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The year we all became reactionaries
I did not become a reactionary.
Hey, folks! I’m back in the States, so let’s dive into U.S. political economy a little bit. The recall of Chesa Boudin provides a good opportunity for me to write up some thoughts on the pushback against the progressive movement.
I find myself thinking about this tweet a lot these days:
That tweet was in response to my post about how U.S. leaders should make more appeals to patriotism, and to a tweet in which I cited a comedian’s joke as an example of anti-patriotic humor. (The joke, which was poking fun at people who display too many American flags, asked “How many American flags equal one Confederate flag?”)
In the formal sense, Theophite’s tweet above is wrong. I am not actually a reactionary, and will never become one. I support reparations, I think that Trump and his people are fascists and that 1/6 was definitely a coup attempt, I want to beef up the welfare state and create national health insurance, I think racism is a pervasive and powerful force in American politics and society, I like antitrust and labor unions, I think policing in America is fundamentally broken, I marched in the Floyd protests and have spent considerable energy defending them, I support affirmative action, and so on and so forth. Nor have I ever been a popularist; I think Democrats should use rhetoric that appeals to people (including patriotic rhetoric), but on matters of substance, doing the right thing is more important than winning elections.
But there’s another sense in which Theophite’s tweet contains an important truth. Over the past year, a lot of left-leaning folks have been starting to critically reexamine the direction the progressive movement is headed, and to pull back on a number of fronts. The most famous of these is probably my fellow Substack writer Matt Yglesias, but I think I’ve been part of this general tide. It’s a pointed reluctance to charge blithely toward every aspect of the future envisioned by the progressive activists and Twitter shouters of 2020. In that sense, it can honestly be called a “reactionary moment”.
Let me give a few examples, starting with the most obvious.
Crime, policing, and Chesa Boudin
On crime and policing, I think everyone to the left of center — and some to the right of center too — recognize that there’s something deeply wrong with the way policing is done in America. But the response that emerged from the activism of 2020 — the Defund The Police movement — has been misguided in many ways. Despite ferocious activist statements to the contrary, almost everyone knows that policing actually reduces crime. It’s not the only thing that reduces crime, and it’s not a substitute for social policies to better people’s lives. But it is necessary and important. Also, advocates of “defund” placed far too much focus on fiscal measures — as Yglesias notes, policing is not a huge pot of money that we can raid to fund social services.
That’s why, in the wake of a massive multi-year wave of violent crime, the idea of defunding the police has lost much of whatever popular support it had in 2020. And this is one reason Joe Biden has always been staunchly opposed to police defunding. And it’s why many deeply blue cities have elected tough-on-crime Democratic leaders like Eric Adams.
But remember, I am not a popularist. “Defund” is bad not because polls say it’s bad, or because Biden thinks it’s bad, but because it would result in needless death, injury, and fear for millions of Americans — who are disproportionately Americans of color — while providing few tangible benefits. Police reform is necessary; defunding just isn’t the right approach, and signaling solidarity with activists is not a sufficient reason to utter the slogan.
Just tonight, we saw a decisive turning point in attitudes toward crime and policing: The successful recall of San Francisco’s ultra-progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin.
I should note that I think recall elections are a bad institution (since the elections are usually low-turnout). And I also strongly suspect that removing Chesa will do little or nothing to solve SF’s crime problems, which are largely part of a national trend and which are being driven to some extent by an unofficial police strike.
That said, I do sympathize with the people who forced the recall election, and with the voters who voted to oust Boudin. The man was simply tone-deaf when it came to dealing with the wave of anti-Asian attacks that has afflicted the country and SF over the last two years. There was the time he said that the murderer of an 84-year-old Thai man was simply “throwing a temper tantrum”:
And there was the time Chesa dropped charges against a man who videoed an anti-Asian hate crime for fun. And there was the time Chesa reduced charges against the man who beat a 69-year-old Asian man with a bat in Chinatown. And so on. No DA prosecutes every offender to the full extent of the law, but Chesa’s response to a wave of racially motivated hate crimes was particularly galling to the people who were now being forced to walk the streets of their own city in constant fear.
Meanwhile, many of the progressives that leapt to Chesa’s defense were startlingly tone-deaf — for example, some claimed that voters weren’t really upset about crime at all, and instead cared mostly about [insert preferred issue here].
Thus it was that the greatest support for recalling Chesa came from Asian San Franciscans (67% in support, compared to about half of White and Hispanic respondents and 34% of Black respondents). And thus it was that the heavily Asian neighborhoods of SF — the West, the South, and Chinatown — drove the recall results:
Again, this is not popularism. The point here is not to embrace centrism to elect Democrats; no Republican will be a San Francisco DA. The point here is that Chesa’s approach made a lot of San Franciscans feel unsafe, and that this lived experience is important as a matter for policy (just as the lived experience of people who fear police killings outweighs the statistics).
Inflation and spending
Meanwhile, on economic issues, progressives have run into the problem of inflation. Despite attempts to blame fast-rising prices on supply chain snarls, it’s pretty clear that inflation is mainly being driven by high aggregate demand. How much of that demand came from Biden’s Covid relief bill — and how much from monetary policy and from changes in consumer behavior — is still not settled, and may never be. But progressives’ response to inflation has not exactly crowned them with glory.
First, even in the midst of the most severe inflation since the 70s, Dems brought forward a spending bill that involved lots of subsidies doled out to already-overpriced industries. Despite efforts to sell the Build Back Better bill as a supply-boosting, inflation-fighting measure, the bill would probably have added fuel to the fire of inflation. This is just basic Keynesian theory — when nominal interest rates are at the zero lower bound (as they were until very recently), fiscal policy controls aggregate demand.
You can be a popularist about this, and say that it’s bad because inflation is voters’ top concern. But this isn’t necessary. Inflation is bad in its own right; because “sticky” nominal wages make it hard for people to get raises, inflation tends to lower real purchasing power. Here’s a graph showing how real wages have evolved during the new age of inflation:
As you can see, real wages at the bottom of the distribution have risen a bit (yay!), but wages at the median have gone down substantially. It’s good that the poor and unemployed have been helped by a red-hot economy, but progressives are also supposed to support the broad middle class, and that middle class is now hurting.
In response to this pressing economic problem, some progressives have offered startlingly bad solutions. For example, Elizabeth Warren has blamed greedy companies for the inflation and proposed a regime of price controls — an idea that would be ineffective at best and economically disastrous at worst.
There there was Nation columnist Jeet Heer, who claimed that the Fed’s efforts to control spiraling prices — which Biden himself endorsed — were actually part of a Fed plot to elect Republicans:
This is deeply irresponsible. If Biden’s presidency is viewed as a failure, it will be because of runaway inflation, not because of a mild recession that the Fed induces in order to tame inflation.
Problems with substance, problems with style
Crime and inflation. These are the two things that sunk Democrats in the 1970s and 80s. They are not matters of style and rhetoric, but of substance — real physical safety, bread-and-butter purchasing power.
Over the past three decades, Democrats have had an advantage over Republicans in dealing with matters of substance. When it came time to dish out stimulus in the Great Recession, Dems were there and Republicans faltered. Dems were the only party that wanted to deal with climate change at all. Democratic welfare policies reduced child poverty, while Republicans stood on the sidelines and limply claimed that these policies didn’t work. Dems re-regulated finance, insured the uninsured, prevented Social Security from being dismantled, and (eventually) ended the Iraq War. Republicans did little of substance except to dish out tax cuts that didn’t boost growth (and to start the Iraq War).
But crime and inflation are very real, substantive problems that large parts of the progressive movement seem dismissive of, and which their preferred policies would exacerbate. If this dismissal becomes the movement’s consensus, it will mean that progressives have essentially forfeited the high ground of social effectiveness.
That’s a big part of the reason we are now having a reactionary moment. Until now I’ve intentionally avoided talking about issues of style and rhetoric — the obnoxious insistence on the use of “Latinx” when almost no Latinos use it and many find it offensive, the widespread use of ineffective and offensive diversity-training materials that claim that hard work and rationality and punctuality are inherently White traits, and so on. To me, these cultural quirks simply matter less than things that affect pocketbooks or physical safety. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least give these stylistic issues a mention.
Political rhetoric matters not just because it affects people’s lives directly, but because it provides a preview of where a movement intends to take the country. For just one example, let’s take progressive messaging on climate change.
In recent years, even as climate change has stayed regrettably low on most Americans’ list of priorities, many progressives have adopted an attitude of fatalistic doom about it — so many that Ezra Klein recently wrote a New York Times article telling his progressive friends that climate change isn’t a reason to avoid having kids. When climate scientist Zeke Hausfather praised the article, he was set upon by folks who called him a climate denialist:
Being a doomer is fine, if you keep it to yourself — if you want to sit in your chair and watch Netflix because you think the world is about to end, that’s your business. But insisting on maximum futility and pessimism as the proper progressive attitude, and trying to police anyone who doesn’t adopt this attitude, is madness. It doesn’t impress the urgency of climate change on the public; instead, it sends the message that progressives don’t think anything can actually be done.
Anti-patriotism, which has become pervasive in the stories progressive tells about America over the last decade, is also part of this. Ben Rhodes, a former Obama speechwriter, has a great article in The Atlantic explaining why progressives should start telling more positive stories about America again — not just to win elections, but to motivate positive change. But I don’t think many are listening.
The reactionary moment is, in part, a reaction against these sorts of socially enforced but counterproductive and often simply wacky progressive attitudes.
The reactionary moment will end
Thus we have had a year of pushback against the progressive ideas and memes of the Trump era. But I predict that this reactionary moment will come to an end soon — specifically, after the midterm elections this November.
The reason is that Republicans are highly likely to win those midterms and retake control of at least one house of Congress. This is partly because of thermostatic politics (a predictable backlash against the party of the sitting President), partly about inflation and crime, and perhaps partly about a backlash against progressive cultural memes (though I suspect this latter factor gets consistently overblown). But for whatever reason, Dems’ days as the Congressional majority seem numbered.
Many Democratic voters — myself included — feel a deep sense of futility about this impending result. It doesn’t mean “democracy will die”, but it does mean it will be much harder to stop Trump from sending slates of fake electors to Congress in 2024. And it will mean an end to the big policy hopes that some of us had pinned on the Biden presidency (if that end has not already come, thanks to Joe Manchin).
So I think the reactionary moment is, to some degree, people taking the opportunity to air out their frustrations with the progressive movement before the hammer drops and we all have to start freaking out about the Right again. Of course the Right is already doing lots of stuff that’s freakout-worthy, at the state level. But when they regain power at the national level, it will be time to play defense, especially regarding the presidential election of 2024 — on which the fate of American democracy might actually hinge.
Most of us want to go into that dark time with as strong a message as possible. The progressive movement has a number of weaknesses that need shoring up, and this requires argument and dissent. But after the midterms, we won’t really have the luxury of doing this. So we’re doing it now.
So it’s almost time, I think, to start discussing the reactionary moment in the past tense. You can even tell that the issues I talked about before — crime, inflation, Latinx, whatever — are all a little stale by now. The complaints have been aired. At the electoral and grassroots level, backlashes like the Chesa recall will continue to play out, but at the public intellectual level I think it’s just about time to move on to other, scarier things.