The Z Man
Since roughly the French Revolution, the dynamic of Western politics has been the conflict between radical forces and reactionary forces. The radicals, armed with liberal ideas, seek to change social arrangements for the better. The reactionaries, fearing what change could bring, instinctively oppose these changes. This description is entirely self-serving, which is why “radicals” love it. The point is to frame politics as good guys, the radicals, versus bad guys, the reactionaries.
In this age it does not hold up as a logical construct because the people waving the flag of radicalism control the institutions. The so-called reactionaries cannot be working from fear for what change will do to their social power, when they have no political or social power to conserve. This does not stop the radicals from pretending their victims have power, but it is a self-serving game of make believe. The people on the receiving end of radicalism know who has the whip hand.
This is why the old Left-Right framing makes no sense. The people claiming to be on the Right these days are not monarchists. They are not in genuine opposition to the people on the Left. They simply prefer a slower pace of change. The Left is certainly not opposed to institutional power, like all prior left-wing movements. They worship institutional power and act in defense of it. To maintain the old framing, the dissidents are the New Left and the regime is the New Right.
Recent events support this new framing. The election integrity protests during the 2020 cycle looked like every other protest against power. The people in control of the institutions certainly saw it that way. They still carry on like January 6 was a failed Bastille Day or the echoes of 1848. In response, they are acting like institutional power always reacts to threats. They are rounding up opponents, abusing the rights of their citizens and threatening retribution.
A good example of this new reactionism is in the paranoid chanting about threats to “our democracy” that are a feature of the current regime. Those old enough to remember the 1980’s or even the 1990’s see this fetish for democracy as novel. The standard response from so-called conservatives whenever someone said America was a democracy was to correct them and say it was a republic. Even the Left would make this point, lamenting the lack of democracy.
All of a sudden, as if there was a secret meeting of the ruling class, America is a democracy and that democracy is under assault. This started in the Obama years when his backers pushed the nutty idea that white people would oppose him strictly on the grounds that he was a black Muslim from Africa. Even though he gained a bigger majority of the white vote than Bush or Clinton, they persisted in this claim, saying his opponents opposed the democratic process.
Of course, what solidified the new language was 2016. The man who won the election based on the rules of how we conduct elections, was deemed a threat to the process that put him in office. This is not what they meant when they said Trump was a threat to democracy. What they meant was that he was a threat to the established order and the people it benefits. The word “democracy” now implies the established order and the semi-permanent ruling elite.
This is no different from how genuine reactionaries in 18th century Europe responded to the threat of socialism. They used the same sort of language and they used the same sort of tactics we see today. The point of their rhetoric was not to persuade the masses to side with the old order, but to persuade the people running the institutions to use their power to defeat the radicals. In other words, reactionaries do not seek to win arguments, but rather to rally elites to wield power.
Here is an example in the New York Times. David Leonhardt is employed by the “paper of record” to inform the managerial class. His archive is full of stories that would be of use to people in power, but utterly worthless to everyone else. His job at the media shop that serves the regime is to set the tone for other regime outlets and to help set the priorities of the regime. Normally he worries about how to keep the peasants fed, but this post is about “threats to our democracy.”
The reactionary quality is clear in the first so-called threat. He claims, “a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties — the Republican Party — to refuse to accept defeat in an election.” The New York Times literally created a bureau in 2016 to cover the Russian collusion hoax. The point of their existence, and that of all regime outlets, was to undermine the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. The word “hypocrisy” does not scratch the surface here.
The second threat somehow manages to be even more contradictory. “The second threat to democracy is chronic but also growing: The power to set government policy is becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion.” On the surface this sounds fine, but he does not mean public opinion as in elections. He means the perception of public opinion as held by the people in power. His example is the recent Dobbs case, which he claims runs counter to public opinion.
When you interpret “democracy” to mean “established order” when used by regime elements, this makes sense. There is a Burkean flexibility in defense of the status quo in the face of public discontent. That is, they acknowledge the rules and the rights of the people, but only as far as they are reasonable. If the rules or the exercise of rights threaten the established order, then they are unreasonable. You can have whatever political system you like as long the people in charge agree
This new reactionism is what lies behind the weird social fads and assaults on decency that have become common.