Joe Biden bookended the second night of the Democratic debates in Detroit, Michigan, with familiar appeals to a bygone era of American greatness. In his opening statement, Biden claimed to be “running for president to restore the soul of this country.” He closed the night on a similar note. “We’re in a battle for the soul of America,” he said. “This is the most consequential election any one of you, no matter how old or young you are, has ever, ever participated in.”
Biden’s boomer nostalgia isn’t just folksy rhetoric. It’s an inherently backwards-looking, and therefore, conservative point of view. The language of restoration orients backward toward a past that never existed, and limits our capacity to imagine a better future. Biden seems to be running on the argument that the election of Donald Trump can somehow be erased and that Biden can serve what would amount to Obama’s third term. Biden argued that Trump serving a single term would amount to an “aberration” in U.S. politics, rather than an expression of the white nationalism that has always animated political life in this country.
Reactionary metaphors are ubiquitous in liberal politics. Democrats are constantly calling to “take America back” from someone or something who stole it. That formulation necessitates an imagined prior ownership that has been lost. But who could legitimately claim ownership to the country in the past? As Adam Serwer argues, the United States has only been a multiracial democracy since 1965, and there has never been a time when workers had real ownership in the wealth of this country.
Biden exemplifies the reactionary mindset that many liberals would like to assume is only present in conservative politics. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is the clearest articulation of that set of reactionary politics. It’s no coincidence that Ronald Reagan, who began his 1980 presidential campaign extolling “states’ rights” at the location where three civil rights activists had been murdered years earlier, used the same slogan.
When conservatives talk about “taking back the country,” what they mean is fairly obvious. They are expressing a reaction and opposition to social, political and economic gains made by the left. As political theorist Corey Robin lays out persuasively in his book, The Reactionary Mind, the conservative movement is inherently about rolling back the achievements of the labor organizers, civil rights activists, feminists and other marginalized groups seeking greater equality.
When Democrats use similar rhetoric, they’re talking about something slightly different, yet no less conservative. They are perpetuating the myth that the United States at some point prior to Trump’s presidency was a country built on equality. That there was some earlier time — nobody ever says what year, exactly — when things were fairer than they are today.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was as guilty of this as anybody. “We used to believe in this country you should treat others the way you want to be treated,” Gillibrand said. “We used to believe in this country we should care about the least among us.”
Sen. Cory Booker echoed her with a similar sentiment in his closing statement, pledging to make “sure that we put more ‘indivisible’ back into this one nation under God.”
If things used to be better, the obvious follow up question is: Better for whom? There has never been a point in U.S. history where white supremacy was not the controlling social mechanism. There has never been a time when women had the same access to wealth and political freedom men have, or when LGBT communities haven’t faced discrimination.
The most generous reading of this strain of reactionary liberalism is that its proponents are calling back to the post-war period that saw a compression in the wealth gap relative to the Gilded Age. After World War II, government policies helped create the white middle class, but deliberately excluded Black Americans from access to that wealth. Yet it’s rare for liberals to acknowledge that racist history, and rarer still to offer policies to address the lasting impacts that exclusion had on people of color. Instead, what’s on offer is a general idea that things used to be better, and if only we could return to that time, then everything would be okay.
Sen. Michael Bennet offered perhaps the clearest distillation of reactionary liberalism of the night. “The symbol of this country before Donald Trump was president was the Statue of Liberty,” Bennet said. The senator was responding to a question about Trump’s child separation polices and general border enforcement, but he epitomized the fundamental flaw that centrists have put forward since November 9, 2016 — that Trump is an errant data point rather than an expression of the United States’s past and a harbinger of its future.
It was not long ago that the symbol of the United States was neither the Statue of Liberty nor Donald Trump. It was the waterboard, and the images of prisoners being tortured in Abu Ghraib and the bright orange jumpsuits of Guantánamo Bay. The administration of George W. Bush was not long ago, and it was an absolute catastrophe in every imaginable sense. The willingness of many liberals to rehabilitate Bush as a means of attacking Trump is a shortsighted move that makes it easier for the horrors Bush unleashed on the world to be replicated in the future.
That’s why it’s a mistake to write off reactionary liberalism as a mere verbal oddity. In constantly invoking an idealized nation of the past, these myth-makers simultaneously whitewash this country’s crimes and exaggerate its successes.
The central challenge of the future is the unprecedented catastrophe that climate change will cause. There will have been nothing like it in recorded history, and it will almost certainly fundamentally change every aspect of the world — from where humans can live, to how we power cities, to how we move around on both large and small scales.
To confront this looming climate disaster, we must collectively move away from reactionary politics that call for a return to some unspecified point in our history. That evolution means being honest about the systems of oppression this country was founded on, and moving toward a newly imagined future, not a manufactured past.