Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Movements to "perfect our union" spurred a ferocious backlash

In 2020, we elected Joe Biden as president - along with giving Democrats a majority in both the House and Senate. Then, in 2022, the so-called "red wave" never materialized. Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate and Republicans gained a small majority in the House. Just as significant is that Democrats regained a lot of territory in state legislatures. 

I keep reminding myself of all of that when the news-of-the-day seems so depressing. What is going on in red states these days is appalling, as is the fact that so much of our focus is on whether the GOP will nominate an insurrectionist or a fascist in the 2024 presidential election. What the hell is going on?

To answer a question like that it is helpful to take a step back and take a look at the big picture. That is probably why my mind keeps returning to a conversation Chris Hayes recently had with Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

As a prelude to taking a look at their discussion, it is important to keep in mind that one of the most common critiques of Coates has been that he is too pessimistic about race relations in this country. And yet, at about the 6:40 mark in the video below, Hayes asks Coates about how he sees things in our country these days.   

Coates responds by saying that he's excited and then goes on to explain why. It's because we are in a period of extreme backlash, and based on what we've seen historically, that generally happens "when the forces that would like to maintain the status quo are most afraid." For example, he says that "you can't understand Redemption without understanding Reconstruction as an actual threat."

The question then becomes: what happened recently that poses such a threat? In pondering that, I came up with this list of major events over the last 15 years:
  • 2008 - the election of Barack Obama
  • 2013 - bipartisan immigration reform bill passes the Senate
  • 2015 - SCOTUS makes marriage equality the law of the land
  • 2016 - Hillary Clinton wins the popular vote in the presidential election
  • 2017 - worldwide Women's March the day after Trump is inaugurated 
  • 2017 - Me Too movement explodes
  • 2020 - the murder of George Floyd sparks massive protests
As just one example, take a listen to the speech Oprah Winfrey gave in 2018 at the height of the Me Too Movement.

Do you think that when Oprah told the status quo defenders that "their time is up," it was taken as a threat? Do you suppose the power she claimed for women might have been the kind of thing that spurred the ferocious backlash we've seen in attempts to make the Handmaid's Tale a reality? 

Back in 2019 I wrote about "The Crisis of Belonging." Here's how I ended that piece:
In those moments when I am most deeply depressed about the Trump presidency and the state of our nation, I try to remind myself that we got to this place precisely because we were on the verge of taking the next step of “perfecting our union” by opening the doors a bit wider to announce: “you belong.” That scared a lot of people and led to the election of what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “our first white president.” As he wrote, “The foundation of Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.”

The task before us now is to decide whether we want to get back to opening those doors of belonging or succumb to the backlash.

The backlash is still raging and, to be honest, I don't know how it will end. But the one thing I DO know is that it is imperative that we all take a good hard look at what is going on and not miss seeing the forest for the trees. 


  1. Wait a minute. This is insane. You aren't, or he isn't, saying that if he were there in 1877 at the end of Reconstruction he'd be thrilled, because it only shows how threatening it was? For goodness sake, that ushered in not a victory for racial justice but 90 years of Jim Crow, a horrifying century for black Americans and anyone who cares about a common humanity. Of course, that era is sometimes said to have peaked about a decade into the 20th century, which means already a good 40 years of terror.

    I'd be excited now, but not because white American feels threatened. I have hopes for a new generation of Americans and for the huge swaths of the country in which MAGA does not dominate. But let's not forget that fear is working quite well for Republican politicians, thank you.

  2. One thing I've observed that points in the same direction as this piece is the amount of gloom and doom you see on conservative sites, particularly among cultural conservatives. Some of this is conservatives being out of touch with reality, but some of it is based in reality. They have lost on gay marriage. They are now fighting against trans rights, something that wasn't even on the radar until recently.


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