I’m one of those people who likes a view from 30,000 feet. I want to know how we got to this moment in history and where we might be heading. To that end, I got in touch with Thomas Zimmer. He’s a professor of history at Georgetown University. He pays particular attention to political developments in the United States since the 1960s. We were in sours moods, so that’s where we started.
John Stoehr: Let's start with our moods. We're both today feeling pretty pessimistic. I have my reasons, but what are yours?
Thomas Zimmer: There was always going to be a danger that too many people would look at Joe Biden winning the 2020 election and conclude that things were fine, the system worked, Trump was just an accident, an aberration. But things are not fine.
Voting Donald Trump out was never going to be enough. When Biden took office, it was clear that unless the system was fundamentally democratized, we would soon reach the point where it would become impossible to stop America’s slide into authoritarianism through elections.
2021 is almost over – and the system has not been democratized in the slightest. The Republican Party is more determined than ever to entrench white Christian male dominance by whatever means.
JS: You might have felt similarly, but I was much more optimistic at the beginning of this year when it seemed the Democrats could effect big changes legislatively. But now, even if the Democrats enact the president’s proposed Build Back Better Act, I'm not confident voters will care. I was sure fascists could be bought. Not so sure now.
TZ: I think the idea that Democrats could get the support of white conservative voters by focusing on governing well, by emphasizing “pocketbook issues,” underestimates the depth of the ideological struggle that we are witnessing.
Battle lines have been drawn: The American right has decided Democrats are not just a political opponent with whom one might agree on some things and disagree on others, but a fundamentally “Un-American” faction that pursues a fundamentally illegitimate political project of turning the country into something it must never become – from a nation of and for white Christians, first and foremost, to a land of multiracial pluralism.
I believe most conservatives see the political conflict in such stark terms. If that is the case, Democratic legislation is unlikely to sway many people, even if they were to acknowledge they benefit from it in concrete socio-economic ways.
The fact that Joe Biden is an old white man who has traditionally held moderate positions might help a little bit – but only a little bit. He remains the leader of that “radical” political faction, and Democratic governance remains fundamentally illegitimate.
I think we need to grapple with the fact that a large portion of the electorate has decided that their overriding concern and political interest is to prevent the country from ever becoming a truly functioning multiracial, pluralistic democracy.
In a way, we need to give conservatives more credit for their ideological convictions. I think most of them are true believers.
JS: I wish more Democrats would speak more forcefully and with more unity about the dangers we're facing. My suspicion is that most liberals, on account of being liberal, can't or won't see other Americans as enemies who must be defeated. Even as the fascists are coming at democracy with a knife, liberals insist the fascists can be reasoned with. Is this something you have seen in your study of political history?
TZ: I think there are several factors that contribute to this constant “normalizing” of what’s happening on the American right. The fact that the mainstream media is still largely committed to a both-parties-are-the-same, neutrality-over-objectivity framework of covering US politics certainly doesn’t help.
Nor does the fact that it’s a big part of the liberal identity to supposedly possess the “better arguments.” So liberals keep insisting that the political conflict is about arguments, about convincing the other side.
Historically speaking, two things seem to play a crucial role: the myth of American exceptionalism and the myth of white innocence.
Many people still cling to some version of the idea that “it can’t happen here”: America is seen as fundamentally good, so how could democracy possibly fall here, in the land of the free?
And the political discourse is still largely shaped by the paradigm of white innocence: economic anxiety, anti-elite backlash or just liberals being mean – whatever animates white people’s extremism, it must not be racism, and they cannot be blamed for their actions.
All of this is based on a completely warped understanding of American history. No one who has ever read about Reconstruction and what came after, about Jim Crow, or the violent struggle to suppress civil rights for Black people in the 1950s and 60s should have any doubt that it could absolutely happen here. Again.
JS: Motherogod, that's a good answer!
TZ: Thank you!
JS: Sticking with liberals a moment, it seems to me liberals have drunk their own Kool-Aid in the sense that we are in love with the story we tell ourselves about the postwar years leading to rapid expansions of liberty and equality and how that pattern, the feeling of history progressing forward, is going to continue. It seems to me this feels so good, liberals can't or won't let go of it even as we are witnessing in real time the rapid contraction of liberty and equality. Your thoughts?
TZ: Many people in the liberal camp are certainly heavily invested in a specific narrative of progress: Yes, there are still problems, but look how much better it’s gotten over the past 60 years or so!
I think this is based on a romanticized version of the civil rights era. The idea, basically, is that America had its breakthrough towards proper liberal democracy in the 1960s and has been on the path of perfecting that democracy ever since.
There is some truth to this narrative: I truly believe that America has indeed never been closer to realizing the promise of multiracial, pluralistic democracy, which is exactly why the American Right is radicalizing right now.
But we need to let go of this idea that things have always, constantly gotten better since the 60s. In terms of wealth and income, the gap between Black and white has widened considerably since about 1980. Another area where things have gotten worse over the past few decades is school segregation – the inflection point here was the mid- to late 1980s, as a result of Reagan policies and a conservative majority of the Supreme Court no longer enforcing/demanding integration.
There is nothing inevitable about progress. In fact, in US history, the price for any kind of substantial racial, cultural and social progress has always been political instability, because demands for racial equality and social justice are inherently destabilizing to a social order that’s always had white men at the top.
We are experiencing another one of those moments of instability – and it could absolutely lead to the forces of reaction triumphing. It has certainly happened before in American history.
JS: About that instability – are we in a period of transition between what I have been calling regimes, between the era of Ronald Reagan, as it were, starting in the 1980s, and a future era yet to be known?
TZ: I certainly think it is very useful to think of our current moment as a period of transition. And that’s indeed partly a transition away from the Reaganite consensus.
This is most clearly articulated by the right. Among antiliberal or post-liberal conservative intellectuals, the fusion between traditionalism and libertarianism – which was the basis of the modern conservative movement and the operating principle that rose to power with Reagan – has come under heavy fire.
The reactionaries think they’ve been on the wrong end of that bargain for too long, that they’ve gotten a lot of libertarianism, anti-statism and neoliberalism, but not a lot of traditionalism. And so they are actively calling more state authority, for the state to forcefully order the body politic in accordance with their reactionary ideas.
There is also the fact that neoliberalism, which certainly has been the operating political orthodoxy since the 70s, and dominated as a guiding political and intellectual principle well beyond the right, has been more heavily criticized – the global financial crisis of 2008 played a big part in this slow undermining of the neoliberal order.
But the most fundamental transition is the one from a more restricted version of democracy – a system that was very democratic if you happened to be a white Christian man, but something else entirely if you were not – to a multiracial, pluralistic democracy: a system in which an individual’s political, social, cultural and economic status would no longer be significantly determined by race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.
I think it’s that transition that shapes the political conflict more than anything else. So I would argue that what we are experiencing goes a lot deeper than a regime change in terms of partisan dominance. We are on the cusp of a completely different way of ordering the polity. And that absolutely terrifies people on the right.
JS: What will the new way of ordering the polity look like? Take a wild guess.
I think it’s absolutely crucial we all acknowledge that what the immediate and medium-term future holds for American democracy is an open question right now.
If the pro-democracy forces stop the accelerating slide into authoritarianism, we might soon be looking at a world-historic first. It simply cannot be stressed enough: A truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy has never been achieved anywhere. But if the reactionary counter-mobilization succeeds, we might be looking at something very different.
Even if a full-on authoritarian takeover – a triumph of Trumpism, that specifically American, 21st-century version of fascism that is rapidly spreading on the Right – can be avoided, the history books might record multiracial democracy as a fairly short-lived and ultimately aborted experiment, an interlude from the mid-1960s to the 2020s.
As of right now, the country is turning into a dysfunctional pseudo-democratic system at the national level and on the state level will be divided into democracy in about half the states and stable one-party rule in the other half.
That, of course, would not be a first in US history. In many ways, it would constitute a return to what was the norm until quite recently: An authoritarian one-party system in many states that entrenches white Christian patriarchal rule while also shaping and/or obstructing national policy. The stakes, right now, are enormously high.
Hope this works as an ending?
JS: I like ending on a fatal note. Very thespian. Thank you for your time!
TZ: Thank you!