Everything Is Backlash

Emily Molli/NurPhoto/Sipa USA via AP Images

Protesters gather to demonstrate against Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington. 

The battle over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court will have effects for years to come—legally, sociologically, and politically—and to understand the political question, you need only ask who was made angrier by the spectacle we just witnessed. Is it Democratic voters, who watched while the GOP rallied around a man credibly accused of sexual assault, belittled his accuser, then celebrated their triumph in putting him on the court to (among other things) eviscerate women's reproductive rights? Or is it Republican voters, who were terribly offended by what a fine upstanding son of the elite like Kavanaugh had to endure?

In other words, whose backlash is going to be bigger? The answer will determine what happens in November and beyond.

It's too early to know for sure, though I have my suspicions. But if the very question makes you despair, you're probably not alone. American politics has become a cycle of endless backlash, every new development followed by a reactionary counter-development, a mobilization of anger to undo what was just done. If you're happy with how things are going at a particular moment, you shouldn't get too comfortable, because chances are that your political opponents are looking at your victories and seething with rage, a rage they'll be taking out at the ballot box.

This cycle is in many ways the story of American politics, particularly over the last couple of decades. We could go back as far as we want, but in its recent incarnation we can date it to the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich convinced a generation of Republicans that the path to power lay in scorched-earth politics. As he said in 1988, "This war"—meaning the fight against Democrats in Congress—"has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars."

In 1994, Gingrich successfully engineered a backlash to the ambitious beginning of the Clinton presidency, particularly Clinton's tax increase and his failed attempt at health-care reform. Republicans took Congress in that year's midterms, but couldn't take back the White House, and when they impeached Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, the ensuing backlash kept them from making gains in the 1998 midterms.

George W. Bush managed to present himself as an antidote to the venomous politics of Washington; he was "a different kind of Republican" as so many news reports described him, and proclaimed in his 2000 convention speech, "I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect." That didn't work out, though, and in the backlash to the disastrous Iraq War, Democrats took back Congress in 2006.

Then Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, and birthed a backlash we're still living through. In the explosion of rage that was the Tea Party, Republicans took back Congress, and by 2016, Donald Trump was able to ride a white backlash to the first black president into the White House. I shudder to think what the conservative backlash would have been like if Hillary Clinton had become president.

And now, we're set up for another backlash, one in which Democrats, particularly Democratic women, are fed up and frustrated and appalled and enraged, and plan on taking it out on Republicans in the midterms. Unless, that is, Republicans get their wish and are able to create a backlash over the supposedly horrifying treatment of Kavanaugh, combined with the backlash President Trump and others are promoting to the #MeToo movement.

Donald Trump may not know a lot, but he knows how to tap into hate and fear, and the sentiment that feeds a backlash. It's the one that says, Things have changed and we must change them back. That's what "Make America Great Again" was all about—accent on the "again." He said that change could be undone, that immigrants could be deported, Muslims could be banished, women could be put in their place, and everything would revert to the way it was before all that unsettling change.

He'll likely try to make some version of the same argument in 2020: Liberals keep trying to change things, so if you don't want to give in to them, you have to vote for me. But between now and then, he may be hamstrung by the liberal backlash that is well underway.

And that's not to mention the backlash that will come not just from the Kavanaugh nomination fight, but the new Supreme Court. This will be the most right-wing court in the better part of a century, and in short order they could well use their 5-4 majority to undermine reproductive rights, outlaw affirmative action, step up the right's war on unions, make it harder to regulate guns, validate GOP voter suppression efforts, and hamstring government's ability to protect the environment, among other things.

All of that is opposed by most Americans to one degree or another, and when those rulings start rolling in, the fact of America's minority rule will become painfully evident. We have a president elected by a minority of voters, who nominated a justice supported by a minority of Americans, who was confirmed by senators representing a minority of voters, and who will issue rulings most of us disagree with. What kind of backlash is that going to produce?

We're now in a situation where we know that any advancement by one party is likely to be followed by a powerful backlash that gives the other party more power. Win the presidency, and you'll probably lose at least one house of Congress two years later; accomplish your legislative goals, and doing so will whip the other side into a frenzy. In the age of negative partisanship, where voters are motivated most strongly by their hatred of the other party, whoever is better able to activate anger and resentment at a given moment is the one who will probably win.

Is that cycle ever going to stop? Anything's possible, I suppose. But from where we are now it's hard to imagine how.

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