What the rise of evangelical power means in the cycle of American politics

What the rise of evangelical power means in the cycle of American politics
Evangelicals are in turmoil — but conservative 'Christian Reconstructionists' are thriving
Evangelicals are in turmoil — but conservative 'Christian Reconstructionists' are thriving

Regular readers know of my interest in “regime change.” That’s the term I’ve been using to describe when one party and its ideas prevail among a majority of Americans until they fail to meet the political demands of the moment. That’s the start of a period of transition, during which decadence, instability and decay reign, until the other party and its ideas prevail among a majority.

“Regime change” is another way of describing what some political scientists call “the cycles of political time.” The theory is that political time is not linear, moving in one direction that, as many Americans believe, leads us toward some kind of enlightened end. Instead of political time progressing, as many liberals believe, it moves in cycles so there is no end at which point society is much improved comparatively. Instead, old problems become current, current problems become old. History doesn’t repeat itself. It’s just familiar.

This is important to understand. The Supreme Court stands ready to strike down Roe. Republicans in states like Georgia and Wisconsin are creating conditions by which legislators can steal elections. The covid is still raging. Climate change is unrelenting. Russia and China are ascending. Anyone who cares about the future of the American republic has a helluva lot of reasons to despair. Yet awareness of “regime change,” I think, can inspire hope.

To learn more about political time and the idea of progress, I got in touch with Editorial Board contributor Elizabeth F. Cohen. She’s a professor of politics at Syracuse University and author of The Political Value of Time, Citizenship (with Cyril Ghosh) and most recently Illegal: How America’s Lawless Immigration Regime Threatens Us All. The following is an edited interview. We discussed how to figure out where we are in the cycle of political time. Elizabeth said we need a litmus test. That’s immigration.

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John Stoehr: Can you explain the idea of progress?

Elizabeth F. Cohen: Many political scientists use the concept of path dependence to refer to a sense that the way things have been is the way things will be. It’s the idea that the past affects the future. It can have a few different meanings. Most salient are: 1) the past will affect what happens in the future; 2) initial circumstances matter; 3) circumstances can become ossified; 4) circumstances can reproduce themselves. So if someone views American history as a steady march of progress, and one implicitly or explicitly expects path dependence, progress becomes inevitable.

JS: I’ve been in a pessimistic mood. I fear the liberal belief in time moving toward some kind of enlightened endpoint is going to slam into reality, which is a Republican Party putting the brakes on all progress. Thoughts?

EFC: I look at the Republican Party and see a party making lots of progress. They are undoing much of the success Democrats had since 1964 and vastly increasing the institutional influence of a pretty novel form of Christianity practiced by a minority of the population.

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JS: The unwinding of liberal democracy as progress?

EFC: To an extent. But the rise of evangelical power is not just an undoing. This is, of course, not what I see as progress. But if I’m Mitch McConnell ….

JS: I suppose this touches on the nature of the idea of progress. That it’s liberal, that it’s liberalizing. Is that a misconception on my part?

EFC: I may be idiosyncratic, but I don’t think that liberalism, a term that itself has a contested meaning, owns the idea of progress. Does the idea of a “progressive” have a specific meaning in US history? Yes. Does that mean someone who thinks of themselves as an embattled Christian, in a hostile society, doesn’t view the current court composition as progress? No. And same goes for the ethnonationalist who has felt threatened by immigration.

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JS: You said "evangelical power is not just an undoing." Can you explain?

EFC: Evangelicalism includes a novel set of practices. This is not the Christianity of the 17th through the 19th centuries. Yet it’s adherents have gained a huge amount of political power. I’m not a religion specialist.

JS: But you think they’re creating something new, correct?

EFC: Yes.

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JS: Given this, what do the next five years look like to you?

EFC: Time for me to be path-dependent? (That is a joke) Do you see any reason to think Democrats or Republicans will change course?

JS: No. The more we go in this direction, the more we go in this direction?

EFC: At some point this cycle, we will experience a reaction and the cycle will decline. That could be triggered by something that happens in the next few years. But right now, we don’t have any clear moment or leader to grab onto as a sign that the winds are changing. We are in the grind of organizing resistance, trying to recapture local arenas of power Republicans have been cultivating for decades, and other mundane but essential work of democracy.

“Political cycles” refers to an ancient thought about time – that it is not linear but rather cyclical. The trick is knowing where you are in the cycle. Scholars like Stephen Skowronek (author of Presidential Leadership in Political Time) have written a great deal trying to show what the cycles look like in, for example, the US presidency. Cycles can also play out in constitutional interpretation, partisan coalitions and many other arenas in politics.

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JS: I have been calling this “regime change” because I think it sounds good.

After 2020, I felt we were moving toward a more liberal regime. I hoped we were seeing a transition like the one from Hoover to FDR. But since the Virginia election, I have lost some hope. Maybe I should have more hope?

EFC: Here is where immigration is always a good litmus test (of where we are in the cycle of political time). When was the last time we saw a Democrat who committed to major progressive reforms regarding immigration?

JS: Never in my lifetime.

EFC: Right. It’s been one kind of Democrat that’s dominated the party since Jimmy Carter. And if we were to try and name that type, we would not use the word “progressive.” We knew Joe Biden wasn’t going to improve things for undocumented Americans. Our hope was maybe a rollback of the worst and, in some cases, illegal policies of the Trump administration. That hasn’t happened. When it does, we’ll know we’re in a moment where human rights are assuming their rightful place at the center of our political agenda and institutions. And that will be good for everyone – except maybe plutocrats.

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JS: You said "at some point this cycle we will experience a reaction and will likely decline." A reaction from the left? What form would that reaction take?

EFC: I think the reaction would need to be more broad. But I can’t predict who or what generates it. I can say we’re in a very far-right cycle in political time at the moment. Any reaction will be against the far-right.

JS: Yay! Thank you for your time.

EFC: I appreciate your project and your work.

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