past is prologue

American Politics Is Back to the Future

Real-life conditions that promoted conservative culture-war themes were important in the rise and reign of Ronald Reagan. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

If you spend a lot of time following politics, it often seems as though battles between Democrats and Republicans occur across a constantly evolving landscape of public opinion in which smart and not-so-smart party strategists duel, with not a lot of long-term coherence or meaning.

But from a historical context, recent American politics is best understood as a perpetual war between two roughly equal coalitions of progressives and traditionalists in which virtually all issues are “cultural” in the sense of reflecting deeper currents of values, hopes and fears along with tangible interests. What should concern progressives right now is that we may be entering an era in which perpetual conservative claims that progressives are ruining America seems to have a salience they haven’t had for decades. This possibility is best understood by comparing today’s “culture wars” to those that underlay the last big Republican uprising in the 1970s and 1980s. The similarities are growing hard to ignore or deny, as are their sheer number:

Fear of crime returns

The great American crime wave of the late twentieth century began in the early 1960s and ended in the early 1990s. Violent crime rates rose very steadily throughout this period, feeding the expectation that barring radical public policy interventions they would climb forever. The wave abruptly ended even as one of the most radical interventions, a federal-state-local War on Drugs, took root with terrible consequences for a generation of incarcerated Americans, particularly Black men. But the decline in violent crime from around 1993 until the late 2010s was as steady and uninterrupted as the preceding rise. And while conservative “law and order” politics with its savage racial undertones never went away entirely, it certainly lost its salience until Donald Trump brought it back with a vengeance, just as the incidence of some crimes (notably homicide) began ticking – and in some cities surging – up again, though levels have generally fallen this year compared to last.

While it’s clear that crime fears and anti-crime policies have been and continue to be a convenient outlet for white racial grievances, there’s an even deeper way in which rising crime touches on traditionalist sentiments. Crime represents the most extreme example of a breakdown in order and authority. and thus, often without evidence, it is attributed to progressive trends in policy and culture that are thought to undermine order and authority. In the traditionalist mind, criminals represent the chaos of unregulated appetites and moral relativism, the barbarians perpetually at civilization’s embattled gates. That is why even before the recent spike in violent crime rates, conservative politics were being roiled by increases in the typically non-violent “crime” of unauthorized immigration. The rage of “base” Republicans against “amnesty” proposals from GOP pols like George W. Bush and John McCain reflected a powerful belief that rewarding defiance of immigration laws represented a great offense to the moral sensibilities of law-abiding Americans, along with a threat to national identity (more about that later).

Inflation is back

Another powerful and evocative conservative-friendly issue has recently returned after an even longer absence from lists of most important public concerns: inflation. This was a constant political preoccupation from the mid-1960s until the end of the 1970s, spiking during the Ford and Carter administration in two brief but terrifying incidents of double-digit inflation (in the latter case, combined with double-digit interest rates, relatively high unemployment, and negative growth). Without question, the “stagflation” of the Carter presidency had a lot to do with the 39th president’s unpopularity, and with the rise of his successor, Ronald Reagan (although the induced recession that eventually killed inflation was actually initiated under Carter’s nominee as Fed chairman, Paul Volcker).

But it’s important to understand that then as now, inflation and its painful remedies weren’t just “economic issues” but moral issues which tended to divide the two parties. Wage and price inflation was widely regarded as an instrument for redistribution of wealth from creditors and from putatively virtuous retirees living on fixed incomes to debtors and those with strong unions. And it’s also significant that hard-core right-wing Americans perpetually crave for a return to the gold standard as an antidote to “political” currency manipulation.

There is today no vocal constituency favoring inflation, so the issue is a great boon to conservatives willing to condemn its many evils. Republican prescriptions for combatting inflation aren’t as politically safe as just demagoguing the issue or attacking Democratic spending as inflationary. There is a temptation to which some opinion-leaders on the right (and even some politicians like Tom Cotton) succumb of cheerleading for recession as a moral tonic for a nation that has tolerated profligate economic policies too long.

School wars are raging again

To those who think of education as a “Democratic issue,” the sudden explosion of “parental rights” protests involving school curriculum and COVID-19 policies which Republicans are avidly encouraging is something of a shock. There’s a tendency for some Democrats to dismiss these controversies as a fad that will soon fade in the light of conservative hostility to public education and education funding.

But cultural battles over public school policies were a Republican-friendly staple of politics from the 1960s well into the 1980s. And they had both a racial and a sexual component, much like today’s controversies over Critical Race Theory and “obscene” school library books displaying non-traditional gender and sexual roles.

On the racial front, southern white conservatives vocally and sometimes violently opposed school desegregation in the 1960s. But both in and beyond the South, the fight to maintain de facto if not de jure segregation persisted for many years. The “school busing” controversy that roiled urban and suburban schools around the country in the 1970s was a huge factor in the politics of that decade, with the anti-busing movement enlisting Democrats (including one Joe Biden) as well as Republicans. Additionally, many scholars trace the origins of the Christian Right to the battle to maintain tax-free status for church-based “segregation academies” that sprang up like mushrooms whenever public schools were desegregated.

School wars were not limited to racial controversies, whatever. There were, beginning in 1974, high-profile “textbook wars” in which traditionalist, often conservative evangelical, parents battled school boards over books and other instructional content that didn’t comport with their values, ranging from strict sexual morality to literal scriptural accounts of the Creation. This movement in turn was one of several contributors to the school voucher and home-schooling movements that became and have remained integral to Republican politics in most parts of the country. In fact, the rhetoric of “parental rights in education” that was the bread-and-butter of Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia gubernatorial candidacy was well-honed in Republican fights for letting parents determine whether public education dollars should be redirected to private schools.

Red scares have returned from the grave

One culture-laden issue that has obtained a surprising new life for today’s Republicans is the alleged threat of socialism, a potent campaign issue for Donald Trump in 2020 and a unifying rallying cry for the congressional Republicans (and their 2022 candidates) waging total war on Democratic legislation. In tone and in symbolic freight, contemporary alarms about socialism sound the same notes as Cold War alarms about communism, suggesting a totalitarian threat that is as much (or more) internal as external, tainting progressives as treasonous to American values and interests. The equation of today’s socialists (real and imagined) to yesterday’s communists is particularly effective in immigrant communities from countries where oppressive forms of Marxist one-party government are fresh memories. Needless to say, many conservative religious believers view any sort of socialism as inimical to their freedom to worship and to pass along their values to their children, who are allegedly being exposed to socialist agitprop in secular schools and universities and via popular culture.

If this sleight-of-hand New Cold War continues to work it could be of inestimable value to Republicans. Anti-communism was famously the glue that held together the conservative movement of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with its competing factions of business-oriented quasi-libertarians and church-based cultural traditionalists. It may serve the same purpose for today’s conventional conservatives, theocrats and populists.

It’s not at all certain that we have entered a new era of Republican ascendancy based on perennial culturally reactionary impulses. There are counter-pressures that work in the opposite direction, such as the strain of American culture that is hostile to privilege and believes in the inevitability of social progress, But progressives should not imagine that the themes driving the Republican comeback from 2020 are ephemeral or isolated from each other. The great battle to shape America according to visions of its “great” past or potentially greater future is ongoing, and will likely follow all-too-familiar patterns.

American Politics Is Back to the Future