image by Ruthanne Reid under CC-By
Dear Fellow Travellers,
I am writing to you about how we’ve arrived at a turning point with this presidential election. By looking back a little, I believe we can make better sense of what the immediate future might look like. The future can seem frightening, given all that has happened in the past several years (9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, financial meltdown) and even in the last few days (Sandy), but politically it may be more hopeful than it has been for a long time.
The Great Depression saw the emergence of a liberal consensus that dominated American political life after World War II. This consensus involved high taxes, active federal government intervention, and conformity to a national ideal of personhood -- one which was easier to maintain because the Cold War provided such a powerful outside enemy against which to define an American “we.” All of this enabled a historically unique compression of wealth and income around a large, and mostly white, middle class. During its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans and other racial minorities did not get to join this middle class, women in general tended to play subservient roles in their families while being largely locked out of pursuits other than motherhood, gays and lesbians suffered painful social ostracism, and many in the more rural parts of the country found that their concerns were secondary to those in the cities and the rapidly expanding suburbs.
Over time, the many groups disaffected by liberalism began to mount ever more powerful critiques of its flaws. When the economic growth that supported its dominance sputtered, as it did around the early 1970s, such critiques began to bite sharply into its legitimacy. This gave rise to a period of intense conflict, and it was unclear what coalition of ideas would eventually gel and dominate.
This uncertainty came to an end in 1980, when Reagan was elected president. We have been living ever since in the age of Reagan. This has meant, among other things, that American politics has consistently favored the rolling back of New Deal institutions, the weakening of unionized workers, the dismantling of government regulatory power, and the flattening of the tax code so that the burden falls more on those who earn less. Such policies have been accompanied by the hollowing out of the middle class and the concentration of wealth into a few hands.
With some very important exceptions, the consensus that Reagan helped usher into dominance has also led political life in this country to move ever further to the right. As a result, what at one time might have seemed extreme now seems moderate. Such a sharp ideological movement to the right is the only way to explain how President Obama’s policies can be viewed as liberal or, for some, socialist. If he were running for re-election in 1980, his policies would probably seem not that different from the ones that Reagan was selling to the country.
Still, the fact that President Obama won office four years ago by moving left of a center that has swung so far to the right suggests that the age of Reagan is in trouble (for another view on this, see Balkin). So what will happen if Romney somehow pulls off an upset this Tuesday? Such an outcome may counter-intuitively reveal how close to collapse Reagan’s legacy is. The conservative base is mobilized by a lot of different ideas that do not always play nice together, and the more extreme of these have been on the ascendancy. These include a loathing of immigrants, a disdain for the young, a hatred of homosexuality, a hostility toward women’s reproductive rights, and a general disgust that the undeserving benefit most from government. Those who espouse such views in the GOP, such as members of the Tea Party, will demand that Romney push policies further to the right than his record as governor of Massachusetts might indicate.
On the other hand, consider the speed with which last year’s Occupy Wall Street caught fire across the country. This movement has been largely dormant this year, but the feelings it gave expression to are still pervasive and it won’t take much to reignite them. The longer the age of Reagan continues in its current form, the more determined these contending forces will be in trying to bring it to an end.
During the past few weeks, I have wondered if it wouldn’t be better if Romney won. Such an outcome would almost assuredly cause immediate havoc to many people’s lives. But it would also clarify lines of conflict, make it easier for those who haven’t before to find common cause, and provide the conditions for widespread unrest that could end the age of Reagan more quickly. This could mean that a new coalition of ideas from the left could take its place. Ultimately, however, this line of reasoning seems wrong to me. What is the more likely outcome of a Romney presidency is that it will give those who are at the extreme of the Republican party more access to the levers of federal power. They will thus have an edge in any political contest of ideas. This would mean that what replaces the age of Reagan can easily end up being far worse than what we have now.
The consequences of an Obama win on Tuesday seems to me even harder to predict. Will he allow the government to fall off the “fiscal cliff,” as the reporter Jonathan Chait has argued, and from a resulting position of strength make possible a new era of left political potential? Or is he an instinctively center-right politician who will negotiate a deal with the GOP that will basically sell out his supporters? In other words, will he bring a decisive end to the age of Reagan or put it on life support?
Regardless of how he acts in office, however, there is reason to feel a lot of hope about an Obama reelection. It will represent one more success of a left-leaning coalition of forces better positioned than it has ever been over the past several decades to upset the balance of power that Reagan erected. If it turns out that Obama wants nothing more than to return the center to where we were during the 1980s, there are still many within his circle of supporters who will not be satisfied with such an outcome. They will continue to push hard to found a new set of policies that will favor all those groups who have for so long been wandering in the wilderness.
If Obama wins, as I believe he will, we who care about immigrants, nonwhites, women, queers, and the poor should remember that he is not a natural ally. He is a politician who responds to the most vocal of his constituents. On the morning after the election, our task, to reset the political life of this country onto a more egalitarian and sustainable course, will have only just begun.
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Min Hyoung Song teaches English at Boston College, and is the author of Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. He's just finished a new book entitled The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American, out next spring.
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