessed not as a yes-or-no proposition, but on a scale – with an emphasis on change over time and on the changing practical reality, on how democracy actually structures the lives and experiences of the people….
The American project has always been shaped by two competing, fundamentally incompatible visions for what the county should be. On the one hand, there is the idea that the world works best if it is dominated by wealthy white men [note: or simply white men, or Christians, or whatever preferred group]; on the other, the goal of creating a society in which the individual’s status would not be significantly determined by wealth, race, religion, gender, gender or sexual orientation…. Right-wingers abhor this egalitarian vision [of multiracial, pluralistic democracy]….
The character of the counter-mobilization against egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy is more adequately described as reactionary, rather than conservative….
More and more people on the Right – people who are at the center of conservative politics, or at least close to it in terms of their ideas and agenda – are rejecting the label “conservatism.” A few weeks ago, The Federalist – one of those supposedly / formerly conservative outlets that provide a useful window into what is happening in the rightwing pundit and pseudo-intellectual scene – published a really instructive piece… It was entitled: “We need to stop calling ourselves conservatives.” According to the author, conservatism, a political project that was all about conserving and preserving the existing order of traditional American norms and values, had failed and was entirely unequipped to handle “our revolutionary moment.”
This indeed reflects a widely accepted understanding of what “conservatism” is: Conservatives focus on preserving and conserving what exists, they push back against change if it threatens the traditional order of things. That’s perhaps not an exact definition, but it captures the essence of what is usually associated with the term in the broader public discourse. It is, ultimately, a project of hierarchy maintenance (which follows directly from the preserving/conserving idea, although conservatives tend to dislike it when it’s phrased in this way).
But according to The Federalist, there is no point in trying to preserve and maintain what has actually long been destroyed – America, in this view, has been turned into a “woke dystopia,” something traditional conservatism had failed to prevent. Instead of continuing on a path that has led to destruction, those who used to see themselves as conservatives need to “claim the mantle of revolutionaries” – commit themselves to a (counter-)revolutionary, radical fight against these un-American leftist forces.
The Federalist is very explicit about what such a not-conservative-anymore fight against leftism would entail in practice: The goal is to forcefully mobilize the coercive power of the state to impose a return of the traditional order onto the country and defeat those enemies within. In the words of the author: “The left will only stop when conservatives stop them, which means conservatives will have to discard outdated notions about ‘small government.’ The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life – and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed”….
Republicans are trying to turn the clock back by many decades wherever they are in charge: At least to the 1950s, the pre-civil-rights era, in the political, social, and cultural sphere; even further back, to the pre-New Deal era, in the realm of economics and in terms of the state’s role in regulating the economy. And they are pursuing this vision they want to impose on the entire country in increasingly aggressive fashion.
No more conserving, preserving, certainly not in the colloquial sense. American conservatism is now taking an openly and aggressively hostile stance towards the current order, and towards “liberalism” (very loosely defined) in general. It is this specific attitude, this disposition towards liberal democracy and anything derided as “leftwing” and “woke” that characterizes today’s Right. Conservatives have given themselves permission to escalate. That’s where the center of conservative politics currently is….
One point: I’m not sure “reactionary” is the appropriate word to replace “conservative”. It might be better to think of the right’s project to stop progress as “radical”. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of “radical” is “advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs”.
Prof. Zimmer promises to continue this series of articles on “what we’re up against” at his Substack newsletter “Democracy Americana”.