Paul Rosenberg

How Donald Trump's destructiveness forced us to a point of reckoning about America

If every cloud has a silver lining, Donald Trump's destructiveness offers this one: He has forced us to a point of reckoning about America. If we think all this chaos is just about him, we've missed the whole point. On that point, there's wide agreement. Beyond that, however, there's considerable disagreement, if not confusion. The vast majority of elite discourse sees this in terms of a challenge to liberal democracy — a challenge that's been unfolding worldwide over the past decade or so, sometimes characterized as a "third wave of autocratization."

There's a large body of knowledge and experience behind this point of view (see groups such as Varieties of Democracy for a global perspective, or Bright Lines Watch in the U.S.). But such an idealized view of American democracy has always been challenged by African Americans, for instance: See Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" or Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again.") Trump's election, in obvious response to Barack Obama's, has had the effect of pushing the longstanding Black critique of American democracy to the very center of our politics.

In contrast, University of Wisconsin political scientist Mark Copelovitch has been tweeting his observations of American politics under the rubric of "Today in life under competitive authoritarianism." The term comes from Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way's 2010 book, "Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War" (introduced in an earlier paper here.) They cite "four minimum criteria" that modern democratic regimes meet, which these "hybrid regimes" (including most of the nations in the former Soviet Union) fail to meet on a systematic basis, thereby creating an uneven playing field between government and opposition. The first three of these criteria are that executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; that virtually all adults posses the right to vote; and that political rights and civil liberties — including freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal — are broadly protected.

By systemically violating these criteria, and possibly a fourth — "elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary authority of military or clerical leaders" — competitive authoritarian regimes seek to maintain the general appearance of being democracy-like in order to claim legitimacy, but without practicing actual, substantive democracy. In a late October pair of tweets, Copelovitch summed up his view:

Arguably, the US has basically not fully met the 1st 2 of Levitsky & Way's democratic criteria since the failure of Reconstruction. Trump-era backsliding is mostly on criterion 3 But the problem now is additive. EC + increases in gerrymandering & malapportionment + Trump.
I actually do think this is what we are starting to realize & why the Court/Senate/statehood reforms have gained traction. The immediate authoritarian threat of Trump since 2017 has shined light on the enduring undemocratic nature of our political institutions.

This framework of "competitive authoritarianism" offers a more realistic description of America's actually existing political system than calling it a backsliding liberal democracy. Our problem is not primarily a flaw in liberal democracy as such, but in the United States' consistent failure to actually embody what it pretends to be.

I asked Copelovitch about his "competitive authoritarianism" tweets, and he responded that the "most proximate reason" for writing them was his state of residence: "I have lived since 2006 in Wisconsin, which has been the canary in the coalmine for all of the developments and risks to American democracy that we've seen since 2016. ... What we're seeing at the national level under Trump is simply the extension of what's happened in Wisconsin, under [former governor] Scott Walker and [State Assembly Speaker] Robin Vos, to the U.S. as a whole." The fullest description of this can be found in Dan Kaufman's book, "The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics."

But there's also Copelovitch's own background, as he explained by email.

I come at all of this as a scholar of international political economy (the politics of international trade, money, and finance). For the last decade, I've been studying the causes and consequences of the Great Recession and the Eurozone financial crises and quite a bit of time collaborating with (and reading) comparative politics scholars focused on the rise of far right and populist nationalist parties. I've also spent a lot of time studying the politics of the interwar era, especially in the wake of the economic and financial crises in Weimar Germany (see my recent book), and it should come as no surprise that I, like many, see many similarities between that era and ours.

This approach fits well with Levitsky and Way's concept of "competitive authoritarianism," which they define in contrast with democracy on the one hand and outright authoritarianism on the other: "In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy."

Modern functioning democracies meet the four criteria named above. While there may be violations of any of the four criteria, "such violations are not broad or systematic enough to seriously impede democratic challenges to incumbent Governments," the authors write. "In other words, they do not fundamentally alter the playing field between government and opposition." But that's precisely what those violations are doing in America today — and have been doing since the demise of Reconstruction in the late 19th century, when it comes to free and fair elections with universal suffrage.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 represented a giant step forward, but significant participation gaps have persisted, among minority groups in particular and low-income people in general, as documented in "Why Americans Don't Vote," which led to the passage of the 1993 "motor voter" law and "Why Americans Still Don't Vote," a sequel of sorts describing the continued obstacles. Since then, moreover, the Republican Party has increasingly shifted from passive obstruction of expanded voting rights to strategies of active voter suppression.

This fits within the "competitive authoritarian" framework Levitsky and Way describe:

Rather than openly violating democratic rules (for example, by banning or repressing the opposition and the media), incumbents are more likely to use bribery, co-optation, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to "legally" harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behavior from critics.

Both the sweeping gerrymandering described in "Ratf**ked" by former Salon editor David Daley, and the Supreme Court's refusal to remedy the situation, are crucial examples of how this unfolds in America today. The same could be said of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down the crucial pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act by invalidating the jurisdictional maps. It also applies to voter-suppression strategies such as voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect Democratic voters.

Race, even more than class, stands at the center of most of these voter suppression and disenfranchisement efforts, which descend from America's founding as a Herrenvolk democracy or republic (experts have argued for both). Today's Republicans certainly didn't originate this practice, but they energetically took it over, as described in "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon author interview here), for example. Other anti-democratic aspects of our political system have more mixed origins: "Ratf**ked," for example, shows how the GOP took traditional gerrymandering to a level never imagined before.

Copelovitch told me he began tweeting about "life under competitive authoritarianism" as a way of "linking these three things together: the anti-democratic institutional biases of U.S. politics, the unprecedented lawless authoritarianism of Trump and the GOP's active embrace of restricting democracy. I've kept it going largely because the developments have continued throughout the last several years, to the point that I believe there are real, serious concerns about the state of American democracy."

This is an especially important point: Copelovitch sees the awareness of these concerns as a real dividing line "between people arguing that 'the system has worked' over the last two months to prevent Trump's attempts to steal the election, and those of us still warning that the unprecedented authoritarian threat to U.S. democracy persists, despite Biden's victory."

Part of what defines that division is a deeper sense of how the system isn't working. Copelovitch has written earlier tweets referencing Robert Dahl's 1989 book "Democracy and its Critics" and noting that the U.S. basically violates the core criteria of democratic process that Dahl defines, especially relating to voter suppression, gerrymandering and the apportionment of U.S. Senate seats. "When you start to compare the U.S. by these criteria, to other countries' political systems, you quickly notice that we don't stack up well at all," he told me. "If you look at, say Germany or New Zealand, which have mixed-member proportional representation systems, you realize that our electoral institutions have institutionalized minority rule and locked in policies at odds with what large majorities of Americans seem to want on almost every issue." The $2,000 stimulus checks blocked by Mitch McConnell last week are merely the most recent high-profile example.

"In this sense, U.S. politics isn't really fully democratic," Coplevitch continued. "At the moment, every single branch of the government is currently controlled (or partially controlled) by the representatives or appointees of a party representing a minority of Americans and supporting a wide range of policy positions that are deeply unpopular with the median voter."

It's not that we don't know what to do, at least in theory. But the lessons are drenched in historical irony. "I've long been of the position that the U.S. got constitutional design mostly right in 1949, when we helped oversee the establishment of Germany's mixed-member proportional representation system at the founding of the Federal Republic," Copelovitch said. "New Zealand adopted this system in 1996, and it has been very successful. If one were starting from scratch and looking for the ideal federal system, this is the model we'd look to follow."

That might be politically impossible in the U.S. anytime soon, he admits. but there are other options. Copelovitch cites Lee Drutman's book "Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop," which advocates ranked choice voting, multi-member districts, enlarging the House of Representatives, automatic universal voter registration, statehood for both the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and fixed terms for Supreme Court justices, among other reforms.

The first bill passed by the Democratic House majority in 2019, H.R. 1, the "For the People Act," was a direct attempt to address this situation — even if it didn't go nearly far enough. Mitch McConnell's response was telling, characterizing the law as "a package of urgent measures to rewrite the rules of American politics for the exclusive benefit of the Democratic Party." Aside from the obvious projection involved, the Senate majority leader came awfully close to acknowledging the inconvenient truth that elite Republican positions are either profoundly unpopular or profoundly impractical. (This same contradiction, to a large extent, enabled the ascendancy of Donald Trump.) It's certainly possible that Republicans could find ways to compete on a more level playing field, but only by abandoning the extremist politics they've increasingly embraced over the past 40 years.

Recognizing that America is, or is becoming, a competitive authoritarian regime is undoubtedly painful and unsettling. But that's the critical first step in becoming the liberal democracy this nation has always pretended to be. As with addiction or mental illness, you can't fix a problem until you finally admit you have one.

A deepening democracy crisis: More than 70 percent of Trump voters distrust the best-run election in years

Angela Clark-Smith, a lawyer, started learning about the intricacies of observing elections when she was a member of the same sorority as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. In 2020, three decades later, she was deployed by the Georgia Democratic Party to observe the presidential election and, most recently, the processing of returned absentee ballots in its Senate runoffs.

"There's a process. It is very straightforward," Clark-Smith said during a break at an early voting center in an Atlanta suburb, where she praised poll workers and the process of verifying signatures on ballot envelopes and flagging problems for follow-up with voters. "Watching it was like watching a work of art."

Elections in Georgia are better run than those in many blue states. But as the state has become a national battleground following Joe Biden's narrow win there and during Senate runoffs that could return control of Congress to the Democrats, the artful process that Clark-Smith has seen and praised has become a "circus," she says.

Clark-Smith witnessed the turmoil that is tearing apart American democracy: where partisans do not understand the process; do not know what they are seeing as they view election administration up close for the first time; and are part of a tidal wave—nearly three-fourths of Republicans, according to an NPR poll conducted in early December—who don't trust that the 2020 election results are accurate.

"It went from a really dignified process to feeling it was like a circus," Clark-Smith said, referring to the Republican observers who came to watch the initial processing of the runoff's absentee ballots. "You had people who were jumping on tables and making accusations. There was this one man who said, 'We should count this vote!' And I'm like, 'Sir. It's a write-in vote for Mike Pence. He's not on the ballot! Relax… Sit down… Come on!"

A Deepening Democracy Crisis

American politics and elections have always had dark sides: Suspicions versus inquiries. Fictions versus facts. Conspiracies versus realities. Yet the darker impulses seem to be worsening. In every close presidential election since 2000, growing numbers of partisan activists and voters whose side lost are angrier.

The 2020 election stands apart because the president has been leading this truculence by making false claims to rally his base, raise hundreds of millions of dollars and dangle extremist courses to stay in power, such as recently floating a declaration of martial law. Trump's anti-democratic antics and sowing of wide distrust of electoral institutions are in a class by themselves. No foreign power has made as persistent an attack on American democracy.

There are other differences between 2020 and recent presidential elections that roiled voters. In 2000 and 2004, and then in 2016, voting rights reformers called out structural deficiencies—not fantasies. It was a real problem that all-electronic voting systems meant that ballots could not be recounted. It was a valid concern that central counting nodes could be tweaked by local election officials or their contractors to tilt outcomes, or theoretically infiltrated by computer hackers.

By 2020, some of these top criticisms had been addressed. Russian interference in 2016's presidential election was an unanticipated impetus to replace or shore up voting systems. Reformers' demands, such as using paper ballots and better vote count audits, were adopted. Other demands, mostly from progressives who could not accept that Republicans had again won, fell on deaf ears. Those demands, such as abandoning electronics in voting systems, have been seized by Trump backers.

What is more ironic from an election administration perspective, however, is that 2020's general election has been one of the best-run elections in years. The same can be said of the early voting for Georgia's Senate runoffs, which culminate in a January 5 election. The positive outlook on the 2020 elections is supported by facts, which Trump and his supporters ignore as they make baseless claims to the contrary.

No election is flawless. That's especially true of presidential contests, such as this fall's election where 158.2 million people cast ballots in a national exercise staffed by 900,000-plus citizen poll workers. There are always poll worker errors, uncounted votes and some people voting illegally. Most lapses are due to human error and do not affect the outcomes in major races. Those issues were seen in isolated instances in presidential battlegrounds this fall. Yet consider the objective measures about the larger contours of the 2020 general election.

Record numbers of voters participated—even in a pandemic. Automatic and online voter registration has never been as widespread. Voters had more options to cast ballots than ever: by mail, voting early or on Election Day. Never before have as many voters cast mailed-out ballots or voted early. Almost everyone cast paper ballots. More vote counts were double-checked by audits and recounts than ever. The counting process was widely streamed online and has never been as public. Georgia's presidential ballots were counted three times each using a different methodology—including an unprecedented manual count. Each count reaffirmed that Biden won. This catalog of election administration achievements is remarkable.

But it is also indisputable that these facts barely matter in some important circles. More than a few Americans, possibly tens of millions (if recent polls accurately represent the rest of the nation's 74 million Trump voters), will wince when Biden puts his hand on the Bible on January 20 to be sworn in. Some voters still expect that Trump will serve a second term. How these Trump supporters will react in the short and long run is not a trifle. Their response will impact what follows every major election, which are the lessons learned and the reform agendas for states and Congress.

When Mobs Are Swayed

When multitudes believe that elections cannot be trusted, democracy is in trouble. Those believers in 2020 include scores of Republican members of Congress, state attorneys general and legislators, all who signed onto pro-Trump lawsuits seeking to overturn the popular vote in their state—or more outrageously, in other states. Those lawsuits were filled with fabrications, shoddy analyses and lies that were overwhelmingly rejected by dozens of state and federal judges. Some of these same assertions have been recurring in GOP-led lawsuits targeting Georgia's runoffs. They are being rejected there as well. But these narratives have not disappeared from the court of public opinion, especially in right-wing media, whose audiences grow in response to baiting and fanning their fears and fantasies.

Many constitutional scholars believe that the country was lucky that Trump's lawyers overplayed their post-election cards. Had the 2020 election hinged on a single state, legal experts believe that the country could now be in a constitutional crisis. They doubt that a single state's laws and top officials could have withstood this White House's pressure to select—not elect—Trump as its Electoral College winner. Some Republicans in Congress, nonetheless, are still expected to challenge ratification of Biden's Electoral College victory on January 6. But a continuing Democratic majority in the House ensures that Biden will be sworn in as the next president on January 20.

The incompetence of Trump's legal team and its allies is one thing. Their power-hungry guile and ongoing effort to subvert the electoral process is another. And the willingness of more than 70 percent of Republicans to distrust the results, according to NPR's poll, is most disturbing of all.

Polls are imperfect snapshots of a slice of voters in any given moment. One can hope that the Trump team's ongoing failures to win election lawsuits will sink in and shrink the numbers who distrust 2020's results. But they probably will not, because these court defeats address false claims, not deeper feelings.

For example, in Georgia, the Republican lawsuits targeting the Senate runoffs have tried to disqualify hundreds of thousands of voters. The lawsuits cite a government database to posit that these voters are no longer state residents—rendering them ineligible to vote. But that database, the post office's national change of address file, was never intended to track voters. It mostly lists heads of households and addresses, not every person living at an address and every voter. Judges and county election boards have been rejecting the illegal voter claims. One result has been that the early voting turnout in the Senate runoffs has rivaled the general election. Accommodating high voter turnout is a sign of a well-run election.

But there's a disconnect. On one hand, those attacking the process in Georgia and disparaging the presidential results say that the electoral sky is falling. But quieter multitudes have found that it has been easier to vote in 2020, even during the pandemic. This is because there were more voting options in 2020: in person or via a mailed-out ballot, early or on Election Day. (Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a rare Republican who has stood up to Trump, said on December 23 that local officials are "overwhelmed" and called on the state's GOP-led legislature to reinstate the requirement that Georgia voters need an excuse to get a mailed-out ballot. Democrats won't be pleased if that proposal gains traction in 2021.)

Normally, in years when the presidency changes party, the period between early November's Election Day and late January's Inauguration Day is a time when experts seek to influence a new administration. In the election fold, however, some of the biggest players have been notably quiet. Some privately say that the attacks by Trump and his allies are still a big and unfolding crisis—a bonfire that won't disappear until he leaves office. The harms being unleashed, at least among the voters who backed Trump, may take years to undo.

Nonetheless, there has been some talk among elections experts since November 3 about what to do next in Congress and state capitals. Many of these experts from different disciplines have suggestions on how to fine-tune the voting process. Constitutional scholars say that holes in 19th-century law must be filled so that another president cannot overrule a popular vote and have state legislatures select him for a second term. Voting rights lawyers want to ward off efforts to shrink voting options, such as Raffensperger's move to reel in Georgia's absentee ballot program. Those talks are happening as Trump and his allies keep attacking the electoral process. But the full damage Trump has done to America's elections has yet to emerge.

Way Beyond Seeds of Doubt

Why do so many people believe elections are stolen if their presidential candidate loses? There's no one answer. From an election reform perspective, the fact that the intricacies of election administration are not readily apparent—or self-evident to untrained observers—does not help. But when so many partisans have a predisposed view that ranges from suspicious, to paranoid, or even conspiratorial, it is clear that something deeper is going on to trigger these assumptions and impulses.

Brené Brown, one of America's best-known trauma experts, recently said in a New York Times podcast that the most aggressive Trump campaign t-shirts—those saying, "Fuck your feelings"—are overly defensive and are a reflection of people who are struggling rather than embracing some high-minded cause. Apart from how that emotional dynamic unfolds politically, it means that election officials and experts seeking to improve America's elections are facing hurdles that cannot be cleared solely by emphasizing facts, instituting best practices, and producing better evidence of vote counts. If the mistrust of elections is as deep as polls suggest, one must ask what solutions can address the underlying triggers, so elections are not collateral damage in a wider societal or cultural schism.

American elections are not perfect. In the 21st century, they are privatized as never before. They are overly complex, meaning that impassioned citizens who race to election centers to observe cannot readily grasp what they are seeing. The many stages of the process, from the starting line of voter registration to the finish line of certifying the vote count, take years to learn, appreciate and unwind. These steps and stages are not sufficiently self-evident, which fans conspiracies.

One might like to think that there is a silent majority of Americans who have figured out how to ignore the noise and vote in a pandemic—even in numbers that have not been seen before. One can look to Georgia and see such turnout in its presidential election and in the early voting in the Senate runoffs. One might hope that there were more Republicans, such as Georgia's secretary of state and governor, who said "no" to Trump's demand that they select him as their state's Electoral College slate winner—ignoring the results of the 5 million votes cast by Georgians.

But elections will always be about power. There is usually more than one reason why political leaders do anything. Raffensperger might be saying that he wants to end no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia because county officials cannot handle the extra workload. That policy, should it be enacted before the 2022 governor's race, could undermine turnout. That impact may help a fellow GOP incumbent, Gov. Brian Kemp, who will be seeking reelection.

Is that an unduly cynical take? Perhaps. Or perhaps it shows why elections can become mirrors of societal distrust. Even if the process met challenges in 2020 and empowered record numbers of Americans to vote, some of the candidates seeking high office were less honest and less straightforward than the electoral process was. In 2020, the democratic process, if viewed apart from some candidates, might be better than ever. But American elections cannot be divorced from the candidates, especially not in the Trump era.

When America faces a leader with totalitarian impulses who thinks he can will his way into another term, it is also facing its greatest democratic crisis in decades. The passage of time always heals wounds, including political wounds. But what can be done to revive public trust in elections in the meantime is not just an open-ended question. Democracy's fragile skin has been stretched as never before, when tens of millions of voters say that they don't trust the results from the best-run election in years.

Trump and the right wing have mastered the politics of victimhood. Research suggests we're all its victims

"We're all victims," Donald Trump claimed at his first rally after the presidential election, on Dec. 5 in Georgia "We're all victims. Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight. They're all victims. Every one of you." That was quite a change from his 2016 election campaign, when he promised "So much winning you'll get bored." Liberals were supposed to be the "snowflakes," right? What happened? How did the once-proud party of masculine self-reliance and "personal responsibility" become such a bunch of whiny snowflakes?

There are lots of reasons one could point to, but in truth it's pretty much a blind-men-and-the-elephant situation. We have an abundance of particular insights, with different bits and pieces of the answer. But surprisingly little is known about the role of victimhood in politics in any organized sense, even though particular examples are well-known, some of them quite broad. A passage on white Southern victimhood in the conclusion of "The Long Southern Strategy" (author interview here) is a case in point, drawing together some of the major themes developed earlier in the book. But there is no shared empirical framework for comparing levels of Southern victimhood with victimhood levels elsewhere — unlike with other measures, such as modern sexism, which is used to great effect in that book. All kinds of political attitudes have been measured and studied over the years—enough to fill a whole volume, more than 20 years ago, but no one's ever studied victimhood with the same kind of rigorous scrutiny.

Until now, that is — in a new paper by Miles Armaly and Adam Enders, "'Why Me?' The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics" (forthcoming in the journal Political Behavior.) Given how much of a role victimhood plays in politics, it's remarkable that this appears to be the first attempt ever to develop a way to measure it, and thereby open up a whole new realm of inquiry. By measuring perceived victimhood, the authors show that it's "largely unrelated to political predispositions or sociodemographic characteristics," but is related to, but various views of government, society and the world (especially with regard to perceived corruption and conspiratorial thinking) and personality traits such as narcissism and a sense of entitlement.

While the authors didn't set out to explain how Republicans became the victim party, Armaly told me in a recent interview, that makes a lot of sense in terms of what they did find. "The idea of many Trump supporters being 'victims' is borne out in our work," he said. "Inasmuch as cueing from political elites is responsible for some of these feelings, victimhood is currently manifesting in Trump supporters in large part because of 'we are the victims' messages," such as Trump's speech in Georgia.

The combination of two processes — top-down elite cues and bottom-up pre-existing attitudes — is one of three major distinctions drawn in this paper that clarify our understanding of victimhood, and how it helps shape the political landscape. "It's bottom-up in the sense that many psychological traits are. It's top-down in that elites can cue feelings of victimhood," Armaly put it. Neither of those things by itself can explain how victimhood functions in politics; both need to involved. But even to begin we need the help of another distinction — between objectively-defined victimhood and a subjective sense of victimhood — in order to focus on the common psychological factors shared by differently situated political individuals and groups.

Finally, "Why Me" develops a highly-clarifying twofold construct of subjective victimhood: It is egocentric, involving a tendency to agree with statements like "I am the victim because I deserve more than I get," and it involves a sense of systemic unfairness, reflected in sentiments like, "I am the victim because the system is rigged against me." The two are strongly correlated but distinct, with egocentric victims more likely to be Trump supporters, for example, while systemic victims are less likely to be.

In an added wrinkle, the paper's conclusion suggests the existence of a third form of victimhood, "an other-oriented, or accusatory one," and goes on to note:

Modern right-wing rhetoric, for instance, decries liberal "snowflakes," "safe spaces," and political correctness culture. In each of these instances, victimhood is projected onto others. This mobilizes the projectors because the "victims" are illegitimate — they are not deserving of victim status in the eyes of those doing the projecting.

If every accusation is a confession, this third form of victimhood offers a very big clue as to how Trump's base has turned snowflake.

Each of these distinctions is worth considering in turn. But first let's note three key points from the paper's conclusion. First, the centrality of victimhood:

Victimhood is central to politics. If politics is, as Lasswell (1936) famously described, about "who gets what, when, how," there are going to be victims. Some will be perceived as victims when they are not, others just the opposite. Political communication is, in no trivial sense, tasked with making some feel like victims, and others look like victims.

Second, victimhood in politics isn't necessarily pernicious:

That victimhood plays such a central role in politics is not necessarily troubling.
It is intuitive that politicians would make their case to constituents in such a way that victimhood is cued. Indeed, we want representatives that work to realize our values, fill our pockets, and facilitate a happy and healthy life.

Third, what's troubling is when a sense of victimhood fuels extremism:

Rather than the mere appeal to victimhood, it is the lengths one is willing to go in order to mobilize victimhood that poses the greatest potential normative threat to a civilized democratic political system. Speaking historically, it is precisely a feeling of hypervictimization that has caused people to turn to authoritarian regimes for relief.

Subjective vs. objective

Let's turn to the three distinctions described above: The objective/subjective distinction comes first. One reason perceived victimhood hasn't been systematically studied, Armaly told me, is because "there are actual political victims." In the course of getting the paper published, he said, "People were talking about 'How are Black people different from white people? How are women different from men?' Because people were stuck in the idea of genuine victims of the political process. I think that's one of the reasons that we haven't had this direct focus on perceived victimhood in political science or similar fields."

In fact, the paper itself notes: "Men seem to be slightly higher in perceived victimhood across the board. … Such an observation underscores our claim that victimhood — as a self-perception — does not require relative disempowerment or subjection to injustices."

In conversation, Armaly was more blunt. "It doesn't matter what's true," he said. "It matters what people think and what they feel."

A broader public understanding of this could be helpful, he said: "If people understand that these are perceptions, that they can be made to feel this way — and that's a powerful source for political elites." Indeed, promoting this kind of awareness was the underlying insight behind the race-class narrative project developed by Ian Haney López, Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Demos, which I wrote about here in June 2018. I described it as a suite of narratives "that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good."

Armaly expressed the promise he sees in more general terms. "If an individual can recognize that perhaps they are being told they're victims when indeed they're not, maybe there's something there that people can learn from: 'Hold on, I'm not really the victim here.''"

The race-class narratives didn't specifically discuss victimhood, but they did confront the dynamic. For example:

California's strength comes from our ability to work together – to knit together a landscape of people from different places and of different races into a whole. For this to be a place of freedom for all, we cannot let the greedy few and the politicians they pay for divide us against each other based on what someone looks like, where they come from or how much money they have. It's time to stand up for each other and come together. It is time for us to vote for leaders who see all of us as equal, whether we are white, black, or brown, who respect all of our families, and who will govern for all of us.

Armaly's work suggests that other elite manipulations of victimhood could be countered with similar kinds of messages. Recognizing victimhood as a subjective state is the first step toward breaking its spell.

Egocentric vs. systemic

This distinction is the most fully elaborated of the three. What both poles have in common is that victimhood is "attractive," Armaly explained, "because it's placing the blame for one's lot in life on somebody else: 'It's not my fault.' It's a psychologically pleasing thing. I don't have to be blamed, because somebody else is doing this." From there, the two types diverge. "With the systemic, people are placing the blame with specific higher entities if you will, and with egocentric, people feel this way, they have the internal feelings of victimhood, but again, it's not their fault. It's always nice to lay blame somewhere else. That's the way to eliminate psychological pressure on oneself."

The difference between the two might seem subtle, and only emerged gradually over time. "We were discussing how to measure victimhood, and we have these ideas central to what we thought victimhood entailed," Armaly explained. "At a certain point we realized these are kind of tapping different things. So if you look at the items we use, four of them refer to the self, or 'me' or 'I' or something like that, and the other four are referring to outward sources."

The paper itself puts it this way: "The major distinction between egocentric and systemic victimhood is blame attribution. Systemic victimhood is a manifestation of perceived victimhood whereby the self defined victim specifically attributes blame for their victim status on systemic issues and entities." By contrast, "Egocentric victimhood ... is less outwardly focused. Egocentric victims feel that they never get what they deserve in life, never get an extra break, and are always settling for less. Neither the 'oppressor,' nor the attribution of blame, are very specific."

Indeed, the difference is striking: As mentioned above, egocentric victims are more supportive of Trump, while systemic victims are less likely to be. This makes intuitive sense, in terms of Trump's vague, self-centered language way — about victimization and pretty much everything else. The lack of evidence of voter fraud or any irregularities in the 50-plus election-related lawsuits Trump and his allies have filed does not matter nearly as much to egocentric victims as it potentially would to systemic victims. But the differential support could also reflect the fact that Trump was president when the study was done, Armaly noted. On top of that, "Trump is the establishment, he's wealthy, he's been around forever. So people who see wealth and maybe other systemic issues as victimizing don't support Trump."

There was a similar difference with regard to a set of racial issues, including affirmative action. "Somebody who thinks that they're the victim, an egocentric victim [is] going to view something like affirmative action as taking away possibilities that they think they rightfully deserve," Armaly explained. "Whereas a systemic victim seemingly recognizes that there are systemic forces that need to be corrected, and affirmative action is a correction for that type of systemic racial issue."

A similar logic applies with respect to anti-political-correctness attitudes, Armaly said. "The egocentric victim sees it like, 'I'm being told what I can and can't say. This is an infringement of My First Amendment rights.' Of course it's not. It's not coming from the government. But they perceive society as censoring them."

By contrast, people with a high sense of systemic victimhood "would think you really shouldn't speak to each other the way we do sometimes. Maybe some of this political correctness language is a good thing, because it's more inclusive, It helps people not feel so bad about how other people speak about them," Armaly explained.

With this more detailed understanding of systemic and egocentric victimhood in hand, we are better able to appreciate the significance of the third distinction, between the top-down and bottom-up aspects of victimhood. The primary focus of the paper (and the discussion above) is on the latter: Bottom-up aspects provide the primary data. But top-down elite messaging is central to the political process. There's no way to understand victimhood's political significance (not just potential) without it.

Subjects were presented with identical victimhood narratives attributed to Trump or Joe Biden, according to their partisan identification. "One thing we know from decades of political science research is people only respond to cues from sources they trust," Armaly noted. "Republicans are going to support Trump, Democrats are going to support Biden. Let's see if they can cue victimhood in their followers." The message was simple:

You, the middle class and working people, have been the victims of so much. You never seem to catch a break, and always seem to pay the steepest price. It's sad, it really is. And I'm going to keep fighting for you no matter what.

The result, the paper noted, was that "both egocentric and systemic victimhood increase as a result of hearing Trump or Biden describe the average people's inability to catch a break." In short, Armaly said, "This is not a Trump phenomenon. This is not a Republican or conservative phenomenon. It cuts across ideological lines and partisan lines. But Trump is very effective at it. And it seems like he's weaponizing this victimhood to adhere people to him, to the party, to certain policies. This is a powerful force and it's a powerful feeling. If people feel like victims, it's unlikely that they're going to see the other party as a way to fix victimhood.

"So Republicans who agree with Trump that 'Hey, we are the victims,' they're never going to turn to Joe Biden for the remedy. They're only going to turn to Republicans in the future, maybe even continuing to support Trump. So one consequence of this, we think, is entrenching polarization, furthering extremity in beliefs about politics, and making people set up more in their existing camps."

Of course, Trump election loss and his subsequent behavior has further intensified feelings of victimhood: "That's precisely what the 'Stop the Steal' thing is about," Armaly said. "'We're the victims of fraudulent elections,' even though there's no evidence pointing there and they keep losing in court. But that is definitely a victimhood-cueing rallying cry."

In a way, this helps makes sense of the decades-long thrust of "The Long Southern Strategy." Threatened identities — first around race, and then gender and religion — were key to the whole enterprise. As co-author Angie Maxwell told me, "They didn't have infrastructure in a lot of places for the Republican Party. So they had to create this sense of urgency, and you do that by tapping into things that people feel are fragile and are being threatened." In short, they had to promote feelings of victimhood.

I asked Maxwell to comment on the theme of victimhood for this story. She responded:

In an effort to cut an electoral map path to victory, starting in the 1960s, Republican strategists pushed individualism against the collective — against collective bargaining, protest, organizing. Individualism creates blinders that can deny systemic racism, sexism and privilege. Simultaneously, these GOP strategists, in order to shake Southern whites lose from their long-term connection to the Democratic Party, manufactured a sense of urgency about everything from the "war on Christmas" to the welfare queen bankrupting the taxpayer. That combination creates a self-focused, faux victimhood, reminiscent of the Lost Cause in the South but with a national appeal.

This is how, under the "Stop the Steal" banner, we get a majority of House Republicans supporting an utterly frivolous lawsuit before the Supreme Court that flies in the face of decades of GOP "states' rights" rhetoric. Surprise! The Southern strategy was never about states' rights, any more than the Civil War was. (The Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Act had already made a mockery of those Southern claims.)

On the role of narcissism

It's worth highlighting how significant Trump's narcissism is in this dynamic. He is utterly incapable of ever admitting he's been wrong. When finally forced to recant his support for birtherism, he double-falsely claimed, "Hillary Clinton started birtherism, and I ended it." Now, having lost an election by more than 7 million votes he claims the election is being stolen from him.

So even though narcissism is only related to victimhood statistically, it's still important to consider the role it plays. For this, I reached out to therapist Elizabeth Mika, whose chapter in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" on "Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism" explained how tyranny is a "three-legged beast," encompassing the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole.

"A sense of victimhood — as opposed to real victimhood — is always based in narcissism: the erroneous, corrosive and inherently destructive belief that we are special — somehow better than others — and thus we deserve special treatment, perks and privileges," Mika said.

There's a logical connection, she continued. "Narcissists are eternal victims, as perpetual victimhood is the other side of the narcissistic coin. It can't be otherwise, because if you believe yourself to be special and the world does not reflect this back to you, as is always the case sooner or later, you are going to feel victimized by the lack of special treatment."

A similar logic applies to groups as well. "You can expect the members of historically privileged classes and groups to have a sense of specialness ingrained in them by the virtue of being part of that class," Mika said. "When their sense of privilege is threatened and/or eroded, by, for example, expanding the privilege to others, members of previously disenfranchised and thus 'inferior' groups, they react with anger and rage that seek suitable scapegoats, more often than not from among those who are seen as 'stealing' their privilege or otherwise responsible for its loss. For narcissists, the loss of privilege feels like oppression."

This description is a near-perfect fit for Trump's white, Christian nationalist base. That base easily delivered landslide re-election victories for Richard Nixon in the 70s and Ronald Reagan in the 80s, but has only managed one popular-vote victory since 1988. Its privileged position has been eroding for at least 30 years now, and has only survived this long because of multiple anti-democratic features of our politics: the Electoral College, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Senate filibuster and ideologically-stacked courts. The longer that power has been sustained on such a fragile, illegitimate foundation, the more crushing its loss would seem. Hello, snowflakes!

A third kind of victimhood

As mentioned before, a third form of victimhood is proposed in the paper, an other-oriented or accusatory one typified by right-wing attacks on liberal "snowflakes" and political correctness in which victimhood is projected onto others. "This mobilizes the projectors because the 'victims' are illegitimate — they are not deserving of victim status in the eyes of those doing the projecting."

This is clearly more complicated than egocentric or systemic victimhood. But more than projection is likely going on. It may be a process known as "projective identification," discovered by British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, which I wrote about here in late 2015. It involves "introjection (imagining another — or aspects of another — inside oneself) as well as projection—or even both, simultaneously." The first example Klein gave was a specific form known as "envious reversal," in which the projector's unwanted inner states (thoughts, feelings, etc.) are projected (into what Klein called the "container") while the projector steals some desirable state of the "container."

If one is not a victim but claims to be, that's very likely an example of envious reversal. But if one is a snowflake and has spent years attacking others as snowflakes, that's also an example of envious reversal. So, too, if you believe that others are unfairly claiming victim status, when in fact that's been your go-to move ever since Brown v. Board of Education. So there's a potential for this kind of victimhood to lead into a hall-of-mirrors fantasy situation. But remember: This is still subjective victimhood. Questions about how subjective and objective realities align are incredibly important, but to fully address them we need to understand the subjective side as well as can.

The first step in studying "other-oriented victimhood," Armaly said, would be to examine whether the "correlates" are "similar to egocentric or systemic victimhood, or whether we are talking about a third, totally unique type?" His intuition is that such people "would reject the idea that they're victims, most of the time," but might also "reject the idea that others are victims. Other-oriented victimhood doesn't ever seem to be saying, 'Oh yeah, those people are victims of the political process,' It's usually used as a way to say they're not."

The notion of other-oriented victimhood can also have significance for the public as citizens in a democracy, helping us to see things more clearly. "The bleeding heart in me wants to talk about empathy," Armaly said. "Maybe let's not think about victimhood in terms of who is and isn't a victim. Maybe there's another way to approach it. Also, I think victimhood is not zero-sum. Multiple people can be victims — it's not mutually exclusive and not dichotomous in that way."

As a big-picture thought about victimhood as whole, Armaly raised a fundamental question. "We should be asking ourselves, 'Are we comfortable giving victims increased status to make social and political claims?'" he said. "And then, similarly, 'Are we comfortable judging the veracity of different claims?' We don't have a way to do this. Society isn't cohesive. We don't have the same mores and the same norms, necessarily, across all facets of society." He went on to note that, "Elevating some claims over others incentivizes these feelings of victimhood, and that's one of the reasons people are attracted to them. I think we have to consider whether incentivizing that feeling is a good thing."

Recalling the three points from the conclusion of "Why Me?" cited above, the answer may be that victimhood is inevitably central to politics and isn't necessarily pernicious, but that our capacity to deal with it without falling prey to hyper-victimization may be at a historically low ebb. That recognition could help orient us toward civic repair. Eliminating both actual victimhood and a sense of victimhood is not within our power. But continuing to be a victim of victimhood just might be. If, as Armaly argues, victimhood is not zero-sum, the best way to help any professed victims might be to help them all. Yes, even the snowflakes-in-denial who can't let go of their damaged and defeated president.

Congressional deadlock doesn't mean total paralysis. Here's how Biden can change US with executive action

Ever since Joe Biden was declared president-elect, a new subgenre of stories has appeared about his forthcoming use of executive actions, in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CNN, NPR, The Hill, Mother Jones, Vox, etc. Some of these stories are standard issue — executive action is part of any new administration making its mark on the world, and prominent issues tend to draw special attention. But this year, the stories are more complicated, given the combination of Donald Trump's legacy, the sheer number of outstanding crises and the gridlocked, uncertain state of government.

Yet most, though not all, of these accounts tend to miss one crucial point: Biden has enormous power to shape a governing agenda, regardless of anything Congress might do — not just in one or two areas, but across the entirety of government. This point was first forcefully made 14 months ago, when the American Prospect rolled out what executive editor David Dayen dubbed "The Day One Agenda." This power does not reside primarily in the showy executive orders that Trump is so fond of signing, but rather in the matter-of-fact texts of laws passed by Congress over the long course of American history — specific grants of authority that are just sitting there, waiting to be exercised.

Not only is there tremendous agenda-setting power at the president's disposal, but a more recent Day One Agenda article, "Joe Biden's Four-Year Plan," underscored how such actions could help create a new governing coalition of engaged voters, much as Social Security and Medicare did in previous generations. Of all the articles published about executive action recently, Dylan Matthews' "10 enormously consequential things Biden can do without the Senate" in Vox stands out for grasping the breadth of possibilities, and explicitly drawing on the Day One Agenda. But it retains a typical Vox "here's some stuff" tone — it's absorbed in policy details, and divorced from the practical political considerations that have motivated the Day One Agenda all along.

Dayen told me in a recent interview that the idea started with "understanding the function of a president." He continued, "You go to Article II [of the Constitution], and you read what the job description of the president is, and other than being able to make treaties and being the commander in chief of the military, the main thing is that that they take care that the laws are faithfully executed. It's not that they have a legislative agenda or that they work to pass policy," he explained. "The idea is that Congress writes the laws and the president then implements the laws. Over the last 240-odd years, we've had a lot of laws written, and there's a rich tapestry within that set of laws that allows a president to put together an agenda that can make progress for people in really significant ways."

Not only is that what the Constitution clearly says, it's how things generally worked until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 — an issue we'll return to below. That's certainly not how the political establishment sees things today. In campaign debates, "The questions are all 'What are you going to do as president in terms of getting a legislative agenda passed?' and so seldom are the questions, 'What are you going to do to implement the laws that are already on the books?'" Dayen said. At the time, "Progressives were thinking in terms of a little bit of despair, because even if a progressive president were elected, Mitch McConnell would still either hold the Senate or have enough votes to frustrate any kind of a major bold policy shift," he said. "My whole goal was to counteract that and say, 'Look, here is an entire agenda, just sort of sitting there within the statutes waiting to be implemented.'"

What Dayen's publication found was a set of 30 meaningful executive actions with staggering potential, as he wrote at the time:

Without signing a single new law, the next president can lower prescription drug prices, cancel student debt, break up the big banks, give everybody who wants one a bank account, counteract the dominance of monopoly power, protect farmers from price discrimination and unfair dealing, force divestment from fossil fuel projects, close a slew of tax loopholes, hold crooked CEOs accountable, mandate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, allow the effective legalization of marijuana, make it easier for 800,000 workers to join a union, and much, much more.

Along with his overview, the American Prospect published detailed articles on specific policies, which included feedback from the leading Democratic primary candidates. After the primary was over, the Prospect examined the Biden-Sanders unity task force document of policy recommendations and found 277 policies that Biden could implement without congressional action.

"On their own, none of these 277 policies will fully solve any of the interlinked crises we now face," wrote Max Moran. "But they can go a significant way toward immediate harm reduction. Some can even solve long-standing problems, simply by enforcing or fully implementing laws already on the books. Perhaps most important, all of these policies are ideas that leaders in the moderate and progressive wings of the party broadly agree on, and that Biden should have no excuse not to enact, save for his own policy preferences. There is no hiding behind Congress on these topics."

I asked Dayen about the relationship between the two lists, and he said the first represented "the most impactful ones," "the real high notes," that could be found in existing law, while the second culled everything that has been specifically agreed to. One important aspect here was to underscore the distinction between executive orders and executive action. Trump issued "a ton of executive orders" most of which "sounded good but they didn't really do anything," Dayen said. But he did wield real power through executive action, for example, giving farmers billions of dollars to compensate for losses from his ill-conceived trade war, when "he used a law from the New Deal called the Commodity Credit Corporation."

Trump's use of New Deal legislation is ironic on multiple levels. As noted before, Dayen's account of presidential and congressional power describes how things generally worked until the election of FDR in 1932, in the midst of the Great Recession — a cataclysmic catastrophe for which existing laws were clearly insufficient, and which Congress was clearly unable to deal with through its accustomed means. Roosevelt's famous "100 days" fundamentally altered how we saw presidential leadership — and extending well beyond the first 100 days. We came to expect presidents to initiate legislation, rather than simply sign or veto it. And the Constitution allowed for that to happen, simply because it wasn't forbidden.

Many conservatives objected to the New Deal, complained that it had resulted in a "Constitution in exile," but when they finally elected one of their own — Ronald Reagan — half a century later, they cheered him on for doing the exact same sort of thing. In truth, they just didn't like content of the New Deal, which tended to help out the wrong sorts of people, from their point of view. It was Trump, ironically enough, who has much more fundamentally upended Roosevelt's constitutional order. Aside from his tax-cut bill — some version of which any Republican president would have proposed — he hasn't passed any major legislation at all. He has been a model "constitutional," pre-New Deal president. Even his "destruction of the administrative state," to use Steve Bannon's phrase, is perfectly in line with what Reagan claimed to promise when he declared that government itself was the problem.

This does not suggest that conservatives were right and the New Deal was all a tragic, unconstitutional mistake. Quite the opposite: It was an absolutely necessary response to the crisis we faced at the time. We face a similar state of crisis today, although it has multiple different dimensions: the COVID pandemic, climate change, the racial justice struggle and worsening economic inequality, just to name a few. What we need is some way out of the polarization and gridlock we've drifted into over the course of the last several decades. The prospect of compromise-legislating our way out of this crisis is dim, to say the least. Just look at how long it's been since the last COVID relief bill was passed. We need to start where we are — with executive power that depends on nothing else.

This is the thread picked up in the aforementioned article, "Joe Biden's Four-Year Plan," by Jeff Spross. His argument there is simple: Trump is gone for now, "but the shadow of the 2024 election already looms," with a Trump-shaped Republican Party that "will eventually win power again," probably with a more competent authoritarian candidate. "The only way to avoid that fate is for Democrats to use this time to win domination over government for an extended period, forcing the GOP to fundamentally change its political course and character to maintain its own national viability," Spross argues, just as it was forced to moderate in the wake of the New Deal.

Dayen and Spross see things similarly. "My feeling on the election," Dayen told me, "is that enough people thought Donald Trump was ridiculous enough to throw him out of office, but they didn't necessarily trust Democrats to give them the keys to the car. The only way that you're going to earn that trust is by making progress with people. Now, that sounds kind of silly, because some people say, 'You can't really make progress unless you get the keys to the car, right?' But we've identified some ways we could make progress, in fact, and then build on that and build a coalition."

Spross speaks in generally similar terms. "You need to pass policies that have a very concrete effect on people's lives that they can notice quickly and that will have this effect for as broad a swath of the population as possible," he told me. "I talk about Social Security and Medicare as two premier examples of this. Social Security is literally a check you get from the government on a regular basis. You know it comes from the government. You know it's because the government wants to take care of you, to make sure you have a decent income in retirement. It's a significant sum of money, and makes a big difference. So it's transparent. It's a meaningful contribution to a person's well-being, and at this point it's something like 60 to 70 million recipients."

The political effect of that huge benefit is also huge, Spross observed, citing Andrea Campbell's book "How Policies Make Citizens," which showed "how Social Security changed the political engagement of seniors," who hadn't previously been a significant political force.

"The argument is basically, if you give people a benefit, a base level, they will be grateful for it," Spross said. "That will be a sign to them that government cares about them, that it's engaged with them, that it is concerned about their well-being. They in turn will be engaged with government: They will want to protect that benefit, they will want to expand it. And beyond that, the fact they have more income means more resources, which means more free time. That all equates to more opportunity to engage with politics."

So the trick is how to do something similar, using the tools at hand — in other words, with laws already on the books. Spross does consider the possibility of legislation passed through reconciliation — which would avoid the filibuster — should Democrats win the Georgia Senate runoffs and hold a bare majority. One example he cited in conversation was a universal child allowance, "something like Social Security for children," which could obviously have a tremendous impact. But he doesn't depend on passing new legislation. In the article, he argues that Biden must pick his spots: "Not just any executive action will do, however. The Biden White House would need to focus on those changes that, again, could deliver broad, meaningful, and recognizable benefits as quickly as possible."

As examples from the Day One Agenda, Spross cites canceling student debt, lowering prescription drug prices (two different laws allow for this), and initiating postal banking services (full-fledged universal services would require legislation, but targeted services and pilot projects wouldn't). He also cites removing marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances, helping hundreds of thousands of workers unionize, beefing up enforcement of worker safety laws, and possibly raising the federal poverty line, "which would automatically expand existing welfare benefits to many more American families."

There are lots of other things that need to be done — particularly when it comes to the climate crisis, an existential threat to all of us. They don't necessarily have the kind of quick constituency-building potential that Spross has focused on. That doesn't mean they should be ignored — that would be profoundly irresponsible. Rather, it means that those most concerned about those major issues should recognize that these constituency-building policies are pragmatically crucial to their work as well. The more one delves into the Day One Agenda, the more one comes to see political possibilities in a new light. That light, in turn, can help illuminate a way out of our current political deadlock, and all the crises that have stemmed from that.

This historian saw it all coming 30 years ago: How America's failure is pushing us 'off the cliff'

As soon as Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election was clear, the question of what lies ahead immediately came to the fore: What do Democrats need to do, not just to help America recover from the profound damage of the Trump presidency, but to address the long-term underlying problems that made it possible in the first place? To help answer that question, I turned to the man who took the measure of those problems in the first place, sociologist and historian Jack Goldstone, whose 1991 book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," revolutionized our understanding of revolutions as products of organizational failure in coping with demographic pressures.

Goldstone's book appeared just as America was celebrating "The End of History," as announced in a then-famous book by Francis Fukuyama. With the end of the Cold War, everything had supposedly been settled. There would be no more revolutions or ideological struggles. Almost 30 years later, no one thinks that anymore, and the demographic factors Goldstone identified — such as the "youth bulges" associated with the Arab Spring — have become commonplace terms in discussing potential revolutions. Goldstone's model combined measures of demographically-driven social stress from the mass population, the elites and the state to produce a single number, the "political stress indicator," or psi. State breakdown — and thus revolution — has only occurred when psi rises to dramatically high levels. Unlike earlier theories, Goldstone's approach explained when revolutions didn't happen, as well as when they did.

I discovered Goldstone's work by way of cultural anthropologist Peter Turchin, who refined and expanded his model and applied it to a broader range of societies, including modern industrial states. Four years ago, the month before Donald Trump was elected, I reviewed Turchin's book, "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History," which predicted an approaching period of social and political disintegration, regardless of whether Trump won or lost.

But even in 1991, Goldstone had seen worrying signs in America of the same sorts of problems his book described in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively, as well as in China and the Ottoman Empire. Most notable was the problem of "selfish elites" who "preferred to protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength."

That's why Goldstone's perspective on the problems facing us today seem particularly worth our attention. He and Turchin combined to write an article for Noema magazine in September, "Welcome to the Turbulent Twenties," and BuzzFeed highlighted their perspective — and specifically, the role of psi — in a late October story on the possibility of rising political violence in the U.S. But their perspective deserves much more than an occasional mention — it should inform the entire framework in which our discussions take place.

I reached out to Goldstone even before this election had been decided, seeking the broadest perspective I could possibly get. Some of what he and Turchin wrote about is admittedly now difficult to imagine, given that Democrats may not win a Senate majority and have lost at least nine seats in the House. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World" came out just after the end of the Cold War, at the same time as Francis Fukuyama's celebrated book "The End of History and The Last Man," which claimed that we had reached "the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fukuyama was hardly alone at the time, but you offered a strikingly different view, one much more consistent with how history has unfolded in subsequent decades. What was the key insight that gave you such a different view?

Most people had viewed revolutions as a result of great ideological struggles. And if there weren't going to be any more such great struggles, people thought there wouldn't be any more revolutions either. It's certainly true that the leaders of revolutions need an ideological platform, but in my view the causes of revolutions were organizational failures, and the ideological shifts come about when people feel the organizational failure of their society and look for new ideas on how to fix it.

In my view, organizational failure is not something that goes away with some march of history. It's always possible, even likely, that societies will get themselves into trouble. Governments tend to overspend, elites tend to fight taxation and accumulate resources. As elites grow in number, they tend to fight more and more among themselves for position and wealth, and if elites do not make sure that the wealth of society is distributed in the way that gives ordinary people hope and a stake in society, then they can be recruited to opposition, even radical movements.

So I feel the risk of revolutions is always there. The ideologies may change. We went from an ideology of liberalism to an ideology of communism and then, when communism faded, the Middle East and much of Asia started turning to an ideology of radical Islam. So I had no reason to believe that revolutions would disappear.

When they reappeared with vigor I was not surprised, and my work started getting a lot more attention — especially after the Arab Spring, which was a whole bunch of old-fashioned violent, civil war-inducing revolutions. They obviously had a lot to do with the failure of states to provide jobs for the young, the problem of over-educating a large cohort of youth, the failure to distribute economic progress equally.

So, my vision turned out — not happily but, as it turned out, correctly — to foresee that many more revolutions were possible. In fact, I'll go one step further. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people said, "Well, those aren't revolutions, those are something new. Those are refolutions" — with an F — "They're more like reforms, they're negotiated, they are peaceful or they are democratic movements." I was a little bit alone in saying, "Now, wait a minute, to me they look like revolutions."

You had a failure of states that were organized on the basis of state communism, and they unwound differently because the populations tended to be older and thus were less drawn to radicalism and violence. So you had the color revolutions as the response, but when you talk about why these things occurred and how they played out and whether we'll see more of them in the future, the answer was, "They're organizational failures. Yes, we will see more of these." And indeed, after 1998 is when so we started seeing more color revolutions across Asia, and we will continue to see those.

In fact, I think the real difference between color revolutions and violent revolutions is not just a matter of tactics or ideology. It's got a great deal to do with the age structure of the population, the educational job profile. When you have a younger population that's more educated, that's suffering higher unemployment, you're likely to get a more ideologically extreme revolution. When you have an older population that is in a stagnant economy, you're more likely to get the color revolutions, seeking just to open up and democratize politics.

Another big argument I had with people at the time was that they felt that once capitalism had triumphed, there would not be any more need for revolutions. But I said this is not about capitalism. The revolutions of the 19th century were still about the same kind of organizational state failures that we'd seen in earlier centuries, and once we get to the 20th and 21st centuries, we could still have organizational failures, even in modern, fully industrialized states.

Your model actually had three contributing factors to political instability: the mass population, the elites and the state. You've already talked about that dynamic, but could you break it down into those three parts and say a little more specifically about each of them?

Let's start with what it takes for society to continue to work and successfully reproduce itself across time. We tend to think about society as how it looks at a particular moment in time: Are people getting along or are they not getting along? Is it because they disagree or whatever? That to me is a very incomplete, shortsighted way to approach the dynamic nature of society. Instead I tend to think in terms of flows of resources, flows of people.

To reproduce itself over time, the government needs to continue to have enough revenue to carry out its responsibility for national defense and domestic administration. The government, the economy and other institutions like the church need to recruit a fresh flow of leadership every generation. So they need to have some system for training and selecting the next generation of elites or leaders.

If the government doesn't have a system to keep revenues in pace with expenses, it will start to go into debt, it will start to go broke, it will start having to scrounge around to find other ways to raise money. If society doesn't get the flow of elites correct, either there are not enough competent, well-trained people to move into leadership positions or what's much more common is that you have an overflow, where society ends with more people training and aspiring to elite positions, and believing that they deserve them, than there are positions for such people. For societies to grow stably, there has to be a system of recruitment and filtering that is seen as fair and legitimate to govern that distribution of elite positions. Otherwise, it becomes a dangerous free-for-all.

For much of human history that was simply inheritance. The older son inherits his father's position and the younger sons have to go work things out on their own. When we get to a meritocracy, you have people acquiring the training or degrees to provide the right certifications for elite positions, and that's fine as long as things grow at the same pace — if you have expansion of the universities, if you have societies expanding their bureaucracies, expanding the professional business positions and so on. But if you start training many more people for elite positions than the society can provide, you get the frustration of large numbers of overeducated youth, and that's politically dangerous.

Lastly, you understand that a government that's losing money and resources gets into trouble and it starts picking on other groups to say, "We need to tax your wealth, or we need to increase your taxes." But, if the elites can organize and be unified and simply say, "No, we're going to change the system," then you either get reforms or an elite coup-d'état. There's no need for a revolution if the elites are united and can agree what needs to be done.

But if the elites themselves are very divided and unsure — do we need to change government policy, or do we actually need to change the government and displace some of the conservative elites that are preventing the changes we need? — then members of the elite who believe change is necessary will try to recruit popular support. They want the demonstration that large numbers of the population are with them to demand the overthrow of conservative elites or an incompetent ruler.

So this ties into mass well-being, then?

Trying to stir up popular support for change is only feasible if large numbers of the people are unhappy with the situation. It's very hard for dissident elites to get people to take the risk and take the time to engage in opposition to government if most of them think everything's OK, as long as they're getting what they expect. It doesn't have to be great, but at least it's what they expect.

But if large numbers of people find there are shortages of land, that wages are going down or stagnant, that they don't have enough land to provide for their family or kids or enough income to provide a proper wedding for their daughters; if they can't find work, they lose their land to a greedy landowner and are thrown into the workforce and have trouble finding jobs, or become vagrants or bandits. Then, when things are bad enough for a large portion of the population, they are much more easily recruited to movements that say, "We gotta get rid of everything. These are bad people in charge. Things are never going to get better until we get them out of the way." That's how you recruit a mass movement for rebellion or revolution.

In your book, published almost 30 years ago, you warned that we were getting ourselves in trouble. You focused particular attention on the role of "selfish elites," which you've called a "key difficulty faced by regimes in decline." You warned that the U.S. was, "in respect of its state finances and its elites' attitudes, following the path that led early modern states to crises." What did you see then as the central problem that wasn't being addressed?

I had just spent 10 years studying how states gradually get themselves into a situation of breakdown, and one of the questions that motivated me was: Why should governments that have the ability to tax and to recruit the smartest people ever get into trouble? You would think that they're holding all the cards. But what I'd seen in my studies of state breakdown was that government got into trouble when it could no longer count on the support of elites, and that usually occurred because elites lost sight of what we used to call the public service ethic.

I was just reading about John F. Kennedy and what his parents drilled into his entire family: "Yes, you're rich and you're privileged, but you have responsibilities to serve the public." That's the same ethic that had been drilled into Roman centurions and senators, and had been drilled into the aristocracy of Europe — the whole code of chivalry was that if you're a knight or a lord, you have certain responsibilities to watch out for society and take care of those that are not as powerful and fortunate as you.

Throughout history, societies start down the road into collapse when elites start saying, "No, I've got to take care of myself first, because other people are after my position and I can't count on it being secure for my children. So I have to keep as much of what I have as possible." So elites start fighting with each other, they resist taxation, they become much less civic-minded. They give less in the sense of philanthropy and leadership for public efforts.

I was seeing that in the United States. We put a movie out that said, "Greed is good," and people started revering the work of Ayn Rand, who basically preached that whoever is successful owes that success only to themselves, and it's wrong for government or anyone else to ask that they share it. Well, that line of thinking makes elites feel very good and feel, "Yes, I've earned all of my success. It's all due to me and I have a right to enjoy it." But that leads to bigger yachts and private islands on the one hand, and deteriorating schools and ballooning budget deficits on the other. That was very clearly the way the United States was going in the '80s and '90s, and it really didn't change.

And now?

So here we are with this election. There was no mass rejection of Trump. It wasn't about Trump. People didn't understand that four years ago, and apparently they still don't understand it now. The breakdown, the polarization, the divisions of American society are not about Trump,. They are about people rejecting the actions of an elite — both conservatives and liberals, it really didn't matter; it was both New York elites and Texas elites — rejecting a notion of a society in which winners take all and government should be starved, with no provide benefits or support for communities that are in trouble, and basically leaving people on their own.

So, we have hundreds of millions of people whose lives, they feel, are slipping away from them. They feel their opportunities for their families and their children are getting fewer, rather than greater, they see the government getting further and further into debt. They don't see why. What's all that money being wasted on, if their lives aren't getting better? And so they are voting to reject everything in the traditional elites and establishment politics. They reject everything they've seen for the last 30 or 40 years, because it has neglected and demeaned their lives.

So, they're voting for the outsider, the renegade, the person who'll upset the apple cart and who at least says, "I'm doing this for you," regardless of the reality and regardless of the delivery. Someone who says, "The people that you're angry at are the people I'm angry at, and I'm going to do something about it for you." That's enough to earn their deep, steadfast loyalty, and that's why they came out in such large numbers to vote for someone, even if the other half of America says, "Well, you know, this guy Trump seems to be divisive and incompetent and nasty and so we're not going to vote for him."

You know, half of America thinks he still gets it: "He understands our situation. We don't want to be taxed and have money wasted. We don't want to live in a situation where we're constantly worried that other people are taking our opportunities, our jobs. We want to feel defended, supported." That's their America, and they want it back. I saw all this coming when you have an elite that lives inside guarded communities and makes it harder to get into school, and instead of investing to deal with declining productivity puts its money into fancy real estate and showy acquisitions.

In the article with Peter Turchin you published in September, you argue that American exceptionalism had been founded on cooperation. It unraveled during the 19th century but was "reforged during the New Deal," only to fall apart again beginning in the 1970s. You describe that cooperation as "an unwritten but very real social contract between government, business and workers," and what replaced it was the neoliberal contract, only between business and government. Now Trump comes in saying, "I'll stick up for you," but he didn't actually do anything for workers. How should we understand that gaping disconnect?

In my 1991 book, I said that there are two different playbooks you can get as leaders respond to this kind of crisis. Donald Trump has followed the typical dictator's playbook. That is, he finds a country where a lot of people are unhappy because they see they're losing out to greater inequality. The elites don't care about them. The elites are starving the government, so the government is basically incompetent, or becoming a tool of the elite. So they want to vote for a strongman to repair the damage.

But the dictator is smart enough to know that he also needs elite support. You can't just come in and stage a revolution. He doesn't even want a revolution, he just wants to be in power. He needs to somehow get elite support while harnessing the anger of the population, so what does he typically do? He directs that anger at others. He may direct it at the professional elite, at the left-wing intellectuals. "I don't need them. I just need the business elite." And the other thing he says is, "Look at the other people who are trying to take things away from you. Look at immigrants, look at foreigners, people of different religions." He finds scapegoats. So that's what Trump did, and that's why we're in the situation we're in now. It's a divisive, not a healing approach. It leads deeper into crisis.

But that's not the only alternative.

What we really need is the kind of leadership that can inspire elites to make sacrifices to strengthen all of society. This is what the Japanese did after World War II. It's what America did in World War II, and in leading the world in the Cold War. That kind of inspiration benefits from having a major external enemy. I remember Sputnik, and how afraid America got all the sudden. We won the Second World War, but then Russia had missiles and had nuclear weapons that could destroy us. So we needed to invest in ourselves, we needed to invest in science and education for the young, we needed to build our internal infrastructure to a high level, we needed to invest in research and development and put a man on the Moon. We were going to build modern communication, build the greatest scientific establishment in the world, and recruit — wherever it's useful — immigrants to come and strengthen us.

So a lot of the top engineers and scientists in our big Cold War movement were immigrants, and we continued that into the '70s and '80s. A lot of the people who built our computer industry were immigrants and children of immigrants. So, we had a bit of that new social contract — government investment and taxation rates were higher. People think Ronald Reagan got rid of taxation rates, but elite taxes were still 50% higher in the Reagan era than they are now.

We had a series of presidents — all the way, I would say, from Eisenhower through Reagan — who said, "America has an ideal, we're all going to contribute to that. We're going to pitch in, live up to that ideal, we're going to lead the world together." That pursuit of American exceptionalism worked pretty well to keep America together.

Now, it started to break down even under Reagan, because Reaganism started to join with the free-market competitive inequality that got worse and worse over the next 30 years. But at least after the Depression and World War II, Americans were being trained to pull together. It was minorities who legitimately felt that they were being left out of the conversation, so you had the civil rights movement and the women's movement saying, "We want to be part of this." What they wanted to be part of was an America that in general was moving forward and taking leadership in the world. That kind of notion, that everybody should move forward together and that the whole society needs to work together — that has been lost.

So it began to break down under Reagan. Then what happened?

It really collapsed after the Cold War, when it seemed that Americans just kind of took for granted: "We have the system that works. All we have to do is keep doing what we're doing and if the meritocracy gets more and more privileged and exclusive, well, that doesn't really matter. The rich get richer and richer, but they earned it. They're building new industries and doing what the railroad and steel magnates did in an earlier century to build a new America, so they're fine. We're not for the sales tax on Internet products and we're just going to let the intellectual, professional and business elites feather their nests, and everybody else can either catch up or fall behind. That's fair play in America."

That's been completely corrosive, and obviously it's also given opportunities for the dark side of American history: the hatred of foreigners, the hatred of minorities, the regional competition, the distrust between the city and the countryside. All those have been kind of long-standing elements of human nature. America didn't discover them, but we didn't get rid of them either.

Those dark elements come out more strongly when you're in a society that simply says, "We have open competition and the better you do the more proud you should be of yourself. You don't really owe anything to anyone else, and you certainly don't owe anything to the government to provide for the basic structure and investment in society. Government doesn't deserve it. They don't know what to do with it. So let's starve the government."

Well, you do that and you lose social cohesion. You lose the confidence and effectiveness of government and the government will not be able to respond when you have a crisis, whether it's a pandemic or a crisis of racial injustice or a crisis of income inequality. So those problems simply fester and lead to worse divisions and eventually to some kind of conflict.

In the article with Turchin, you describe a formula for past progress, referencing what happened in England in the 1830s and here in America in the 1930s. First, a leader trying to preserve the past social order is replaced by a new leader willing to undertake much-needed reforms. Biden replacing Trump may fit that mold, but he's not going to have much support in the Senate, or an FDR-style popular mandate. The second thing you describe is the new leader leveraging support to force opponents to give in to necessary changes. It looks like that's not an option, at least in the near term. So where do we stand right now?

I can tell you very simply: The most important person for the future of America has been and will be Mitch McConnell. The reason I say that is because we're going to have a president who wants to be a nonpartisan problem-solver. He definitely realizes that America needs to fix its infrastructure, and join the world in moving toward control of the terrible threat of climate change. Our West Coast is burning, our Midwest farmers are being flooded, and our East and Gulf coasts are being pounded by hurricanes.

So we need to do something about climate change before it destroys us, we have to take care of the pandemic, we have to make the economy work better for those people who are not on the cutting edge of the digital economy, we have to somehow restore dignity and opportunity for people from all walks of life. So there are big problems that need to be solved. Biden does want to address those in a bipartisan way, and he says it: "I want to bring America together again. I want to include everybody. I want to be the president of all Americans."

He's saying all the right things to put us back on the right track. You can think of the instability index that Peter and I talk about as measuring your distance from a cliff: How close are you getting to the edge of the cliff? We can't tell exactly where the edge of the cliff is, because you could say it's shrouded in fog. It depends on lots of particular circumstances. But we know there's a cliff out there, when government no longer commands the respect of the people and the elites can no longer work together. Our measurements say we're getting very close to that cliff. So Biden wants to turn around and change directions, and start backing away from that cliff edge. That's good.

If Republicans win the Senate and Democrats have the House, the issue is whether Republicans in the Senate will support that change in direction, to pull us back from the cliff. Or are they going to say, "No, if you're not going to put us in charge, if you're not going to do it our way, we're going to push you over that cliff, so that people can see how bad you are"? That's what they did with Obama, to a large degree: Just say no to everything and if there are failures, it's on you.

If Mitch McConnell works with moderate Democrats to move away from the cliff, that will strengthen the moderate Democrats and reduce the power of the more radical or progressive wing, because the moderates will be getting more done. This is a very common situation in politics. You usually have an extreme left and extreme right, a middle left and a middle right. And if the middle left and the middle right can work together, they keep the extremists marginalized. They keep them weak.

But if the moderates cannot work together and cannot get anything done, that strengthens the extremists on both sides who say, "See, there's nothing to be gained by moving to the middle. There's nothing to be accomplished by compromise with our opponents. So let's just go all the way to get what we want."

So if Mitch McConnell is willing to say, "Hey, I want the moderate center of American politics to flourish and be rebuilt," if he is willing to work with the Democrats to pull us back from the edge of a cliff, we can start to move away from the dangerous spot that we're in. But if he says, "I'm going to be the party of no. I'm going to just wait until we get a Republican president again, and I will let things go as close to the cliff, or even over the cliff, if that's what it takes," that is going to increase the strength of the far-left progressives and the far-right radical Trump anti-government anti-globalist extremists — and we're going to end up having an election in 2024 that makes 2020 look relatively united.

The polarization will be worse, the anger will be worse, the recrimination on both sides will be vicious and nothing will have been accomplished in four years. That's what I really see if it continues in that direction. We're close enough to people taking up arms against each other in the streets now. That becomes almost unavoidable if Biden is pushed to the extremes by McConnell's unwillingness to work with him in the right direction.

I wanted to ask about innovative democratic reforms that can cross ideological lines. Ranked-choice voting is one example that can incentivize a less acrimonious, more substantive way of campaigning. Or citizens' assemblies, which have been widely used in other countries recently. Obviously the Senate is not going to start doing that, but these ideas are bubbling up in more local contexts. Could they be promoted to help change the conversation, or at least expand the possibilities for avoiding the cliff?

Absolutely. We don't want partisan solutions, even if they're good ones, rammed through on a partisan basis, because that does more damage by increasing the polarization and political division, even with good policy. I think citizens' assemblies are great. I like the idea of going back to an old device, the "blue ribbon commission," where you have a policy issue, you know it is important, you know it's contentious and you have some idea where you want to go. You appoint a bipartisan commission with some leading politicians, some leading experts, you try to work out a plan. And once that plan is developed to the point where you can make a good argument for it, you can show it has bipartisan support on the commission that developed it, then you offer it to the legislature.

We actually had that with the prison reform bill that President Trump signed. That wasn't something that came because he was so wildly enthusiastic about it when he ran for office, but it was a problem that both sides saw needed to be addressed and they came up with a plan that could be the basis of bipartisan legislation. I think we can do that again on climate and environmental policy. We can do it on infrastructure. We can do it on jobs and social mobility. We can do it on income inequality and opportunities.

There are a lot of ideas floating around, whether it's cash handouts or more progressive taxation or taxing capital and labor equally or providing preschool education to give everybody a better chance early on. But these ideas need to be discussed at length by people from different perspectives, in a room with technical experts who can answer questions, and with legislative aides who can hammer out concrete legislation to be a framework for bipartisan agreement.

I'm a big believer in universal citizen service, to bring people from all over the country from all different walks of life to work shoulder to shoulder on a common goal and get to know each other. That breaks down a lot of the polarization and enmity that grows up if people are educationally and residentially segregated, as we have become. I think there are a lot of things that can be done without changing the Constitution, and without radical overhaul of the income structure. There are things we can do to make progress on concrete issues that will help us pull together as a country and point us away from the edge of the cliff.

Reversing the Southern Strategy: Biden's win in Georgia wasn't a one-off. It follows years of hard work and a changing America

Democrats were hoping for a massive repudiation of the Republican Party under Trump, and a chance to strike out in a far more progressive direction. What they got instead was a much more muted victory that took days to unfold, and is limited to the presidency — at least for now.

But amid the immediate disappointment of Election Night and the exuberance that followed Joe Biden's eventual victory, the situation in the South stood out: the difference between the polling averages and the initial returns in Southern states like North Carolina and Georgia was about three points, compared to seven or more in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. Well before Biden inched into the lead in Georgia, and before it was clear that both Senate races there would require runoff elections, there was cause for hope in that region, foretold in a tweet from Angie Maxwell, co-author of "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon author interview here):

The Long Southern Strategy was a top-down effort to turn the South red that took 4 decades. Turning it blue will take a grassroots bottom-up effort over several cycles. What you see now in TX, GA, & NC is years of blood, sweat, and organizing.

I couldn't think of a better way forward than to ask Maxwell to expound on what she has seen unfolding, especially considering her uniquely insightful analysis of how the "Long Southern Strategy" worked, and how it transformed American politics nationally — and not just in the South. If anyone could shed light on how that strategy can finally be reversed — and how it already, slowly, is being reversed — I knew it would be her. As usual, this interview has been edited for clarity and length.

So Joe Biden has won the election, but Democrats fell short of hopes and expectations, most notably in the Senate. But you're from the South, and the trajectory of Democratic fortunes looks different from that perspective. Before the election, you tweeted about what it would take to turn the South blue and begin to reverse the "Long Southern Strategy." Do you still feel hopeful and determined?

I do! And I'm not saying that in some kind of Pollyanna way. I have to tell you, when you live down here in these deep red states and you study this as your specialty, to hear that the polls are closing in North Carolina and Georgia and Texas and it's too close to call — It's not just immediately red — I don't think people realize how hard that is to pull off in a pandemic, with the levels of voter suppression we've had and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. It's pretty remarkable.

Texas is moving blue, and I think North Carolina and Georgia are there. What you're going to see in North Carolina is some split ticketing — because that is often what happens when a state is flipping, for a couple of cycles. People are like, "I kind of like this Democratic governor, but I don't know nationally." They feel like somehow they're right in the middle and they're kind of balancing.

It happened in Arkansas for years, so that doesn't surprise me. The big factor I would say is we've just never done this with 80 to 90 million absentee ballots. I watched in Arkansas, specifically — and this is true in lots of different states — people really nervous about coronavirus, because it got real big here in the summer, requesting an absentee ballot and then hearing some of the static about the Postal Service delays, which got been pretty bad here, and then saying, "You know, I think I'm gonna go in person," and not realizing that there are things you have to do to be able to do that, that are state-specific. So, I was worried — when we're talking about margins that are tiny — I was worried about that.

There was an effort in Georgia to reach people whose ballots were considered provisional and have them cure the ballots — there are different state laws about how many days you have, who has to be the person who reaches out, all of that. But I think there was some misinformation — nobody's fault, just circumstances—that might have made a little bit of difference in a few places. It's reasonable to think we could've seen North Carolina go blue if it weren't for some of that.

So overall, you see the results as promising?

That's promising to me. Don't get me wrong, it's frustrating. You want it to happen tomorrow, but I know there's been an effort for 10 years in North Carolina. They been working at this and organizing for 10 years. Virginia, 12. Georgia has been about four. Texas has been about four. It builds on the cycles where you have good candidates and you have competition all the way down the ballot. You have to have Democrats running in as many state rep seats and state assembly seats as they can, for everything, all the way up, because it lifts the top of the ticket.

That takes infrastructure and organizing that no matter how wonderful a candidate is — say in Texas, Beto O'Rourke: charismatic and engaging — without the infrastructure, you're already going with a handicap in the South from voter suppression, It's hard. I know the Democratic database has been getting better in the South. For years it's been like a blank slate. If you don't have competitive primaries and things like that, you just don't know where people even lean. So the more competition there is, the better campaigns are at reaching voters they need.

What would you add in terms of how things are turning out? Anything more you'd like to say about any specific races?

I feel like we very much had an absentee ballot strategy and messaging that switched to "Go vote in person." It's hard enough to message once about voting. It's really hard — especially in Southern states, where we don't have same-day registration — to do that. It's really tough. Maybe a little more effort or just streamlining that could have helped, but hindsight is 20/20.

I'm pleased in terms of the candidates that ran — with the exception of [Cal] Cunningham and what came out about his personal life. I think Jamie Harrison is an exceptional candidate. Joyce Eliot, who was running for the Arkansas 2nd district in the U.S. House, a 30-year retired schoolteacher and state senator, an excellent candidate. I think the quality is high and I think that's what upsets people, what's disappointing, is they are pulling some amazing talent and running it, but talent alone cannot replace infrastructure, data and get-out-the-vote history.

But it can help build that for the future.

A hundred percent! You're not starting at zero in Texas. You're starting from where Beto O'Rourke left off. I've been watching today with people going into action in Georgia, that Fair Fight network is serious. There's smaller and newer groups here [in Arkansas] that are working hard to get those ballots counted in most statehouse races. If we didn't have those organizations here, we'd be leaving that to state rep candidates and their campaigns staff. That's hard.

States like North Carolina and Georgia came much closer to meeting expectations, as reflected in polling averages, than Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. Setting aside the polling problems, what lessons should Democrats nationally take away from these results?

Honestly, we just have to have targeted and tailored strategies. What works in Georgia, the coalition you're trying to build there, is not the same coalition you're trying to build in North Carolina necessarily. In Georgia it's really the urban areas and the African-American vote that's changing things, and in North Carolina, it's a high levels of education that are changing things. South Carolina has such a large African-American population, it needs a strategy that looks a little more like Georgia's. Texas is all different, because you have a Latino vote that a lot of scholars have been saying is not a monolith and people have to pay attention to country of origin and religious values and that the messaging's got to be real specific. I think sometimes we just think "South," and I think we really have to break that up. There's a couple of states that might be similar, but it's different than like the Rust Belt.

How should the party address that?

I think a lot of times in the South, organizers came from outside in the past, but you really need organizers inside, you need people who know that state backwards and forward and know its history and can be specific and local. One thing that North Carolina figured out a couple years ago when they elected the Democratic governor is that teachers and education was a messaging issue that was helpful for Democrats to pick up people they needed. That could be very different somewhere else. You can't make assumptions about how people feel and think.

For example, you look at places like in Arkansas a couple years ago and Florida, where they had had minimum wage on a ballot initiative. In Arkansas it passed with like 77% of the vote, and we couldn't get Republican legislators to take it up. When you start seeing that you realize where people are on certain issues and there's a disconnect with the party brand. That is something that has got to be addressed.

I wrote a piece for 538 right before the Super Tuesday primaries about Democrats in the South, and how they are different from Democrats outside the South. One thing we tend to stereotype is black voters in the South being moderate, or maybe even socially moderate, but I don't think that's it at all. I think they're pragmatic. Bernie [Sanders] did not do well in those Southern primaries, and it's not necessarily because people disagree with Medicare for All. It just seems like such a reach from where they are. And when you look at where Bernie did well, it was in blue states where the message he's giving seems like the next step, or seems doable. A lot of times in the South it may sound wonderful, but people who live here and know what it's like, it doesn't seem possible. It doesn't seem pragmatic, and I think that pragmatism is important to Southern voters.

Is there anything more specific to this campaign you'd like to add?

I think one thing that is a little bit of a missed opportunity was in terms of the coronavirus, not just touching on how badly it has been handled, but also what is the plan, instantly? What is done in month one? Is it to invoke that National Defense Authorization Act and quick mandatory testing in schools, so all the kids can go back to school? How fast can that be done? That kind of pragmatism where people go "OK, that would be better. Yes, I like that," instead of just like why it's all been so bad — and it has. But people are kind of used to that, that live in these red states, and they have been left with no plans, even by their local government.

A lot of people just bought into "This is not so bad," or "It's getting better," because it's hard to deal with it emotionally every single day, the uncertainty. I watched parents agonize over the decision of sending their children back to school in August and a lot of times it's like the second they made that decision it's like they did not want to think about it anymore. Because there really is no option and when they had to go back to work, or they always were working, they just can't live thinking, "Am I endangering my family?" So they need to kind of believe it's getting better, and our governor here stopped doing his daily press conferences on it and I think it was exactly for that reason. People just kind of don't want to hear it.

People can see the numbers going up, but when you have no control, no way of ending the uncertainty of it, that's a hard thing — for people to not tune out at a deep place. So, I'm just wondering if a little tweaking of that message would've helped.

That makes a lot of sense. People involved in politics get caught up in a vortex of message-thinking versus what you were just talking about: What it's like for ordinary people, and how they are coping with everyday life.

Right. A lot of people just kind of give up. They care, but they don't know what else to do. There is no plan in place, they don't see it getting better, and they can't live with that emotional turmoil every day, So being reminded of it and not being made empowered by it — like, "This what we're going to do. You're going to wear your mask, you're going to do this until this date, and when we get in office, this is what we're going to do in the first month." That kind of reassurance I think can be attractive.

I think what's upsetting to some is that they just cannot believe that with all of the things the Trump administration has done and said, that people would still vote for him. We know that in the South. People have been living with that a long time. And so that does not surprise me. It surprises me in a positive way that so many people organized to fight against it, and make some states down here really competitive.

Going back to your tweet that caught my attention. Your book discusses four things about the Southern Strategy I'd like to ask about: The first two are that race alone does not explain the Long Southern Strategy, that gender and religion were equally important, and second, that all were involved in shaping a defensive definition of identity.

Most people look at who's voting Republican in the South and say, "They're voting against their economic self-interest. That's so irrational for low-income people." But when you live with the kind of poverty you have in the South — not even hardcore poverty, but just no mobility, no opportunity in rural areas where the population is declining and education's so expensive. When you say they can get healthcare on an exchange and the deductible is $10,000, it might as well be $10 million. So when you quit thinking that government can do something that's really going to change your life, because you're below that curve that maybe some help can help tip you over into a little better quality of life — when you're below that, then you tend to default to values and identity.

So the Republican Party over the years has hit all three of those things. We also make the assumption that people are all three, but it's a very small percentage that feel excessive racial resentment and excessive modern sexism — which is a distrust of working women and support for hyper-masculinity — and then Christian nationalism, which is of course very different from being just religious. And a lot of people are one of three or two of three. I think lumping all of that together is where Democrats kind of miss the mark. People that are one of three can sometimes be reached.

But there's more to the story, right?

There's also a really weird thing going on with the branding. I've said before in the book it wasn't just the policy positions that the GOP took over time that won over some of these voters. They really adopted the Southern style, which is large rally-based campaigns, it's a politics of entertainment, and that to me is one of the most destructive aspects. It was V.O. Key in 1949, in his classic work "Southern Politics in State and Nation" who said the worst part about one-party politics is that it becomes a facade in the South, a kind of politics of entertainment and not a contest of policy ideas.

And that's so true when we see ballot initiatives pass at 70%, and the brand and the policies don't match up, they're not associated with each other. And that is because you don't have that kind of two-party competition, you just have kind of one umbrella and who gets the most attention, who can entertain the most, or who can be the most outrageous, get the most headlines. That has a long history in the South and Trump is kind of tailor-made for that.

The Republican Party kind of adopted that style. It's very much the politics of entertainment, it's also the us-versus-them style. People sometimes call it positive polarization, which is you do not define yourself by who you are, you define yourself as a candidate by who you're not. So, "I'm not a Nancy Pelosi, AOC whatever." Creating that kind of dichotomy, that has a long history in the South too, it resonates here. And in doing that, the Republican Party rebranded itself in the Southern image in a way that feels very familiar to people. And like politicians for decades from the region — even though Trump is from New York, he seemed like that. Because the Republican brand gives them that option already.

So Democrats have to think about how to brand themselves in a way that speaks to Southerners at a kind of a value level. We also find that Southern whites who are Democrats who grew up in the South, who are not transplants, when they become Democrats. we find that they go really far left — men and women. Then they're fighting within the Democratic Party about the brand because one group is really left and likes the national brand and even pushing it further, and the other is going, "But we've have to win more people over, we have to kind of be in the middle." And that is not something that's been reconciled.

Is there anything you can point to in the organizing now that's been successful in terms of forging a new sense of identity? I thought that Stacey Abrams' focus on voting rights was one possibility — where the Southern Strategy was focused on defensive identity, her focus on voting is about a proactive shared identity: Together we can create a different future. It's a big-tent identity people can share who may have different specific goals in mind, but they work together.

Absolutely! I think that is perfect example. One example — people don't think about it a lot because of the NRA's stronghold in the South, but Moms Demand has gotten people elected in the South in statehouse races by appealing to moms who are reasonable, who are saying, "Hey, we all care about our kids, and we want best practices." You know the Moms Demand in Arkansas, they give out gun locks, they're not saying, "Don't have them!" They're saying, "If you can't afford a gun lock we will give you one. Be safe." And they have remarkable success, even in states where the NRA is kind of strong, by hitting that kind of mom.

So that's another example, and then a third one that's an idea that would love to see utilized more is to push Democrats to really make an appeal to independence — "We're our own state." We don't let the national party set our own agenda. We're independent and we make decisions for ourselves and what's best in New York may not be best here and that's OK. We often see that people who converting from R to D, tat takes a really long time. Usually people will go to being an independent, or they split-ticket vote.

So, giving them permission to say, "Do what's best for your state, look at each office. Don't be beholden to a party," I think that could really appeal to some folks in certain states where Democrats are really underwater, like Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. In other words, say, "The Mississippi Democratic Party is something different, and we gotta address the problems in Mississippi," and to be Mississippi-centric.

They say politics is local, right? I think that could be a strategy for Democrats in those kinds of states. Because Republicans in those states really do attach themselves to the national agenda, and it leaves that lane open. So I would think "Go local, go local, go local. What are things that Mississippi needs?" Infrastructure, for example. We have places that don't have broadband.

I would like to see some of the Southern states get real state-specific focus in their races and in their candidates, all the way down the ballot. The advantage Republicans had when they started trying to flip the South is that the Southern voters they were trying to flip were starting to align with the national party. With the Democrats, it's the opposite. The only thing you can do is build from the bottom up, have Democrats running in every city council race, for every school board office. Because whoever that person is, that extra hundred people who show up because they actually know that person personally, sometimes those ballots go up.

So I think in the South they're doing a fantastic job of recruiting quality candidates. I would give them an "A" on that — just really picking great people. We just need more of them. It's a hard thing to do to step up to run when you know you might get 35% of the vote. But Republicans did that. They lost and lost and lost and lost in some places, until they won.

You've already spoken to the advantages and disadvantages of the grassroots organizing that's going on. Is there anything else you'd like to say about that?

One of the big advantages that Republicans had when they're flipping the south is that the issues they were pitching lined up with some institutions that already existed in the South, the white churches. So when you already have that network like that inside, it helps. When you don't, you've got to build them, and not just for election season. So where are your civic organizations? Where are your social media groups? Where are your PTOs? What is already existing , and what can be built on it?

I think in a lot of ways, some of that's what Moms Demand has done with moms' groups, but you have to find those things whether it's farmer coops or HBCUs or whatever and not just reinvent the wheel. There are some groups that are concerned about agriculture, concerned about climate, concerned about different things, those are perfect opportunities, kind of the way labor unions were outside the South — because of course we don't have them. But coronavirus showed us restaurant workers associations, all kinds of civic and volunteer groups that have helped at the local level, they can be reached politically too.

Your book shows that the Southern strategy transformed the GOP as well as the South, and as a result, transformed national politics as well. Is there a parallel potential to be found in the bottom-up organizing that's going on in the South today?

Oh, definitely! It's a little different in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, and so on. Because one election cycle of going one way or the other is different than what you're seeing in Texas. Democrats in the South were in power for so long in the 20th century, they got complacent in maintaining that infrastructure and keeping people excited about the party, and keeping a deep bench of candidates and getting young people involved in the party, and being a presence beyond election season. So when they lost power, they didn't know how to play offense. So I think it's pretty important for other states like Michigan and Wisconsin not to rest on the fact that it's almost always been Democratic. They could fall into that same trap.

If I was in charge of the Democratic Party, I would go, "We need a full autopsy, where are we killing it, where are we starting to see fewer contested primaries, fewer people coming in, all of that." Even when you're winning, or even when you rarely lose, you can't get complacent with it. The coronavirus just emphasized that. If Biden actually wins in Georgia, it's going to be because Stacey Abrams was prepared and was thinking all of this through and had people on the ground ready to help people to their polling places and all of that. That just takes a lot of investment, and I hope the Democratic Party keeps investing in the South.

Anything more you'd like to say about what did or didn't happen in the South?

I'm glad to see them fighting on every ballot. Count every ballot. Because that's what Republicans would do. If you get Southerners to show up and vote for a Democrat, they want to see that person fight for that vote. And the margins matter. You lose a race 45-55, that's one thing. You lose it 48-52, now you've got a lot of Democrats thinking they can do it next time: "I can close that gap!" It's thankless work when you keep fighting and losing and I think what Stacey Abrams and Beto O'Rourke did very well is tell their supporters, "We're not giving up."

So what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

What did Southern white women do? And I don't know the answer yet. Hillary Clinton won white women outside the South by four points, and lost them in the South by almost 30. With all this talk about suburban women — I'm not questioning it, but I always want to say, "Are you talking about white suburban women? And where?" Because so many national polls under-sample the South, and if those white suburban women in the South moved, that's a story. But I don't think they did. So I understand the criticism of white women and their vote, but knowing that it's potentially a regional problem is really important for our understanding of the national picture, because there are a lot of white women working hard for progressive issues outside the South. In fact, there's a majority.

And think about it: If they can flip Texas, it's not just six electoral votes. That fundamentally changes the game. Do people think that's going to be easy?

We're so close to changing everything.

We're so close to changing everything and that's when it gets the hardest, when you're right there. Because they will throw up every obstacle they can and that's exactly when you have to fight harder, and not give up. And that's what we're going to do.

Author reveals how the 'hard right' — and the conflict within conservatism — led to the Trump calamity

Signs are increasing that Donald Trump is headed toward the devastating electoral loss that experts expected four years ago. But even if they're right this time, what does that tell us about what's ahead? And what if they're wrong yet again? Either way, Trumpism won't be going away on its own, nor will any of the other illiberal eruptions across the West and around the world, which have left conservatives as bewildered as anybody else.

With Election Day looming, you probably don't have time for a 500-page book to help make sense of how we got here. But when it comes to making sense of things afterward, when there's time for deeper reflection, Edmund Fawcett's new book, "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition," plays a vital, invaluable role. This new book is a follow-up to Fawcett's 2014 book, "Liberalism: The Life of an Idea," and the contrast in the subtitles is telling. Fawcett is a British political journalist who spent 30 years at the Economist, including stints as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris and Berlin and as the magazine's European and literary editor.

The idea of liberalism he describes as "a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power." But fights, by their very nature, are a much messier matter, and all too often involve "undue power." Indeed, there's not just one fight involved within the conservative tradition, but a seemingly endless number. Still, there's one overarching battle between hardcore resisters of liberal modernity — those Fawcett calls the "hard right" — and those seeking accommodation, whom he calls "liberal conservatives."

Dealing with both politics and ideas in four countries — the U.S., Britain, Germany and France — Fawcett traces the story through four phases, from an initial period of "frontal resistance to liberal modernity" in the 19th century to the period since 1980 when the success of liberal conservatism, symbolized by the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher opened the door to the rise of the hard right, including the election of a certain American president. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book is titled "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition" But as you lay it out, it's actually a multitude of fights, both internal and external. Let's start with the external fights against the modern world itself — the world of market and the Industrial Revolution — and the forces of liberalism and democracy. What was at stake in those fights?

What is it that conservatism is against, as it were? What did it think it was resisting in liberal modernity? That's a prime question. What conservatives reckon they're resisting has changed as modern liberal life has changed. So let's start with history. There's no conservatism before the early 19th century. It's essentially a political movement of old, established elites who were used to ruling and are now confronting an utterly new, unimagined condition of society, dominated by modern capitalism and great social fluidity, great social mobility and growing discredit of elites.

At the same time, very soon, pressures arise not just for liberal demands — freedom for citizens, economic liberty and cultural freedom from old kinds of tutorial government and moral interference — not just that, but conservatives very quickly (as do liberals) face demands from democracy that those liberal promises of modern life be extended to everybody, whoever they are. So that's the 19th-century challenge that conservatives faced. They're all different in different countries, each has its own particular history, but that is a common thread.

In the 20th century, and now, that contest has changed. Conservatives at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th century learned how to dominate this new condition of society. They were the defenders of property, defenders of the social order. What did that mean from, say, 1900 to 1950? That meant, above all, defending the capitalist order, putting food in the shops and wages in the pockets. But capitalism is this fantastic engine of great social change, turning everything upside down. So in our lifetime, conservatives have always faced two ways: They've been resisters of liberal modernity, of innovation, of moral change, but on the other hand they've been the great defenders of its driver, namely capitalist innovation. So this is a tension inside conservatism that runs right through it, and I think explains a great deal of where conservatives are today, fighting against each other.

The internal fights can be divided into three kinds that overlap or interpenetrate: There's the broadest fight between hard-right resisters and accommodators, narrow fights among specific factions at any one time, and medium-scope fights over how to define what conservatism is, how to order things. The resister/accommodator divide can be symbolized by the twin figures of Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, each of them anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment and anti-rationalist, but in very different ways. How can we best understand them as illuminating the conservative tradition, at least in its origins and its primordial outlook?

If we could take the third sort first: In talking about all these things I think there is politics first, political decisions. Those always involve the government, voters and parties. To understand conservatism, you need to keep your eye on that. But at the same time, there are what you could call the thinkers of conservatism, people who pore over these rather subtle questions and ask "What is conservatism? Who is the true conservative?" Burke and Maistre were that second kind of person.

Take Burke as a good example. Burke actually was more or less ignored during the 19th century by most people calling themselves political conservatives. He was rediscovered, indeed sort of invented, at the end of the 19th century as a philosopher of conservatism, for a political movement that, successful though it was, didn't really have a philosophy. Indeed, the best it could do, if asked, was, "Well, we don't believe in ideas." One of the reasons conservatives have been able to say that — "We don't believe in ideas. We don't need a philosophy" — is that either they were the upper classes or they were the descendants of the upper classes, people whose job was to rule by their nature. They were used to ruling. They weren't used to having to explain why they should rule, or what they were ruling for.

So it took quite a long time to figure out that they needed political ideas, political philosophy, something called conservatism. And indeed Burke was a very, very late invention. There's an 1886 "History of Toryism" which barely mentions Burke. As for Maistre, he was much too crazy and outrageous. He was a brilliant writer, but he was much too angry in his opposition to modern life to make him a good intellectual flag-bearer for conservatives in democratic times.

To finish up on the topic of who is and who is not a conservative, it shows itself very strongly in the United States, where you have three strong traditions since the middle of the last century. You have the kind of modern Burkeans, people like Russell Kirk, who dug up his ghost and tried to reinvent him in an American context. That has always been rather a kind of hothouse conservatism that doesn't really fit into modern American life. And the other two were the economic liberals — the people who want the market and business to do whatever they want, on the theory that would make things work out best — and then there's a much more sort of moral thread, with the neoconservatives who were interested in the texture of social life, and I suppose you could throw in there the religious right with their moral concerns. So those were three or four very strong threads in American Intellectual conservatism, And they're still there.

Your book traces the history of conservatism across two centuries, divided into four periods, in the U.K., France, Germany and the U.S. The first you describe as "frontal resistance to liberal modernity," from 1830 to 1880, with chapters titled "A Right Without Authority," dealing with politics and "Turning Reason Against Liberalism," dealing with ideas. How do these two relate to one another?

The first is the political movement as I described it, of old elites, established powers, who suddenly find themselves under challenge from new contestants. You saw it in the United States with Whigs and Democrats, you saw that in Britain with Tories and Liberals, you saw it in Germany and France. The intellectual counterpart of that struggle was, on one side, people like Burke and Maistre, who said, as it were, "Tradition, belief, unreason, these will be the flags with which we will go forward into the future."

On the other hand, there were conservatives who I mention in the chapter you just described who said, "Not at all. We have to use reason, we have to use the lessons of the Enlightenment in a conservative and orderly cause." These were people like James Madison, an American example, and Friedrich Gentz, a German. You have here this opening conflict within conservative thought between the traditionalists and the romantics, on the one hand, and the rationalists on the other.

You write: "In the 1830s, the right's primary choice was either to resist or to compromise with liberal modernity. By the 1880s, it faced the further question of how far to accept democratic modernity." How did these two choices differ, in terms of what was at stake? What options existed, and how did the right respond?

Good question! Liberalism and democracy need to be distinguished. Liberalism, as it were, lays out the feast. Democracy draws up the guest list. Liberalism promises people — it doesn't always deliver, but it promises people a number of good things: protections from arbitrary power, social progress, civil rights. It promises many freedoms. Democracy is quite different. Democracy promises those things to everybody, whoever they are. And there's a big difference. You can have a club of very equal people, where there's no ranking, where everybody respects everybody else. But the club itself can be extremely exclusive. It sounds almost banal to stress the difference, but that is vital to understanding liberal democracy. Historically, by the end of the 19th century, both conservatives and liberals were facing a demand that the liberal promises of modern life be extended to every last person. When you think about this, that promise wasn't even delivered on paper until the middle of the 20th century, and in many respects is still not delivered successfully to everybody.

So, the second period you describe as "adaptation, compromise and catastrophe," that's from 1880 to 1945. In what sense was there adaptation and compromise? What are some illustrative examples?

If you take the period as a whole, and look at the main conservative parties in Europe and the United States over that period, all of them, broadly speaking, accepted a degree of the welfare state, accepted a degree of big government. They accepted the New Deal in the United States, and in Europe they accepted the welfare state. They accepted, in other words, a very tempered capitalism in which government played a large role in propping up capitalism when it got into trouble and propping up people when they got into trouble, with social safety nets and so on. That broad consensus, hard-fought and very spotty, was by and large the consensus that mainstream conservatives accepted by the middle of the 20th century. That was so with Eisenhower, with Nixon and even to a limited degree with Reagan.

So what do you mean by "catastrophe"?

In any story of the political right, one can't escape the disaster of the rise of fascism and Nazism. I'm not suggesting that conservatism was directly to blame for these things. That would be wrong. But the conservative classes found themselves in 1945, for a variety of reasons, at a zero point from which they had to reinvent themselves.

That leads right into the third period you describe as "political command and intellectual recovery," from the end of World War II to 1980. How did conservatism recover during that period?

In the 1945 to 1980 period on the right, in a funny way, politics stopped driving intellectuals and intellectuals came to drive politics. It's a fascinating period, intellectually, for the right in the United States. There were a number of intriguing thinkers. They were ignored at the time, but they were working away quietly for what became the Reagan revolution, both in terms of economic policy and, to a larger extent, in terms of social and ethical questions. They were broadly derided or ignored, but they came into their own in the 1980s, and they've been in the saddle ever since.

How did that compare with what was happening elsewhere?

There was a similar revival elsewhere, but it was slower, and it wasn't so well paid for. In the United States, there were many big philanthropic donors, right-wing think tanks that supported particular intellectuals like Richard Weaver or Friedrich Hayek. It was a big, very well executed campaign of intellectual renewal. It was less organized in Europe, but it existed there as well.

The fourth period you describe as "the contest for supremacy between liberal conservatism and the hard right," starting in 1980. Say a bit more about these two terms, both what they mean generally, and specifically in this time period.

It's difficult when writing about politics, for one has to be given at least five seconds to get the canoe into the water. All these labels are very slippery, particularly the labels "liberal conservatism" — that sounds like a contradiction in terms — and the term "hard right," which many conservatives particularly dislike because they feel it's a slander or a slur. But let's say "liberal conservatism," with all those provisos, is a good label for the kind of conservatism I was describing earlier, the kind of mainstream conservatism running from Eisenhower to Nixon and even to a certain extent some of the Reagan years.

That's an OK label for the kind of mainstream conservatism that I was describing, by and large, in government. However much they turned up the gas on the campaign trail, Eisenhower, Nixon and even Reagan were within a recognizable band. It was particularly liberal in economic matters, for the free market, very business-friendly, but also liberal to an extent in the social and ethical sense. Nixon wasn't a great moral or ethical campaigner. Reagan, I don't think, believed it himself personally. He threw bones to the moral right, but it wasn't his thing.

So that's liberal conservatism. It has a counterpart in Europe. The hard right, I think, is a different thing. It's what liberal conservatives are in retreat from. If you look at the present Republican Party, I would call that a hard-right party.

What is the hard right? Well, it combines two elements. It's a strange combination, on the one hand, of ultra-marketeers, who would let business do what it chooses and will do what business wants, but on the other hand of politicians speaking loudly for the forgotten man, for disaffected voters in the name of the people. The hard right is curiously for global free markets and at the same time one-nation populist. You see this odd combination across Europe and in the United States. Although there are local differences, that's the hard right.

Conservatives get quite upset when you say, "You conservatives have a fight on your hand between the liberal strain of conservatism and the hard right." Why? Because, particularly in Europe, in France and Germany, the hard right is associated with old neofascist parties but it is by no means any longer limited to those. Indeed, it's gone way beyond them. The National Rally, as it's now called in France, and the Alternative for Germany have both the elements I've mentioned: rowdy popular elements and a free-market elite element. One of the leaders of the German hard right worked, I think, for Goldman Sachs. That gives you an idea of the hard right as an elite and popular combination.

You see the same in the United States with the Republican Party. Partly because of his outsized personality, people have over-focused on Trump as if somehow he invented the hard right. He didn't at all. The hard right invented him. You could say the same thing about Boris Johnson, the Brexiteer in Britain. He didn't invent Brexit or UKIP [the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party] or the new Tory party. It chose him.

Here in America, Trump is presented as a figure who came out of nowhere. You show that he's part of a hard right that's been growing for decades, before gaining ground with his election and Brexit happening close together. How specifically would you explain him as a part of the hard right? What characteristics does he share that would make him a part of it? If you'd like, perhaps say something about how today's hard right echoes characteristics that have been there in the past.

In a way, he's a kind of gifted improviser. I don't think he has or has ever had a lot of aims or principles. In that, he rather resembles Boris Johnson in our country — gifted campaigners with a fantastic sort of canny popular touch. If you look for a consistency of aim or opinion, it's very hard to find. If you wanted a word for Trump, I think it would be opportunist. He saw a moment to move into politics, and he succeeded very well. But, the party he took over had been moving to the hard right for a long time without him.

One of the figures to whom the American hard right at the moment owes an enormous amount is Pat Buchanan. He was writing the kind of lines that Trump delivers back in the 1970s. If "Trump" were a movie, Trump would be the star, but Pat Buchanan would get the screenwriting credit.

To answer the other part of your question, the hard right does have historical precedent. There has always been in conservatism, as it has adapted, as it has become more liberal and mainstream, as it has appealed to more and more democratic voters — democratic with a small D — there's always been a resistant fringe of those who say, "We're compromising too much."

There's a quick caution needed here in that when talking about the hard right, it's very easy to be misheard and have people say, "Ah! Fawcett's out of his mind, the hard right isn't fascist." I'm not saying for a moment that the hard right is fascist. There are many, many ways in which a conservative can become less liberal or less democratic without becoming fascist. Fascism in the 1920s and '30s was something specific. It came out of a particular historical context in Europe, after a disastrous war in which Germany was defeated. History doesn't repeat in that way. Fascism is not the right parallel.

Nor indeed is populism quite the right label for the hard right. Populism in the American context meant something quite specific, it was a movement flanking progressivism at the end of the 19th century. It had wide working-class and farm support. Populism as it's kicked around nowadays is a very loose idea. In fact, populism in connection with the hard right is an elite phenomenon. The hard right is not the people fighting the elite. The hard right in the United States and Europe is one elite, namely the hard right, a very conservative elite, fighting another, a more liberal elite. Hence the subtitle of my book: "The Fight for a Tradition."

I guess you would say that's true in other countries as well?

Yes. As for early hard-right politicians, you have Pat Buchanan. In Britain, there was a politician who may not be known to Americans, but is very well-known in Britain, Enoch Powell. He was a Tory politician, a ferociously clever person who ran himself out of politics in the 1960s by racialist outbursts which discredited him. His contribution to Tory politics is a bit like Pat Buchanan's contribution to Republicanism in the United States. Powell's contribution was, first, anti-European — get Britain out of the European Union — and nationalistic, to go it alone and not count on foreign friends, not even on the United States. Secondly, it was hyper-liberal in the economic sense. This strange cocktail, you see, was present in Enoch Powell — that same cocktail that I earlier described as hard right.

In opposition to that, you talk several times about successful conservative leaders. In one place you say "Like [Benjamin] Disraeli, or Margaret Thatcher, Churchill seemed to resolve in one capacious personality the [Conservative] party's inner conflicts." There are several other places where you make comments like that about how successful political leaders of conservatism resolved tensions that, once they passed from the scene, seemed to spill out all over the place. Could you say something about the importance of such figures? I'd also like to ask about Reagan as one such figure, because after him came the unraveling, as you mentioned before.

Reagan belongs in that category of conservative politician. It includes Thatcher and Angela Merkel today, the chancellor of Germany. They managed to keep their parties together, although like every successful party, each has a tremendous internal dynamic and conflict. In order to keep your party together, you have to give something to each side, and arguably both Reagan and Thatcher gave much too much to the market liberals, those who say "Markets will solve everything; government is always the problem." We're still living, I think, both in Europe and the United States, with the limitations of that policy. You can say that they gave too much in terms of the cost to society. However, in party terms, they were quite successful in keeping their parties together. The split in conservatism, the rise of the hard right and the rout of the old liberal Republicans, didn't begin until after Reagan and Thatcher were gone.

So what problems opened the door to the hard right after Reagan and Thatcher?

There were three levels. There was a historic internal change in society and economy, connected with the collapse of old industries, the collapse of unions. If you look back to our society and economy in the 1960s and '70s, out of which Reagan and Thatcher came, it's almost unrecognizable. So that's one thing, a huge, huge change. Second, the end of the Cold War, in 1989 and 1990. That was a convenient, if dangerous, framework for thinking about the world and other countries. That's now gone. Those two changes together — huge social and economic change inside, great global change outside — have meant that an old framework of ideas in which conservative politicians argued with each other is gone, and needs replacing. Good as they were at keeping their parties together, neither Thatcher nor Reagan handed on any kind of replacement.

Into that vacuum has come the hard right. It's not a program, it's not a long-term solution to anything. It's actually intellectually incoherent. It promises global free markets on the one hand, and a kind of self-reliant, protective nation on the other. It doesn't add up. However, it's politically extremely appealing.

In your coda you discuss the choices facing conservatives. But in your preface, you write that your book "is written in comradely spirit with a question for the left: if we're so smart, how come we're not in charge?"

I hope we will die on the left, but I sometimes think also we will die of the left.

I don't expect a quick answer, because then why write the book? But I wonder if you might have a tentative answer to offer, that points to a direction for further discussion and inquiry?

What is the answer to the question, if the left is honest with itself? The answer is that we may have the answers, we may be the virtuous ones, but we have never, in 200 years, persuaded a majority of our fellow citizens that we are the way to go. That seems to me too deep a pattern for there not to be lessons drawn from that. What is the lesson? In essence, a boring, dull and unpopular lesson on the left: That is that we have to cooperate with liberal-minded right-wing people at the center of politics if we want to get into government and govern, as opposed to being the party of criticism or a movement of protest, however necessary and legitimate.

To throw in a further thought, the condition of the left is part of a larger explanation of the political hole that we're in. It's not just that on the right, a hard right is dominant at present, and liberal conservatives are dispirited and in retreat. On the left, there isn't a really persuasive, strong and responsible alternative.

That said, contingency plays a part of the mess we're in politically. Think of the three times the 21st century arrived: First 9/11, a horrendous event for which it would take decades for the consequences to work themselves out. Then the 2003 Iraq war, necessary or not, which broke the liberal Republicans and broke the center-minded Labour Party in Britain. And third, the crash of 2008, which more or less finished the idea that markets look after themselves. You had these three hammer-blows which were, in their way, contingencies. Neither party, neither the left or the right, has really digested any of that.

Finally, what's most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

"Is the fight on the right going to go on after Nov. 3?" And do you know what the answer is?

From reading your book?

Not only. We are thinking in parallel here. I liked the piece you wrote, "It's not just about Trump." I completely agree. Of the fight on the right, you could say, "It's not even about Trump." So my answer to the question you didn't ask is, yes, the fight on the right will go on.

How to reduce the destructive political power of the Supreme Court — and save Democracy

With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the nomination of a polar opposite replacement, only one response that makes any sense: Expand the Supreme Court. The only real question is by how much. There are other responses that can do some good — perhaps even more good. But without court expansion, the existing court can, and almost certainly will, strike them down.

Yes, some call it an extreme step. But there's a more extreme step: Simply ignore the court's decisions — as some Republicans argued in the 1850s, in response to the Dred Scott decision. More to the point, this is an extreme situation that demands extreme responses. As Boston College law professor Kent Greenfield tweeted on Sept. 21:

Some #SCOTUS facts:
  • 15 of the last 19 appointments were made by GOP Presidents. (16/20 if #Trump gets another.)
  • The last year a majority of the justices were Dem appointees: 1969. Meanwhile, the GOP won the popular vote in the presidential election once in 30 years (2004).

It's also been more than 20 years since Republicans represented a majority of voters in the Senate, making the condition of minority rule even more extreme. It's also self-reinforcing: As Greg Sargent notes, a 6-3 conservative majority could strike down a new version of HR 1, the pro-democracy reforms that House Democrats passed in 2019, including wildly popular nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

The same fate awaits virtually everything else Democrats have campaigned on, as The Nation's justice correspondent, Elie Mystal, argued last February in an article bluntly titled, "If We Don't Reform the Supreme Court, Nothing Else Will Matter":

Not a single significant policy or initiative proposed by the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination is likely to survive a Supreme Court review. Nothing on guns, nothing on climate, nothing on health care — nothing survives the conservative majority on today's court.

And that was seven months before Ginsburg's death. Now, as election law maven Richard L. Hasen puts it, "Trump's New Supreme Court Is Coming for the Next Dozen Elections." This threat to our democracy comes at a time when others around the world are increasingly turning to citizens' assemblies as a way to expand democracy beyond elite-defined partisan bounds, as I discussed last December. At least one new book lays out a plan for introducing direct democracy at the national level, starting with advisory referenda.

This wildly anti-democratic situation — although temporarily normalized by our myopic, dysfunctional elites — actually violates deeply entrenched bipartisan norms, as underscored by University of Washington political scientist Scott Lemieux:

American political elites have generally supported the strong form of judicial review that emerged in the late 19th century because the Supreme Court generally tracked with the constitutional views of the dominant political coalition. A Supreme Court representing an entrenched, unpopular minority faction that refuses to allow the popular majorities from the other party to effectively govern would be neither democratically legitimate nor politically stable.

What's more, Lemieux notes, previous violations of this norm "all led to constitutional crises that ended only when the court itself backed down," including Franklin D. Roosevelt's oft-misremembered confrontation, which put an end to the court striking down New Deal legislation, most notably the Social Security Act. Nor is there any "normal" way out through political victory, Lemieux warns: A 6-3 conservative majority "would be essentially impossible for Democrats to displace through ordinary means, irrespective of the results of future elections."

So what might seem in isolation like an extreme or unwarranted norm-breaking move by Democrats is actually the exact opposite: an act of restoration to the guiding shared norms that have predominated across better than two centuries. Continued violation of these shared norms will only intensify the erosion of trust that brought us Donald Trump in the first place, and which he has greatly intensified with the enthusiastic cooperation of Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell.

So expanding the Supreme Court is the only option. As I said earlier, the real question is by how much.

How many seats?

Adding six new seats to the court would compensate for McConnell's double theft, with a two-seat penalty for deterrence. It would reflect the reality that norms are not self-enforcing. As Henry Farrell explains at Crooked Timber, "norms don't just rely on the willingness of the relevant actors to adhere to them. They also rely on the willingness of actors to violate them under the right circumstances. If one side violates, then the other side has to be prepared to punish."

Indeed, the more nakedly one side pursues power as an end in itself, the more necessary it becomes to punish them, since they've proven themselves immune to anything else. Trump's lawlessness is Exhibit A in this regard, but it was his commitment to the GOP's judicial agenda that allowed him to win in the first place, and that has bound the party and its followers to him even now, in the midst of an horrific plague he's done far more to spread than to stop.

Adding just three seats would be a gift, creating a balanced 6-6 court that would necessarily rule more narrowly and less contentiously. Law professor Eric Segall, author of "Supreme Myths: Why the Supreme Court Is Not a Court and Its Justices are Not Judges," made precisely this argument about the 4-4 court in 2016.

After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia that year, amid widespread expectation that Hillary Clinton would be elected president, Segall told me in an interview, he believed "this was a moment in time that we can get left and right at the table and constructively weaken the Supreme Court for both sides.

"If you give me 10 minutes with every member of Congress I could convince them," Segall said, "because they get more powerful as the court gets weaker, by definition." By the way, the court originally had an even number of justices — six. Nothing about the current arrangement is enshrined in the Constitution.

Then there's going big: Adding 10 seats could open to the door to a whole different world, with a structure similar to the federal circuit courts, as Elie Mystal argued in the Nation article mentioned above. Most cases would be heard by a three-judge panel, chosen at random. It would take a majority vote of such a panel for the full court to consider a case. This would also tend to reduce the court's power, and produce narrower, more moderate decisions that intrude less on democratic decision making, Mystal contended.

He also linked to a proposal from the group Fix the Court for a system of fixed 18-year terms staggered to ensure an even distribution of presidential appointments. After 18 years, judges would shift to senior status, a well-established circuit court practice. Some claim this would violate the Constitution. But it seems clear that the court itself could rule otherwise, and there are good reasons to think that it should. That idea has gained increasingly broad ideological support, but as Mystal acknowledges, the existing court would likely strike it down.

Again, that's why old-fashioned, blunt-force court-packing is the most viable option — at least initially. Pack it big enough — with 10 new justices, as Mystal suggests — and you could wind up with a new court that would then OK a term-limit system.

But whatever the number and however it's conceived, court expansion is an absolute necessity, as Mystal's prognosis makes clear. As he argued more recently: "Name me an inventive, nonpartisan solution to the current dilemma faced by Democrats, and I will show you a constitutional defect the conservative Supreme Court will use against it. The only exception is court expansion."

This doesn't mean other ideas shouldn't be considered — I think they should. But it's futile to pursue them without court expansion leading the way.

Imbalances and obstacles

There are two further imbalances we have to fight. First comes the decades' worth of asymmetrical "constitutional hardball" and even anti-democratic "constitutional beanball," which I've written about here before. As the above-cited Scott Lemieux recently noted, this began in the Nixon administration and has given Republicans a twofold benefit: "The court has been generally and increasingly conservative, and yet Republicans have both placed a higher priority on it and have had negative attitudes towards it."

At bottom, conservatives are driven by a "restoration fantasy" of a world that never existed, and the Supreme Court is their way of getting there. Some sign onto a 19th-century fantasy of utterly unregulated capitalism, some to a Christian nationalist fantasy of America as a biblical nation — or, more radically, to a Christian Reconstructionist fantasy chillingly similar to "The Handmaid's Tale." In the legal arena there are the dual fantasies of "textualism" and "originalism," which is now incoherently collapsing into a bewildering array of forms — "Originalism is a 'They' not an 'It,'" as Segall describes.

What unites all these contradictory worldviews is a rejection of science, progress, facts and America's increasingly diverse, actually existing majority. The Supreme Court is all they have left. Without it, all is lost in their paranoid worldview. Liberals have never taken such a desperate, extremist view — at least not since the 1850s, when there were good, credible reasons to do so.

The second imbalance is that while Democratic voters have finally woken up — Lemieux points to midterm polling, along with the mountains of cash raised in the wake of Ginsburg's death — Democratic elites have not. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and others have repeatedly refused to discuss expanding the court, despite the obvious deterrent power such a threat could carry. (Joe Biden has not ruled it out, as Kamala Harris made clear in her recent debate with Mike Pence — but he isn't talking about it openly either.) Democrats' self-defeating, one-step-at-a-time focus is the exact opposite of the long-term strategy Republicans have pursued for decades. The elites' narrow focus has a long-term demobilizing effect, which has suited the Democrats' corporate wing just fine. But that simply can't be sustained any longer, in the post-Parkland, Climate Strike, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 world that now confronts the threats Mystal cites.

If Democrats don't act to expand the court if and they take power in January, they will be signing their own death warrants. As Mystal tweeted:

Expanding the court upon victory is going to be the HEIGHT of the Dems political power to do this. The illegitimate process to install ACB will be fresh.
Also, it's the height of the reform argument. Trump broke the court just like he broke everything else. LET'S FIX IT.

One major obstacle to overcome is the misguided notion that democratic norms are self-reinforcing. Another is confusion over what those norms really are and how they work. As Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber points out, the perception of FDR's court-packing as a dangerous, norm-breaking effort that failed — as it's presented, for example, in "How Democracies Die" — is incomplete, at best. Something more fundamental was going on. In the face of Roosevelt's threat, the court stopped striking down popular legislation, including the Social Security Act: "One norm that had been pretty systematically trashed – judicial respect for what citizens and their democratically elected representatives actually wanted – was only preserved through Roosevelt's credible threat to upset another norm."

Segall sees that as a valuable precedent. "This Court needs to be scared into humility," he told me. "FDR did it and it worked, like, for 30 years."

Weakening the Supreme Court

"As a general policy matter, I'm in favor of anything that weakens the court and makes it less partisan and less political," Segall said when I asked about Mystal's idea to have small groups of justices sit in panels, potentially reviewing each other's decisions. The lack of review makes the court into a political body, he argues in "Supreme Myths," so having most decisions made by smaller panels, while it would not end that problem, would surely diminish it.

But there's be a hitch. "I am not 100% sure that's as clearly constitutional as some other proposals," Segall warned, "because Article III [of the Constitution] says that the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court. One. So, I don't know."

On the other hand, we've had generations of experience with circuit courts structured precisely as Mystal describes, and no one thinks twice about calling them "courts." While the existing conservative majority might well strike down such an innovation, an expanded court could be expected to lean the other way — another argument for moving quickly. Once you have 19 justices sitting there, the shear impracticality of them all hearing every single case and debating it in such a large forum casts the question in a very different light.

Segall describes another de-escalating, depolarizing path. "Kent Greenfield at Boston College [quoted above] is about to have an op-ed in the New York Times saying that Congress should create a specialized constitutional court, like Europe has, to resolve constitutional questions," he said. "Then Congress can use its jurisdiction under Article III to deprive the Supreme Court of appellate jurisdiction over that court."

Jurisdiction-stripping is an idea that's gotten significant traction on the right in recent years. But it's grounded in text, as Segall notes, since the Constitution says Congress has the authority to restrict or limit the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. To me, the most appealing use of jurisdiction-stripping would be to protect voting rights. John Roberts' delusional ruling striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act utterly disregarded the 15th Amendment's specific authorization that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." It would be perfectly reasonable for Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act again, this time citing this specific text, along with that of Article III.

Pitfalls of weakening the court

Mystal is skeptical, to put it mildly. "I'm not a huge fan of the various 'jurisdiction stripping' proposals, for a couple of reasons," he told me. "That's exactly the kind of thing Republicans will do to take away minority rights. Remember, as a Black person the thing I fear most is not Republicans or Democrats. It's white majorities trying to kill me. I like the court as a theoretical check against such majoritarian tyranny."

Of course, the Court's record in that regard isn't exactly awe-inspiring, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recounts for the New Yorker. The 8-1 gutting of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, less than a generation after the passage of the Civil War amendments undergirding it is just one of the less-remembered examples Taylor cites.

But there's a broader problem as well. "I don't have a whole lot of confidence that the Supreme Court will rule that their jurisdiction has been stripped," Mystal said. "More to the point, I fear that they will rule that jurisdiction-stripping is OK on issues where Republicans are already winning, but suddenly rule that the Dems cannot strip jurisdiction on something they actually want to overturn."

In fact, he specifically thinks my idea won't work: "We're not going to have Congress say, 'People can vote and the Supreme Court can't say no,' and then have the Supreme Court just say, 'Oh well, I guess people can vote,'" he said. "The court has already largely ignored the 15th Amendment. They'll ignore jurisdiction stripping too to stop black people from voting."

Finally, as Mystal noted, this doesn't really help with state law, "which is a lot of law and a lot of the most horrible law." He offered a speculative case in which the court rules 6-3 to uphold a new Alabama law restricting abortion "to the first three hours of pregnancy out of wedlock, or whatever." It doesn't officially overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, but effectively outlaws abortion — and jurisdiction-stripping doesn't help. "If your court reform doesn't deal with awful state laws in the South," Mystal said, "then your court reform doesn't really work."

On the other hand, Segall clearly opposed the more extreme move of simply ignoring the court's decisions, as recently advanced by Ryan Cooper and Jamelle Bouie. "If we're going to live in a country that follows the rule of law, I think we have to follow the court's decisions, unless we decide to be a parliamentary system and not a republic anymore," Segall said.

Which is not to say the principle of judicial review has always been respected, or even claimed. Cooper correctly notes that "The weird thing about judicial 'originalism' is that the explicit principle of judicial review is nowhere to be found in the Constitution." (That doesn't bother Segall, given his critique of originalism.) Cooper goes on to say:

Actual judicial review was a product of a cynical power grab from Chief Justice John Marshall, who simply asserted out of nothing in Marbury vs. Madison that the court could overturn legislation — but did it in a way to benefit incoming president Thomas Jefferson politically, so as to neutralize his objection to the principle.

This accurately captures the political nature of that decision, as well as of the Supreme Court more generally. But there's more to the story. "Just because the Supreme Court rules on something doesn't always mean whatever it says goes," Segall told me. "For example, in 1962-63, they end prayer in public schools, but the reality is that in the South there's still prayer in the schools." The INS v. Chadha decision of 1983 supposedly ended the practice of legislative vetoes, but Congress and the president both still use them. And then there's the case of Brown v. Board of Education. As Segall notes, 10 years after Brown, schools in the the South were almost entirely re-segregated. "So I think we already know how we can undo court decisions. It's been done before."

These court-ignoring examples all tilt right. And the counter to them tilted to the left, Segall explained: "It wasn't until 1958 and Cooper vs Aaron" — which denied Arkansas school authorities the right to delay desegregation — "that the Court basically said, 'We're supreme, you have to follow us,' as opposed to 'We decide cases, and let the chips fall where they may.'"

So the historical record doesn't look good. Questioning the court's legitimacy on moral grounds is one thing, but this "solution" seems more treacherous than the problem it's meant to solve.

A troubled record

The examples Segall cites echo the longer historical record laid out by Taylor, which highlights just how poorly protected Black people, women and other disempowered groups have almost always been. "The insistence that the Supreme Court is not a political body is a principle of high folly in American politics," Taylor notes, adding that "as the branch of government that is least accountable to the American public, the Supreme Court has tended, for most of its history, toward a fundamental conservatism, siding with tradition over more expansive visions of human rights."

Along with the familiar 19t-century examples of Dred Scott and Plessy, Taylor cites the "Civil Rights cases" (mentioned above), and, turning to the court's most clearly progressive era, she elucidates how fragile and contingent the achievements anchored in the Brown decision actually are. She notes both the national security argument the Truman administration made against segregation ("Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills," its amicus brief warned), and the rapid backsliding of the court itself:

The Brown decision was a public indicator of progress, but its decree was quickly undermined when, the following year, the Court prescribed that school desegregation be undertaken with "all deliberate speed." Without a directive that the ruling should take effect immediately, the South was provided legal cover to drag its feet, as the racist "massive resistance" to school integration began to take hold. ...
Even when the Court has ruled in ways that appear to be in the interest of minorities or socially and economically marginalized populations, its decisions can be ephemeral, susceptible to partisan shifts, while creating the dangerous illusion of permanence.

This ephemeral status "reduces rights to privileges," Taylor argues. Rather than depending on the Supreme Court, she suggests, "It is through acts of solidarity and struggle that we have been able to secure our rights and liberties." Taylor concludes by saying, "It is long overdue to end the Court's undemocratic role in U.S. society," but without offering any specific suggestions about how to do this. The expansions of democracy I have mentioned in passing—citizens' assemblies, direct democracy through referenda and initiatives — point to one important facet of what can be done. But the Court's existing power must also be reined in. That's what's front and center now.

A fight for peace?

Elie Mystal's approach is notable for combining a fighting spirit with a long-term willingness to depoliticize the court. In February, he argued that adding 10 justices would give Democrats "the political leverage to make the Republicans an offer they couldn't refuse," by compelling them to agree to a larger judicial reform package (including an ethics panel for the Supreme Court), in exchange for a promise that "the 10 new justices could be evenly split" between nominees of both parties. Does that sound like a contradiction? Maybe not.

"I want to fight like hell to win control of the court so that a Democratic run court can be depoliticized," he said. "I know that sounds like a tension, but I can square the circle. Basically the legal arguments between conservatives and liberals on the court and in the law do not break down so cleanly on Republican v. Democrat lines. "That's what makes the law so cool and interesting. But we rarely get to have those debates, because Republicans choose judges based on one thing: the judge's willingness to overturn precedent if it conflicts with the Republican political agenda. That's pretty much it."

That's largely happened because the Federalist Society has taken over the business of selecting Republican judicial nominees, combined with the long-term influence of the Christian right, as described in books like "The Power Worshippers" and "Building God's Kingdom," with results tallied and reflected on here.

"The kind of judge who believes that you can just throw away the 50 years of settled precedent codified in Roe v .Wade, because you personally think abortion is immoral, is also a nutty, extremist judge who believes all other sorts of crazy things," Mystal explained. "You get a whole raft of radical judicial ideology by trying to litmus-test everything around abortion. It's how you get judges who also think the 15th Amendment is just a suggestion, but the Second Amendment is the word of God. It's how you get judges who are constantly waging ideological battles instead of ruling on the specific cases and controversies before them."

Ironically, there was a time when conservatives made just that kind of argument — but it was riddled with bad faith. Mystal would have us focus on what's legitimate. "The goal of depoliticizing the courts is to get more people who are looking at the specific facts of the case, as opposed to always tacking to their ideologies," he said.

"If you want to look at cases, then having a 'diverse' set of backgrounds and experiences and opinions is actually good. There are case-by-case 'conservative' points of view that I actually agree with," Mystal noted. "I don't mind having 'conservatives' on the Court, I mind having intellectually dishonest Federalist Society extremists on the court who are only there to strike down a couple of opinions conservatives hate and carry on an ideology war at all other times."

Mystal concluded with a crucial caveat: "Where I differ from, say, Barack Obama ... is that you have to win the war first before you de-escalate. Conservatives play to win, and Democrats must too. We can have peace, after we win."

Democrats desperately need to heed that call to arms. But they also something more than the fervent desire of their base for a big win. They need an argument. That's where Segall's final point on court-packing comes in.

"In 2020, an institution of life-tenured lawyers second-guessing social, political and educational issues — any kind of issues — based on imprecise text and contested history is a broken institution," he said. "That has to be the Democrats' argument. If they vote to expand the Supreme Court, he concluded, "We're not making it stronger to be more Democratic or more liberal. … We're packing it to make it weaker."

Scholar explains how the conservative movement transmits 'sanitized versions of white supremacist ideology'

As the longest sustained period of racial justice protests in American history segues into the heat of election season, dark shadows have appeared, from the vigilante killing of protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin — and widespread conservative defenses of the teenage accused murderer — to ludicrous charges against protesters, including "terrorism," to the Trump administration's crackdown on federal antiracism training, calling it "anti-American," and Attorney General Bill Barr's call for protesters to be charged with sedition.

So much for the notions that Donald Trump has no ideology, or, for that matter, that getting rid of him will make America great again. In July of 2016, I wrote about why such views were myopic: "Trump advances core paleoconservative positions," researcher Bruce Wilson told me, including "rebuilding infrastructure, protective tariffs, securing borders and stopping immigration, neutralizing designated internal enemies and isolationism."

Trump's record as president has been surprisingly consistent for such an erratic figure, with his purely rhetorical support for infrastructure as the most notable exception. And therein lies a key to the current moment: With infrastructure removed from the equation — the most broadly popular position Trump's ever embraced — the remaining white nationalism stands out in stark relief, highlighted in the frenzied push toward violent confrontation around the election, and beyond.

Dr. James Scaminaci III has just published a report about the long historical genesis of this recent push for Political Research Associates, "Battle With Bullets: Advancing a Vision of Civil War." Scaminaci has a PhD in sociology from Stanford and has worked as a civilian intelligence analyst with expertise on the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, and organized crime. So the spread of social chaos, internecine violence and associated enabling ideologies is a subject he's familiar with.

Scaminaci traces the roots of culture-war and race-war narratives as far back as the Haitian revolution of the early 19th century. He observes that Steve Bannon nurtured those carefully at Breitbart News and they have played a key role in radicalizing Trump's base over the past five years, to the point where some of his supporters are visibly preparing themselves for violence. Some parts of this story have been relatively well covered, but Scaminaci provides a much more integrated and historically extensive account of how we reached our present state. I reached out to him recently for an interview by email to discuss some of his key insights and how they provide us with a much clearer picture of the forces pushing America toward civil war. The following has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In your article, you write: "Over the last several years, a narrative around the threat of civil war — and more specifically, a racial civil war — has been growing on the Right." You observe that this comes in different versions and has deep historical roots, dating back to the colonial era. Before getting into the details, why is it important to recognize this history and learn about it?

I wanted to convey that what we are seeing now on the right wing has a long history, a history that is either overlooked or ignored. Jill Lepore and other scholars looking at the right have noted that modern day "patriots" cast themselves as lineal descendants of the founding fathers and the American Revolution — that they are revolutionaries against the existing "tyrannical" federal government. But that history is drenched in violence and blood against Black and indigenous peoples. That context cannot be omitted. And the idea that whites are under existential threat from Black folks also needs to be put into historical context.

Second, the right-wing idea that the federal government is "tyrannical" is largely the product of white supremacist politicians, both Republican and Democratic, and intellectuals like William F. Buckley. This was the idea that post-World War II federal support for civil rights was federal overreach, was unconstitutional, and that it upset allegedly harmonious race relations in the South and eventually in the North.

According to white supremacists, the existential threat to white people in the Jim Crow South came from Black folks, whether children or adults, even touching anything that could be shared with whites. A schoolbook touched by a Black child became a Black textbook. Blacks and whites could not share drinking fountains or sit in the same seats on a bus.

What I wanted to portray in "Battle With Bullets" is that whites have long viewed any expression of nonviolent Black agency as an existential threat to themselves that required whites to resort to a brutal, genocidal racial civil war. One can understand the palpable fear of a slave revolt before 1861. But white supremacists have claimed that registering to vote, voting, moving into a white neighborhood after a history of redlining, moving into managerial or foreman positions in the workplace, or being cast as heroes or superheroes are existential threats.

You write that "The most dangerous versions of that [civil war] narrative come from leaders with paramilitary forces, while other appeals seem intended to generate a heightened sense of crisis." Can you give an example of each and then help us understand how the two are related?

Roger Stone is a political operative who has graduated from ratfucking political operations into calling for a civil war or violence or martial law. He is an ideological chaos agent. He can help set the narrative mood for the right wing. As Chip Berlet has written, elites know how to write the score for scripted violence. Somehow, the gunmen always know who to kill. In a similar category are the numerous Christian right leaders who broadcast the same civil war message to their Christian nationalist supporters and followers. I also quoted [Dallas megachurch pastor] Robert Jeffress in the article.

David Neiwert owns the beat on tracking the transmission of fringe ideas to the conservative mainstream. Even a decade before Trump, the ideological lines were blurring.

In 2008, Michael Savage, a right-wing radio host, said, "[T]he white person is being erased from America's future. ... There is a racial element to the immigration invasion." Then Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly claimed, "So now, it's becoming a race war." The Center for American Progress went on to note that O'Reilly claimed that immigration reformers "hate America ... because it's run primarily by white, Christian men" and were seeking "to change the complexion...of America."

That is no different from Jean Raspail's theme in "The Camp of the Saints" or the narrative at The Social Contract, a white nationalist journal which published Raspail's novel. Or Glenn Beck on Fox News in February 2009, airing his racial civil war scenario within one month of the first Black president taking office. Or a variety of Christian Right leaders during the Obama years calling for or suggesting a racial civil war is coming, including Tony Perkins, Larry Klayman and Rick Joyner.

In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted the "symbiotic dance" between white supremacist groups and John Tanton's hardline anti-immigration movement, as well as the sharing of conspiracy narratives between white supremacists and the "patriot" militia movement.

The conservative movement, both the political and religious wings, transmit sanitized versions of white supremacist ideology. The latter is premised on preparing for, if not instigating, a racial civil war in America.

John Jackson, a scholar who covers "scientific" racism, in a recent article titled, "Going Full Nazi,"asked the question: "[W]hat is the point of drawing a line between the 'mainstream' and the 'alt' right? Perhaps there is no useful distinction to be made." The angry white guys with guns are dangerous because they have weapons of war. But the dividing line between them and the "Fourth Generation Warfare" chaos agents creating a crisis of legitimacy is increasingly blurred.

You write that this rhetoric is rooted in a narrative adapted from the 1973 French novel you just mentioned, "The Camp of the Saints." Can you explain its basic narrative?

The novel has seven key ideas that its critics and proponents have noted. One, mass migration is an invasion. Two, immigrants and refugees are invaders. Three, the invaders will eventually destroy Western culture and replace Western populations. Four, the West's political elites do not have the moral strength to defend the West. Five, the invaders must be physically removed and/or violently repelled. Six, there is a difference between the "real country" and "real citizens" and the "legal country" and "legal citizens." Seven, multiracial, multiethnic or multi-confessional societies are not only unstable but undesirable, and lead to the "balkanization" of societies — a view also imported from Serbian genocidal propaganda into the American and global right.

The main variations within this "Camp of the Saints" worldview are whether the political elites lack moral strength to resist the invasions ("Great Replacement"), enact immoral policies which weaken Western societies to invasion ("demographic winter") or actively collaborate with the governments of the invading migrants to facilitate the invasion (as in John Tanton's network). The other variation distinguishes the neo-Nazis from all the other segments: whether or not the Jews are responsible for the destruction of their societies ("white genocide").

You note that for both France and the United States, the historical roots of this narrative go back to the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. In the U.S. this has produced the "white genocide theory" and in France the "great replacement" theory. What distinguishes them and what draws them together?

The "white genocide" theory is premised on the fear of a Black slave revolt against the white slave-owning society. The "great replacement" theory is based on the fear of massive nonwhite immigration coupled with lower white birth rates leading to a "replacement" of the white population with a nonwhite population, and the transformation of the culture.

White supremacists use the more palatable, more sanitized "great replacement" theory interchangeably and conflate them. But they have different causal mechanisms.

On the other hand, the neo-Nazis and other proponents of the "white genocide" narrative consider any action by Black people to improve themselves, to gain access to privileged white spheres of social action or to more equitably redistribute power and status as an existential threat. "Great replacement" proponents do not share this outlook. Nor do "great replacement" proponents, in general, blame Jews for what they consider to be massive immigration.

You write, "It would be a mistake to see these various 'White Replacement' narratives as isolated from mainstream conservative thought in Europe or America." How has their influence spread through terrorist acts?

In the right-wing information sphere, ideas swirl around, mix, recombine and mutate over time to fit changing circumstances. Raspail's "Camp of the Saints" is foundational to this narrative or worldview. Raspail directly influenced the emergence and popularity of the "great replacement" theory, which is the catchall theory cited by white terrorists.

But Bat Ye'or's conception of the problem — that European elites conspire with Arab elites to produce both subservience to Islam and the "great replacement" — directly influenced the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who was motivated to provoke a decades-long civil war to stop the formation of what Ye'or called "Eurabia." Breivik, as well as the "great replacement" narrative, have inspired numerous white terrorist acts around the globe.

Returning to the American context, How did Steve Bannon and Breitbart spread their influence?

Bannon's principal contribution was to use Breitbart News to mix white supremacist ideology into the Republican Party and the Christian Right, and to heavily promote Raspail's "Camp of the Saints." In 2015 and 2016, Breitbart was the largest driver of ideological influence on the right.

How has this spread through the Trump administration?

The "Camp of the Saints" worldview largely shapes Stephen Miller's approach to immigration issues. Raspail's bottom line was that "the barbarians had to be repelled" either by violence or cruelty or both. Trump's immigration policy has been cruel, and as Adam Serwer noted, "cruelty is the point."

You also call attention to the Christian right's specific variant called "demographic winter," and argue that this has played a central role in evangelical support for Trump and his wall. What should people know about that?

The term "demographic winter" appears to have come from Don Feder, communications director of the World Congress of Families [a far-right, anti-LGBT Christian group]. He is the most prominent WCF official linked to the Tanton anti-immigration network and was apparently influenced by Bat Ye'or's "Eurabia" ideas, which circulate widely in conservative and right-wing Jewish circles.

In November 2005, Feder's view of Muslims in France reflected the worldview of Raspail and other "Eurabia" writers. Feder blamed the French riots of that year on "demographic winter," "lax immigration policies" and "brain-dead multiculturalism." Where "demographic winter" differs from Raspail, the "great replacement" and the Eurabia narratives is that liberal elite support for women's reproductive freedom and gay marriage are the principal culprits, in addition to massive Muslim immigration.

What resonates with conservative Christians and Christian nationalists is the idea that Christian (Western) civilization is under threat from nonwhite immigration, Christians are being persecuted in the West and around the world, and only a strong, authoritarian leader building a wall can save them.

Survey data supports my contention that white evangelical Protestants have a "Camp of the Saints" worldview: Seventy-eight percent favor strict limits on "legal immigration," 76% favor "building a [border] wall," 69% support a "temporary" Muslim ban and, 54% favor "preventing refugees from coming into the United States," according to October 2019 PRRI data.

The last section of your article deals with the emergence of the "Boogaloo boys" during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. How can we better understand them in terms of the longer history you've laid out? What lessons need to be learned?

The first lesson to be learned is that Donald Trump and local elected Republican officials, especially the so-called "constitutional sheriffs," have a much closer relationship to the armed wing of the Christian right. Bruce Wilson and David Neiwert have been tracking that.

The second lesson is that Trump is openly orchestrating armed demonstrations of force against Democratic Party governors and mayors.

The third lesson is that it is very easy to take off your camouflage fatigues and put on a Hawaiian shirt and pretend you just got concerned — but not before you spent around $2,000 on a rifle, tactical gear and ammunition. Journalists should stop being so credulous.

The last lesson is that claims that the "patriot" militia support Black Lives Matter protests are preposterous. The BLM protests are not simply about wrongful deaths at the hands of law enforcement — something a majority of whites can see and empathize with.

BLM is calling for reckoning, a "Third Reconstruction" of America — politically, economically and culturally — in the context of a deliberate confrontation with that racist, violent history. Even at the intellectual level of the "Never Trumpers," those potentially most sympathetic to BLM, there is a blindness or an inability to confront that larger American history and the smaller Republican Party history regarding racism. To think that "angry white men with guns" have thought it through is absurd.

What's the most important question I haven't asked? And what's the answer?

I do not know the answer to the question: "Why do scholars and journalists not consider the religious basis of America's long-term crisis of legitimacy in terms of politics and science?" But I would suggest that scholars and journalists have glommed on to the least important of Richard Hofstadter's explanations, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," and ignored his more trenchant analysis in "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," which focuses on the epistemological disruption caused by fundamentalist Protestantism. They also ignore Marty Lipset's and Earl Raab's use of the concept of monism in describing the right wing in "The Politics of Unreason." Those old guys were on to something.

The threat of right-wing theocracy has raised its ugly head once again

With both parties' conventions behind us as we head into a quasi-apocalyptic election, there's more need than ever for a sense of balance. Not the kind of false balance that equates truth with lies, or soothing psychological balance that lulls us with a false sense of security, but rather a balanced sense of history and political possibility that helps us understand where we're going, and why. Understanding America's real history is particularly important, as shown in Nathan Kalmoe's new book, "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War," as discussed in our recent interview.

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