Locking in Big Changes: the 2022 American Mid-terms

John Stoehr of the Editorial Board believes that the Dem 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 Democrats has been unfolding and the consequences of the Dems 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 and white women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities are 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 immigrant 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 the dominant white conservative faction. 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 them 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 their domination of their domestic opponents. That’s 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 Constitutional period. 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 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. 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 during 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” to white patriarchy with a token black, Hispanic, woman, and LGBT presence. 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.

Terrell Owens, Karen, and Infinite Lying

While I was waiting out the last hours of my pre-colonoscopy fast on Friday, Twitter’s Chris Evans (not to be confused with the actor) posted a video of an incident between former NFL great Terrell Owens and a white woman who first harassed him and then called the police.

Much of the focus has been on the “white woman tears” from “Kate” that come out at 1:59 and continue to the end of that section of the video. The recent history of “Karen” incidents, the Emmet Till lynching in 1955, and the history of white racial violence testify to the destructiveness of “white woman tears” when deployed as an accusation against black men. And it hasn’t stopped either. In “White Fragility,” white author Robin DiAngelo devotes an entire chapter to the issue of “white woman tears” in her experience as a corporate diversity and anti-racism trainer. White woman tears has long been a leading weapon for everyday racist aggression.

But before “Kate” started crying, she unleashed a cascade of lies against Owens–accusing him first of “harassment (0:13), then driving in the middle of the road (O.22), and saying that he “almost hit me” (0:24). After “Kate” made a number of accusations against Owens (0:49) that would have required previous online research, she then lied and said “I don’t give a shit” (0.53) for which Owens called her out. And finally, “Kate” accused Owens of running a stop sign (1:09) that apparently wasn’t even there. In some ways, getting out such a long string of lies in such a short period of time was an impressive accomplishment and is a good indication of the power of “Kate’s” racism as a source of motivation.

Indeed “Kate” seemed eager to lie about all of the reference points of her encounter with Owens. In ordinary conversation about lying, we usually measure lies against “the truth” rather than discuss lying as a system itself, an element of other systems, and the potentials of lying in various contexts. In fact, “Kate” could have made up an infinite number of lies about the details of her encounter with Terrell Owens and the only thing limiting her capacity for lying were petty empirical details like the cop’s attention span, other obligations in her life, and the need to sleep. Of course, “Kate” could have expanded the universe of her lying by also making up new reference points such as Owens having an AR-15, being a member of the Black Panthers, or in league with the police. But “Kate” could have continued lying until the end of time about the reference points she had before her. In my opinion, the determination of white people like “Kate” to engage in infinite lying about black people is at least as much a part of the white supremacist history as “white women’s tears” and is part of the mechanism through which the white population enforced the slavery and segregation systems.

But infinite lying about race requires a great deal of support. It requires white kinship networks, public opinion, police apparatus, and judicial systems that are both willing to believe anything a white person says about a black person and are eager to act violently on those lies. For infinite lying to thrive, the word of a white person needs to have so much support within the system that it carries a credible threat of instant death. Such support existed through the whole history of the U.S. as a “White Patriarchal Republic” from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to 1954 and “Brown v Board” and “Kate” was counting on a version of that support when she precipitated her confrontation with Owens. Her underlying expectation was the same as Central Park “Karen” Amy Cooper, that unflinching support from white opinion and the police would put Terrell Owens in mortal danger and that she would be protected from any adverse consequences.  

But since Brown v Board, the situation has changed to the disadvantage of Karens like “Kate” and the advantage of black men like Terrell Owens. The nearly seven decades between Brown v Board and the incident between “Kate” and Terrel Owens saw the rise of “Multicultural, Liberal Democracy” into a heavily contested but still pre-eminent position in American society. The Supreme Court decisions like Miranda v Arizona, the Civil Rights movement, and campaigns for feminism, gay rights, and immigrant rights have evolved into popular culture, corporate culture, Democratic Party politics, and the operation of government at all levels. In this context, Kate’s exercise in infinite lying was done from a position of disadvantage. Much of the reason “Kate” resorted to “white woman tears” is that her lies were discounted and ignored by the police officer, her husband didn’t support her, and a neighbor intervened to contradict her. Far from “Kate” being able to appeal to the public, it was Terrell Owens and his camera that were primed for public appeal. Infinite lying also requires a caste system in which the target has little recourse and is usually cowed by the threat of violence. But that wasn’t the case for “Kate” either. In fact, Terrell Owens is a famous man from his Hall of Fame NFL playing days who has enough wealth to own two houses. It was the loquacious Owens who had the status and his word seemed to have at least as much credibility with the police officer as Kate’s. Indeed, the incident was more a threat to “Kate’s” status than it was to Owens.

The White Patriarchal Republic is far from dead but white Karen’s like “Kate” are like conspiracy theorists, the religious right, urban cops, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in operating much less as agents of the dominant social order and much more in terms of counter-revolution and dissent. As conservatives often admit, they are agents of the “world they have lost” and that world remained lost in the dispute between “Kate” and Terrel Owens.