Three major trends are driving American politics right now and will continue to for at least a decade. If Democrats fail to understand and respond in a meaningful way to each, expect a Republican White House, House, and Senate in 2024. And, with it, the probable end of democracy in the United States.
These three political megatrends are: generational “social” changes in America and the Republican Party’s exploitation/demonization of them; he entrance of rightwing billionaires into America’s political scene with the blessing of 5 corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court; the Republican Party’s rejection of democracy.
Much has been written about why nations like Sweden and Italy have recently elected neofascist leaders, why “Brexit” happened in the UK, and how Viktor Orbán rose to power in Hungary. Much of what’s powering the rise of these rightwing movements like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France can be boiled down to a simple phrase: “Too many Black and Brown immigrants, too quickly.”
As Brian Knowlton noted for The New York Times back in 2006, just as today’s “cultural backlash” was beginning to build both in Europe and the United States:
“On both sides of the Atlantic, numbers have soared. In France, young immigrants and their children now account for one in four of all inhabitants under 25. Latinos in the United States are similarly youthful; they surpassed the black population in 2001.”
And while immigration into both Europe and America has changed the complexion of our populations, our nation’s embrace over the past two decades of vulnerable people who’ve historically lived on the margins of society — immigrants, gays, lesbians, trans people, parolees and the accused, the homeless — has driven an even more reactionary freakout among conservative parts of society.
For over a century many sociologists and political scientists have assumed much of this “backlash” had to do with economics. Along with many others, I’ve written about this theory extensively, arguing that as Reaganomics gutted the white middle class over the past 40 years much of the backlash was driven by the fear of women and minorities competing economically on a leveled playing field.
This “economic inequality” perspective has been challenged in the past decade with new research that shows America’s “cultural backlash” is rooted more in changes in societally accepted norms than economics.
Women had recently entered the workforce in the previous decade because all the men were off fighting World War II, Blacks had recently been integrated into the armed forces and were demanding full rights across American society (the battle then was over segregated public schools), and the GI Bill was moving the number of college-educated “elite” people from the 1940’s 5.6% toward today’s 38.3%.
Soon, Kirk and his followers were warning, women would no longer remain in the bedroom and kitchen; African Americans would be showing up in all-white schools, the white-collar workplace, and on TV; young people with all the “free college” available then would start to disrespect their less-well-educated elders; and, to use their 1950’s language, “deviants” from gender-based norms (gays and lesbians at that time) would soon feel free to “flaunt” their “lifestyles.”
And, sure enough, by the 1960s the women’s movement was in full swing, young men were burning their draft cards, the gay liberation movement was national, and Black Americans had received full legal protections with Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act.
At the same time, Mexico’s largely observant-Catholic population was exploding and spilling over into the US, creating a visible “browning” of America, particularly across the southern states.
America had, after 191 years as a republic, begun by 1980 making the full transition from an apartheid whites-only straight-male-controlled society into a pluralistic nation where straight white men had to share both wealth and, most consequentially, power and cultural prestige with women and both racial and gender minorities.
Kirk pointed out that much of this would be driven by the postwar prosperity brought about by FDR’s New Deal, which had lifted the American middle class from as few as 10 percent of Americans in 1900 to over half of us by the mid-1960s.
His followers’ “solution” became Reagan’s mandate: impoverish the middle class, end free college, block women’s rights (particularly to abortion and birth control), and destroy racially integrated public education.
As researchers Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris noted in a study published by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2016:
“This argument builds on the ‘silent revolution’ theory of value change, which holds that the unprecedentedly high levels of existential security experienced by the people of developed Western societies during the postwar decades brought an intergenerational shift toward post-materialist values, such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, generating rising support for left-libertarian parties such as the Greens and other progressive movements advocating environmental protection, human rights, and gender equality.”
In that paper they did a deep dive into both the “economic inequality” and “cultural backlash” hypotheses and found, to explain the rise of conservative populism:
“Overall, we find the most consistent evidence supporting the cultural backlash thesis.”
While many observers of today’s scene like Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan are quick to blame “woke” liberals and Democrats for “embracing” trans people, an end to police violence, and affirmative action, in fact these are so few-and-far-between as to be non-issues (as they had been for decades).
Trans people in schools and sports, affirmative action in its current most minimal forms, and the movement to stop police from killing unarmed Black people were all just the background noise of a gradual cultural acceptance (and even embrace) of minorities and basic human rights as America fulfilled its ideals and became more egalitarian.
All were largely uncontroversial, until they were blown entirely out of proportion and amplified into potent political forces by Republican politicians funded by billionaires exploiting a series of bizarre US Supreme Court decisions.
In 1976 with their Buckley v. Valeo decision the US Supreme Court began the process of legalizing the naked purchase of American politicians by the morbidly rich. Five corrupt Republicans on the Court completed the process in 2010 with Citizens United v. FEC.
That year American billionaires put a mere $30 million into the election of 2010. Four years later they poured $230 million into the 2014 midterms. In the 2018 midterms they jumped in with over $611 million. This year it’ll be well over a billion dollars.
And that doesn’t count most of the untraceable dark money that the Supreme Court legalized when they struck down hundreds of “good government” state and federal laws in those decisions.
These American billionaires are not running advertisements presenting their own concerns and arguments, however. There are no ads calling for more tax cuts and loopholes, corporate deregulation, or an end to the estate tax.
Instead, to elect Republican politicians who will accomplish their personal economic goals, America’s “conservative” billionaires are financing ads that:
- Darken the complexion of Black Democrats running for office;
- Falsely accuse Democrats of supporting “abortion on demand up until the moment of birth”;
- Blame Democrats for the inflation and homelessness that emerged from Trump’s disastrous handling of the pandemic (for which Democrats should be blaming him);
- Claim that teachers and Democrats are trying to evangelize our children into “deviant lifestyle choices.”
By demonizing Democrats and asserting that their political opponents are actual evil, all to get their tax cuts and increased corporate profits, they are destroying the future possibility of Republicans and Democrats working together.
This was Newt Gingrich‘s great contribution to American politics when he was the billionaires’ lead guy: play it like war.
To convince soldiers to kill people in war, you must first convince them that their enemy is both less than human and fully evil. If you can accomplish this with your political opponents, your people can never compromise with them. Government then ceases to work for the people, and as it collapses so do your taxes and the enforcement of regulations on your business.
Before this past year or two, most Americans didn’t know we had a crisis around trans children, drag queens, or “indoctrination” about race and gender in our public schools.
Similarly, most Americans understood that the current and very real crises of homelessness, crime, and inflation are not the fault of Democrats who’ve controlled our government for fewer than two years.
Homelessness has been a growing crisis since Reagan defunded our mental health system, gutted union rights, and Wall Street hedge funds jumped into the single-family home market. Inflation has emerged around the world in response to pandemic supply chain issues and Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine.
Just six months ago these were not controversial positions.
And while most straight Americans have at least one queer person in their social or family circles, it probably never occurred to them that such people represented a “threat” to their school systems or their children.
But turn on your TV and you’ll see the result of multiple billionaires’ dollars pouring through the veins of our media. Most of it doesn’t have a political “I approve this ad” tag from a candidate: instead they’re paid for by dark money front groups operating under patriotic-sounding names.
Advertising works. Saturation advertising can roll out any new product and turn it into the talk of the nation. To quote the 2014 Washington Post headline:
“91% of the time the better-financed candidate wins. Don’t act surprised.”
As Americans for Tax Fairness reported:
“There has been an explosion this election cycle of fundraising for super PACs created to support a single candidate. Donations to such single-candidate super PACs have risen from $127.5 million in the 2018 midterm cycle to $323.2 million on November 1, 2022—a 150% increase.
“This cycle Republican candidates are benefitting from roughly 75% of all single-candidate super-PAC spending. The funding for these PACs often come almost exclusively from billionaires.”
Meanwhile, Republicans around the country are committed to preventing or throwing out the votes of people they think will support Democrats.
Millions of Democratic-probable voters have already been purged from the rolls with the blessing of 5 corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court in 2018, states have made it increasingly difficult for working class people to quickly and easily vote, and GOP leadership refuses to endorse even the basic notion that people who win elections should serve in office.
Preparing for when mail-in ballots are counted, Republicans have fielded a small army of “poll watchers” to double-check signature matches to reject as many ballots as possible from heavily democratic districts.
They’re joined in this by an increasingly militant and intolerant religious right, animated by multimillionaire televangelist grifters and Qanon cultists.
Regardless of how tomorrow’s election turns out, this reactionary fascist movement against American minorities, boiling within the Republican Party, is not going away.
If anything it’s going to grow, and now has added help from newly reactivated Russian troll farms like those that helped elect Donald Trump, pretending to be outraged Americans on social media.
We now have two years to prepare for what may be American democracy’s final act.
Republicans will be all-in on fear and hate in 2024, looking for new groups to tell us we should be afraid of while doubling down on their hate for queer people, Black people, Jews, and the poor.
The rightwing billionaires will also, unless our laws are changed to overrule the Supreme Court, be pouring cash into their dark-money groups: this midterm election was as much a test of what works and what doesn’t as anything else.
We must strengthen our democracy and right to vote, clean up social media, and hold traitors and fascists alike to account. If Democrats hold the House and Senate, job one has to be getting big money out of politics.