John Stoehr of the Editorial Board believes that the Democrats will overthrow “the political order of the last 40 years” if they can hold the House of Representatives after all 2022 votes are counted. Of course, a big win for Biden and the Dems has been unfolding and the consequences of the Democrats expanding their Senate majority and possibly holding the House are significant. Because of the 2022 election, the U.S. will both be a more stable country and maintain its current global role as a stabilizing force in Western Europe, East Asia, and Ukraine. But the idea of “overthrowing the political order” implies consequences on a much larger scale than that, and needs to be thought through.
That’s partly because there are several ideas of “political order” that may be in play.
The main question is what would be the political order of the last 40 years that’s being overthrown. Forty years refers to the Reagan Revolution and the election of 1980 where Ronald Reagan’s victory triggered the assertion of white conservatives as the dominant force in American politics and society and inaugurated several rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of business, decline of the labor movement, and growing income inequality between the rich and the middle class. During the Reagan years, white men were advantaged politically, culturally, and economically while the claims of racial minorities, sexual minorities, and women were met with increasing skepticism if not outright derision.
Call that the orthodox model of the “Reagan Political Order.”
*But there are other ways to look at the idea of political order. If I were a conservative Straussian, I might refer to the U.S. in terms of a “liberal political order” including the representative form of government established in the 1788 Constitution, universal ideas of freedom (“all men are created equal”), and both broad and expanding rights to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and own property. In relation to this idea of “liberal political order,” the Reagan Revolution and 2022 mid-terms would both be seen in terms of redistributions of power toward white conservatives and away from liberal/minority factions. However, nothing would be “overthrown” by the Democrats maintaining their slim institutional advantage of holding the presidency and the senate while Republicans dominate the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives. It would just be that the liberal/minority coalition holds some advantages within the “liberal political order” while white conservatives hold others.
It’s also possible to view the traditional American political order as a “white republic” or “white patriarchal republic” in which constitutional processes concern the distribution of office among factions of white men while white women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities were subject to exclusion, surveillance, and control. Thus, Reaganism can be seen as reasserting white and male dominance in the face of the Black civil rights movement, feminist advocacy against patriarchy, gay rights activism and the claims of immigrants and Native Americans. Far from overthrowing the white patriarchal republic, the Reagan Revolution is best seen as reinforcing white patriarchy as a long-standing socio-political order. But there was a big difference between Reaganism and the re-assertion of white patriarchal order after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. With the end of Reconstruction, the gains of reconstruction were much more thoroughly negated and black opponents of the white patriarchal republic were much more thoroughly marginalized than was the case with the Reagan Revolution. During the Reagan years, the opponents of white patriarchy were put on the defensive but civil rights activism, feminists, gay rights protests, and labor unions formed a more or less permanent internal opposition to dominant white conservatives. White patriarchy may have asserted its dominance, but opponents of white patriarchy were able both to preserve large parts of the gains made as a result of the Civil Rights Acts, Roe v Wade, and various Warren Court decisions and maintain effective defenses of that legacy. As a result, the Reagan political order was defined both by a reassertion of the white patriarchal order and opposition between ascendent white conservatives and their liberal, minority, and feminist opponents.
In other words, the liberal/minority coalition remained strong enough to be considered part of the main dynamic of the Reagan political order.
There’s another consideration for the Reagan order. The big question hanging over Reaganism was whether white conservatives could maintain dominance over their domestic opponents. That is because the stakes were bigger than the distribution of power between conservatives and their opponents. Ascendancy by the liberal/minority opposition would not just give “liberals” the upper hand, it would threaten the white patriarchal character of the American republic as it had been defined in the Revolutionary and Constitution. Hanging over the Reagan political order was the specter of the United States becoming a very different kind of country than it had been for the previous 200+ years, a country that did not revolve around white men.
To a certain extent, that’s what happened.
Because Barack Obama initially posed himself as both a GOP-friendly Democrat AND aggressive reformer, his election in 2008 did not initially represent a sea change in American politics and society. But Obama was the first black president, the symbol of America, the nation’s most prominent celebrity, and someone on the news everyday. After the civil rights movement, white conservative tolerance for black people was always tethered to blacks only having a token presence in areas outside sports and music. But with Obama and other prominent black people like Attorney General Eric Holder being so “present” in American life, the result was a racist backlash that could be seen as early as the 2008 general election campaign and gained steam throughout Obama’s first term as a result of the “birther movement,” conspiracy theories about Obama’s wife, the Henry Louis Gates incident, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and conservative stonewalling of Obama’s initiatives. The backlash ensured that 2012 would be a test of strength between a stronger liberal/minority coalition and white conservatives who wanted “their country back.” With Obama’s victory in 2012, much more favorable opinion on gay marriage, the Supreme Court decision overturning bans on gay marriage, and the Black Lives movement highlighting police violence against black men, it looked like American culture and politics was swinging to liberal/minority ascendancy over white conservatives and the threats that entailed to traditional white patriarchal order.
Of course, the 2016 election happened with the white conservative backlash gaining even more intensity under the MAGA label and Donald Trump winning election. The result was both a factional arms race and major cultural changes on both sides. Beginning with the gay marriage decision in 2015, the liberal/minority coalition continued to strengthen in response to Trump’s election and morphed into something more like a multicultural, socially liberal society. With the expanding presence of civil rights ideas, the adoption of diversity as corporate and popular culture ethics, and the normalizing of an LGBT, Hispanic, and Native presence, the lib/minority coalition became multicultural, socially liberal and predominate enough in politics, business, education, and government that the U.S. could be described as a multicultural, socially liberal “society.”
Simultaneously, white conservatives developed what’s best called a MAGA counter-culture revolving around Trump and involving an overlapping religious right, a quickly developing conspiracy world, and gun culture that superseded the business oriented, small government, and national defense conservatism of the Reagan era. Even with the acquiescence of traditional Republicans and the advantages of President Biden and other Democrats being off the campaign trail because of Covid, the multicultural, socially liberal constituencies were stronger than MAGA and Donald Trump lost his campaign for re-election in 2020. For white conservatives, the defeat of Donald Trump did not signify his or their weakness but served to further energize 2020 election conspiracy theories, rejection of Covid vaccines, another round of vote suppression legislation aimed at black voters, and a culture war aimed especially at trans people but also against other LGBT folks and their supporters in education, business, and government. In this way, MAGA morphed from a slogan for supporting Trump to support for the Jan. 6 insurrection, political violence to achieve their political goals, and non-stop culture war against multicultural constituencies connected with the Democrats.
In other words, MAGA became a cover term for a more generalized white conservative assault on American government and society that’s best seen as permanent insurrection. The Reagan Political Order has definitely overthrown but it was just as much overthrown by MAGA as it was by the morphing of the Reagan era liberal/minority coalition into a multicultural, socially liberal “society.” White conservatives are still a bulwark for the white patriarchal Republic of the past but their main orientation is toward culture war against the contemporary society rather than defense of “tradition.” Indeed, in contemporary culture and politics, “tradition” is being re-defined in civil rights, multicultural terms.
So what do Democratic gains in the 2022 elections mean? Well, current political order is one in which a multicultural, socially liberal society both remains ascendent and is continuing to weaken the reach and appeal of traditional white patriarchy in favor of values of civil rights values and orientations. But white conservatives still have formidable power bases in the Supreme Court, right-wing state governments, and MAGA popular culture and have more or less committed to overthrowing the American democratic system if they can’t win political power at the ballot box. The Reagan political order has been overturned but the dangers associated with white conservatism have increased dramatically as a result.