There is much to take in about this topsy-turvy election between the two least popular major party presidential candidates of all time. While the historic nature of this contest is clear – we will either elect our first woman president or turn the White House over to a deranged charlatan – its significance is perhaps less apparent. To help with that, I want to tell a story. It is a story that involves an arc, an alliance and an ethos. The arc has come to an end, the alliance is broken and the ethos has faded. Out of this wreckage, elements for a new story are visible in a clearing in the distance.
Just to be clear at the outset, the story I am about to tell is just that – a story. There are many ways to tell different kinds of stories and many reasons for doing so. In this case, it is helpful to think of this story as the draft of an argument. It is a narrative of imagination that frames certain real-world developments to suggest a way of interpreting their significance. This will all become clear (I hope), but the point is this is not a story that declares, “here is how it happened.” Instead, it is a story of one way to make sense of what has happened and what it means for where we are now.
The arc in the story is the trajectory of the conservative insurgency that first attained prominence with Barry Goldwater, achieved escape velocity through Ronald Reagan, crested during the Contract with America, went into free fall along with George W. Bush and imploded upon contact with Donald Trump. The alliance was among political and economic conservatives, evangelical Christians (and other social traditionalists) and white nationalists. From the days of the Moral Majority, we are familiar with the union between economic and social conservatives; Trump’s ascendancy through the Republican Party has revealed for all to see that the white nationalists have been part of this tripartite alliance from the beginning. The ethos is the normative sensibility, rooted in social traditionalism, that arose and emanated from the three constitutive elements of the alliance. It is with this ethos and its passing that I am most concerned about.
A Note on Power and Governance in the United States
We can take it for granted that the social order of all societies reflects the interests of the powerful. Indeed it would seem contradictory if this were not the case. For how could the powerful (vague to be sure) be unable to distort the social order for their benefit and yet still merit designation as powerful? This is a long way from saying societies are controlled by shadowy elites whose reach is comprehensive and certain. But in the case of capitalist democracies such as the United States, it is helpful to begin with a basic narrative framework for understanding the players over time.
There is an acknowledged tension between economic elites, who tend to pursue their self-interest, and elected representatives, who are at least nominally charged with upholding some notion of the common good. Indeed, much of our country’s history can simplistically be represented as an ongoing struggle between a part of the political class trying to restrain the actions of economic elites even as the latter are aided by another part of the political class in trying to elude such restraint. From the post-Civil War period in which the national government was engaged in building the infrastructure for the national economy – tariffs, railroads, Indian Wars, labor suppression, etc. – we entered a Gilded Age (for the few) of great inequalities in wealth and little regulation of economic activity including working conditions. These excesses helped fuel the rise of the Progressive Era, which ushered in antitrust legislation, the federal income tax and the creation of the Federal Reserve. On the other hand, we also got Prohibition, so a bit of a mixed bag. World War I cooled enthusiasm for further reforms, and the country entered the Roaring Twenties, a time of great fun for flappers and slumming urbanites but not so much for the poor, immigrants, and the nascent union movement among the nation’s factory and mine workers to say nothing of women, minorities and gays and lesbians.
All this merriment ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. But through the wreckage and misery emerged the New Deal, recognition of unions and the end of Prohibition. At great sacrifice of life and limb, wartime Keynesianism brought prosperity and eventually peace to the nation, and though we remained haunted by Cold War paranoia, the economy was remarkably productive under a de facto arrangement among government, business interests and labor unions. Teenagers were let loose on the land, science was in its heyday and some part of the country became interested and supportive of African Americans’ efforts to secure their civil rights. And that is where this little story begins.
The Arc of the Conservative Insurgency
The arc began as an insurgency in need of an electorate. The insurgents wanted to undo the New Deal and curb the power of the federal government. But there was no electorate for its ambitions in the 1964 landslide election of Lyndon Johnson. However, that year also saw the signing into law of the Civil Rights Act, which put the nation’s racists on the move.
White flight throughout the 1960s and 1970s was both geographic (out of cities into the suburbs) and political – from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Welcomed by Richard Nixon as part of his Southern Strategy, the infusion of Dixie racism into the party of Lincoln would eventually prove toxic to its host in New England (much as anti-immigrant overreach by Republicans in California would, years later, doom the party there). While in some sense George Wallace midwifed the process that a decade later would give birth to Reagan Democrats, throughout the 1970s labor solidarity and lingering working-class affinity with the Democratic Party still presented electoral obstacles to the fortunes of the Republicans. The insurgency needed more voters, and more, indeed many more, were to come.
The Alliance Grows
Well before it was enshrined in our constitution, racism was a constitutive force in shaping and defining us as who we are. But it has not been the only such influence. The most dynamic force in all societies across the world at the present time is capitalism (which we will find we need a new name for because its connotations are so familiar that we no longer see it for what it is). What we still think of as primarily an economic system has overmatched political governance and assumed a planetary importance unrivaled by any empire. The story of deindustrialization and the havoc wreaked across what became known as the Rust Belt is a familiar chapter in our national epic. The effects such dislocations had on the political leanings of the working class would swell the ranks of Republican voters for decades to come.
In a move that tells us much about the insurgency that came to control the Republican Party, when faced with what was then the nation’s most extensive economic challenge since the Great Depression, the insurgents won the national political argument with the idea that the country should disarm in the face of adversity, do away with collective action predicated upon class solidarity or representative government and let the market sort things out in the most efficient way possible. Although Morning in America did cast a new light on the shining city, and Reagan’s reelection landslide in 1984 eclipsed Johnson’s margin of victory two decades earlier, full electoral ratification would require an additional presence on the political scene.
Rapidly globalizing capitalism had dazed and confused the Democratic Party and set the working class adrift. But even in a racially divided country such as ours, the alchemy needed to transmute acknowledgment of the common good into celebration of self-interest was arcane. The economic doldrums of the mid-1970s prepared some of the groundwork, and new developments in economic theory convinced conservative economists they could rightfully ignore Keynes after all and let markets be free the way the good lord intended. The masterstroke was supply-side economics, which was sold to Americans like snake oil with the promise that cutting tax rates would grow the economy so much that overall tax revenues would increase. No pain; all gain!
But there was still a little problem. In the prevailing easy-going mix of secular views and Judeo-Christian values, unrestrained self-interest could be seen as a moral defect. It was one thing to argue that it just happened to be the case (look, equations!) that the economy worked best for everyone if everyone was looking out for herself. Arguments trumpeting the noble principles of limited government (and tax cuts) found a welcome audience as well. But problems such as poverty and racism and inequality and injustice weren’t going to simply solve themselves. This new capitalism of rugged individuals needed a human face.
And it came to pass that evangelical Christians entered the public square.