The Realignment Runs Aground

For a moment it seemed as though politics had returned. After decades of popular indifference to the technocratic fiddling of knobs and levers in Washington; exhaustion over prolonged overseas wars; and resentment over the handling of the Great Recession, the appearance of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2015 was followed by a jolt of new popular energy. At last, there were two candidates criticizing establishment policy—domestic, foreign, and economic—and the American populace was responding enthusiastically. NAFTA was on the table, so was deindustrialization and global free trade. Bernie Sanders single-handedly re-injected universal healthcare into the national debate. Trump acknowledged the economic effects of permissive immigration policy. Fundamental political premises were up for serious negotiation.

We all know what happened next—Bernie Sanders was outmaneuvered by the Democratic Party; Trump’s presidential tenure was marked by business-as-usual GOP tax policy; an exaggerated global pandemic tanked our already anemic economy; and President Joe Biden’s tenure has so far been emphatic in its complacency.

But sometimes the light from an open door rings in the mind long after that door has been closed. Certain elements of the right were beginning to abandon free-market libertarianism in favor of economic protectionism and communitarianism—understanding at last that the invisible hand was no match for the hand of the state. Disillusioned leftists, feeling betrayed by the Democrats and its professional commissars, began to voice their opposition to a hyper-individualist social order that asked them to prioritize their credentials at the expense of family and community, leaving much of the working class and their communities behind. 

These political changes were quickly narrativized into something called “the realignment.” And for good reason—it wouldn’t be the first time in American history that the precepts of once-political foes got rambled and resulted in something new. In this case there appeared to be some possibility that we could put social and cultural differences aside and unite as a majoritarian bloc against warfare overseas, austerity at home, and corporate totalitarianism—at the very least.

Yet that isn’t what we’re seeing and hearing today. If anything it looks like America’s social conservatives and liberals have each fallen back into familiar territory: culture war and moral panic. 

Despite its brief flirtation with Sanders-style material critique, Donald Trump’s victory encouraged the left to resume its pursuit of extra-legal campaigns against the sexual harassment of women—framing it as a nationwide cultural problem. They’ve doubled-down on policing language and tone, interpersonal transphobia, and individualized racial animus (for some reason they take “systemic racism” to mean that the system is filled with racist people and not that the system has heavily predetermined outcomes for racial minorities). Their right opponents are “racist,” fascist” and “misogynist.”

“Realignment” on the right didn’t last long, either. Since Joe Biden’s victory, the once right-minded opposition to deindustrialization, labor arbitrage, and regressive tax policy transformed into a type of mirror zealotry of the left; publicly shaming individual school teachers for being openly gay or transgender, criticizing corporations on the basis that they are “grooming” children for sexual abuse, sniffing out academics that promote “critical race theory” and blasting them publicly. Their left opponents are “evil” “psychopaths,” and “demonic.”

The hysteria exhibited by both sides shares a crucial subtext: If there is something wrong with this country it’s because we have a bad and immoral culture. Hence, to change that culture is to change our political situation.

This is, of course, oversimplified. Using the power of the state to fight culture wars is the quickest way to ensure that any fundamental social and economic changes remain out of reach, while creating an opening for opportunists and other dishonest actors to profit from the collective delirium. 

One of the most visible cases on the left is that of Robin D’Angelo—the author of White Fragility, and, more recently, Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm—who has made a career for herself by offering corporate diversity training sessions at $15,000 a pop. Corporate HR departments, believing themselves to be operating in good faith and in the spirit of progressivism hold these, sometimes mandatory, conferences for a usually incredulous staff.

Similarly, though no less energetically, the right has been pursuing a crusade against racial and gender-identity content in public schools. Not that this is anything new: culture war conservatives have used public schools as a battleground for myriad issues—evolution, prayer, sex education, critical race theory, and now homosexuality and transgenderism. But most of the educational material unearthed and publicized as examples of racial and sexual indoctrination are not taken from actual classroom instruction, but from professional development courses for intended for teachers—most of the time from outside vendors. These courses are often not compulsory and only intended as supplemental to teachers’ existing pedagogy and of a strictly advisory character.

Nevertheless, the storm of public attention has resulted in some questionable political activity. Since January of 2021, 187 individual bills legislating against the teaching of divisive content have been introduced by state lawmakers. These proposals range from mild to legally redundant (another strong indication of a moral panic) to worrisome. One law passed in Texas last year prohibits the teaching of widely debated and controversial issues, and states that in the event that such issues are taught, teachers should, “strive to explore that topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” In practice educators have been encouraged to present opposing views of the holocaust.

If any of this is meant to compel the ruling class to act against their class interests, it certainly seems like an odd way of doing so.

The most maddening aspect is that there are plenty of non-neurotic, systemic critiques to be made against racism and wokeism. For example, critical race theory developed from an uninteresting legal argument that, after marching through academia for a few decades, eventually became the epistemological basis of much of the left-liberal management class’s counterproductive political action over the past decade. It has manifested most recently in bizarre arguments against student loan forgiveness on the basis that it would disproportionately help white people.

If we continue to allow culture and moral mania to direct our political concerns, we will eventually find ourselves in the very position that prompted all of this political energy to begin with: prohibitively expensive housing, unaffordable health care, a progressively weak social safety net, and mounting debt for all.

But perhaps I’ve spoken too soon.