President Joe Biden is flanked by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, after arriving on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Few analyses of right-wing politics have the staying power of Umberto Eco’s essay “Ur-Fascism,” written in 1995, on the 14 key traits of fascist thinking. Especially salient was his observation that in the far-right imagination, the left must always be seen as simultaneously too weak and too strong. The left, in their view, both coddles the marginalized—thereby weakening the right’s ethnonationalist policies—and sneakily maintains conspiratorial control of major cultural institutions. When played out, both aspects of this worldview are heavily imbued with racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism—and both are common features of Republican critiques of the Democratic Party and its coalition today.

On the surface, this two-pronged attack on the left is strange. Most of America’s major centers of power have traditionally been politically ambivalent at best or openly reactionary at worst. Corporate America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been almost uniformly aligned with the right. For decades, Republicans identified themselves firmly with the military, accusing the left of being “against the troops.” Higher education and Hollywood have always been a target of right-wing attacks, but these have held comparatively limited power and often served right-wing ends through their own popular foils, from the conservative tilt of economics departments to reliably conservative themes in most blockbuster action films.

This dynamic, however, is changing with recent political realignments. As the Republican Party slides further into the clutches of conspiracy-fueled white Christian nationalism, and the Democratic Party consolidates gains among affluent suburbanites, the fascist attack on the left may become even more dangerous. The trends are clear: America’s economic power is leaning increasingly toward the left (think of the liberals running most of Silicon Valley); corporations are catering further to a much more progressive, more urbanized, younger customer base; conservative America is waning in both economic and cultural power; and right-wing propagandists are dipping further into the dark waters of open racism and conspiratorial anti-Semitic tropes. The problem, then, is that the perception of the left as part of “the Establishment” will increase at a time when the voters are demanding precisely the opposite. 

American democracy has always been full of strange contradictions and uneasy alliances. 

But some differences between the parties have crept up on us so slowly and naturally that we sometimes fail to take stock of how strange—and damaging—they truly are.

There is something odd about the fact that Democrats have become the faction defending and preserving American institutions, while Republicans have cast themselves as antagonistic upstart revolutionaries. (The party of conservatives used to be for conserving institutions and the policies of the past.) 

To be sure, there have been elements of this dynamic before. The Democrats, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, dominated American governance for decades during and after World War II, and the right wing since Richard Nixon has always adopted a veneer of pseudo-populism, a so-called Silent Majority driven by racially and religiously resentful conservative whites. The conservative Tea Party movement took on a faux-revolutionary identity despite emanating from a Wall Street maven on Fox News.

But the era of Donald Trump has kicked these dynamics into higher gear. Trump’s heterodox communication style and penchant for vicious overt racism and sexism helped to solidify a white supremacist, misogynistic, and Christian nationalist base, increasing turnout and enthusiasm from a cohort that had never been satisfied with a more genteel dog-whistle conservatism.

Democrats, meanwhile, welcomed a realignment that saw the party increasingly become the multiracial, multicultural home not only of voters who had long been economically and socially marginalized, but also of a broad cross-section of more affluent and well-educated middle- and upper-middle-class urbanites and suburbanites. It didn’t hurt that these new Democratic partisans tended to be more reliable voters and donors.

Many progressives steeped in traditional leftist theory warned that this transformation might come at the expense of minimizing working-class policy priorities. That tends not to have been the case: This cycle’s Democratic caucus has arguably been more economically progressive than any since the days of FDR—and, importantly, without the racist Dixiecrat baggage of that bygone era. 

Democrats largely learned from the mistakes of the inadequate stimulus in the wake of the Great Recession, and the Biden administration has been more aggressive during the pandemic in making sure money gets into the hands of regular people. The economy has surged as a result. As a consequence, though, Democrats have become the party of Big Institutions. That is code to many voters as the Establishment.

Again, this is not Democrats’ fault, and it’s not even a fair depiction of the sociopolitical reality. The Republican Party is an institution at war with the basic realities of science, effective policy, good governance, and the institution of democracy itself.

Ironically, the supposed Republican antiestablishment revolt is actually a reactionary counterrevolution on behalf of the status quo ante. Of course, all of this is quite complex, and it remains true that the left is doing both the economic and social work to challenge the institutions of American life most in need of confrontation.

Conservatives rail against “woke” culture having taken over everything from corporate advertising to professional sports. These effects are overstated: American business remains exploitative, anti-union, and structurally discriminatory in many of its practices. Still, the broad perception is that Republicans have somehow become the party of reactionary populist anger and change, while Democrats seek to defend the barricades.

That itself is a big problem. As the pollster Stan Greenberg recently noted at The American Prospect, working-class Americans across all demographic groups remain anxious about their own economic plight—and they are angry at “elites” keeping them on the edge despite their hard work. They believe they deserve a better shot at getting ahead and know deep inside that someone is keeping them down; they just don’t know who it is. Fair to say, then, that whichever party better makes the case over the ills plaguing the country—and what to do about it—will have a better chance in the coming elections.

Of course, left-wing populism exists, too—among not only elites but also those who have been sidelined by the deindustrialization and globalization of our economy. The popularity of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others shows that there is an appetite on the left as well as the right for radical change. 

The Democrats have a delicate tightrope to walk. On the one hand, they don’t want to alienate independents and moderates, who helped them make gains in the 2018 midterms and defeat Trump in 2020. On the other hand, they can’t sidearm the progressive populist left. Otherwise, they risk being pigeonholed as an elite Establishment grinding down the working people of this country, giving a disingenuous and crude Republican faux populist a platform to run on. 

If Democrats fail to recapture their own working-class populist spirit and place the blame on the real plutocratic elites dividing the country and stoking racist backlash, they will be in trouble. 

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David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.