2022: The Year of Cultural Reaction
As the year draws to a close, it’s time to take stock. Events can move so fast that they flummox our ability to make sense of them, especially in America’s goldfish-brained political discourse. Looking back on 2022 in American politics, the grand unifying theme is cultural reaction. In recent years America’s divided politics have created a dynamic where the party outside of the White House rages so hard that their followers’ collective ire tends to call the tune at the political dance. In the aftermath of the Trump presidency, conservatives have gone all in on cultural reaction.
They learned a lesson from Trump, namely that most people, including their own followers, don’t actually like conservative economic beliefs, which boil down to smacking the people with the hard hand of capitalism. During the pandemic Immortan Trump let the money taps flow, showering lavish loans on the smallest of businesses and not expecting to get it back. While Republicans still talk about lowering taxes and the like, they have decided to foreground cultural reaction instead.
This stuff is the red meat that keeps their disparate coalition together. Whether it’s working-class Bible thumpers or boardroom libertarians, they all agree that they hate liberals and think liberals are trying to control them. And for a conservative, there is nothing, NOTHING worse on this earth than having to do a thing a liberal wants them to do. If you’re wondering why so many people would refuse a vaccine proven to be safe during the deadliest pandemic in a century, there’s your answer.
Cultural reaction dominated 2022’s politics. Conservatives doubled down on their anti-CRT crusade, banning books and filling school boards with brigades of tinfoil-hatted mouth breathers. Several states are openly persecuting transgender children and Texas is going after their parents, too. The governor of Floria waged a very public war against Disney for being “too woke.” The Supreme Court, the most powerful bastion of cultural reaction, destroyed gun laws in progressive states and slayed the white whale of cultural conservatives by overturning Roe. The “replacement theory” has been adopted in the mainstream of conservative media, the conspiracy theory that liberals are deliberately encouraging immigration to increase their voters and take power from “real Americans.” Again we see a larger issue (immigration) being transformed into a cultural one. Hence Ron DeSantis human trafficking asylum seekers to Martha’s Vinyard, of all places. The essence of conservative politics is “owning the libs.” Nothing more, nothing less.
The results of the 2022 election certainly show the limitations of this strategy. It can help rally the base, but also turn off regular voters. Republicans had a huge turnout advantage in this election, and it barely mattered because they lost so many voters in the middle. Many were surprised by the election results, considering Joe Biden’s unpopularity and high inflation. Those people are only surprised because they assume politics works like it used to. It most definitely does not.
As for Democrats, their politics has become one of anti-cultural reaction. They shouted about the Dobbs decision from every rooftop, taking advantage of the culture backlash’s overreach. Even in conservative Kansas, birthplace of Operation Rescue, voters voted to maintain legal abortion and re-elect a Democratic governor. Some took the Democrats to task for not doing enough to emphasize their legislative accomplishments around infrastructure, but that assumes voters care. about stuff like that. (I wish they did! But let’s acknowledge reality here, folks.)
The Brocialists like to poo-poo thing dynamic, forgetting that things that might seem like mere “culture wars” obscuring the “real problems” look very real to women having their reproductive rights taken away and to queer people having their basic right to exist threatened. On this last point, this year of cultural reaction saw political violence galore directed against marginalized people, from the racist shooting in Buffalo to the anti-LGBTQ shooting in Colorado Springs. Anyone who doesn’t see this as “the real problem” needs to get their head out of their Marx-Engels reader and actually look around a bit. I would love to live in a world where working-class voters would combine across racial, ethnic, and immigration-status lines to support a program of wealth redistribution, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of American history knows such a fantasy world does not exist. Instead, the Democrats are going to have to build a coalition around what Harvey Milk called “the us people.” It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to have internal divisions, but this coalition is a bigger one than on the other side.
Despite the Republican Party’s poor showing in the last election, I do not expect much of this to change. In fact, I feel like the current situation will only intensify. Just look at Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. He has been amplifying the voice of far right-wing figures while cracking down on leftist accounts and banning journalists. Like other conservatives (yes folks, he is a conservative) he is obsessed with the notion that liberals are in control of the media. (The local news is pure copaganda and Fox is the biggest cable news network but whatever.) Because they believe this, they can shut down people they don’t like, and still claim to be for “free speech” because they are the ones correcting previous censorship. (This is the trick Fox pulled with “fair and balanced.”) On the surface it looks like Musk and his investors are going to lose a lot of money, but the money was never the point. The real victory is destroying a forum perceived to be a liberal stronghold.
Ultimately 2022 showed that even with Trump on the sidelines, the political realignment he both affected and represented is here to stay. For the foreseeable future, American politics will resemble that of turn-of-the-century France, with modern Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards duking it out over the soul of the nation. If that example is to be followed, this fight still has another few decades to go.