What would a Biden era be like? Recent protests give us some ideas.
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
I didn’t know when I wrote my Super Tuesday blog post on March 4 that I was in the last week of a normal, pre-pandemic world. I wrote then about the challenge facing the Democratic Party over its orientation toward change, and reconciling the ideas behind the Sanders and Biden candidacies. These questions have only sharpened since then. T he political conditions under which Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee are dramatically different from those under which he will compete in the general election. The normalcy candidate won most of the primaries. But the shift in conditions has changed the political conversation to, well, change.
I also didn’t know when I wrote about Trump as the end of the Reagan era, as a president making what political scientist (and many-years-ago dissertation committee member of mine) Stephen Skowronek, has called “disjunctive politics” that the fourth year of Trump’s presidency would feature a deadly pandemic, a severe recession or nationwide multi-day protests over police violence. Or that Trump’s brand of politics, with its racism, aversion to government action, and antipathy toward expertise, would be so perfectly ill-suited to this particular crisis.
As the crisis has worn on, plenty of people have noted the comparison between Trump and Hoover. But what might come next? The theory of political time suggests that after a disjunctive presidency brings the old era down, discrediting the ideology and straining the coalition, a reconstructive era begins. As I’ve noted above, Biden seems like an odd candidate for ushering in a new era in politics. He served in Congress for over 30 years and, of course, as vice president. In last summer’s debates, Kamala Harris confronted Biden about his record on bussing. His role in the 1994 crime bill has been criticized. And even apart from those issues, he’s simply a part and product of the old structure of politics. But if a Democrat wins in November, it will (almost certainly) be him. So what might we expect from a Biden era of reconstructive politics? What even is an era of reconstructive politics? What’s the role of the president in bringing about such change? What are some of the uncertainties and contradictions that a new political order might contend with?
Thinking beyond the presidency
Skowronek’s theory of political time argues that American presidential politics works in cycles, with a period of renewal – reconstruction or reconstructive politics – coming after the collapse of the old cycle. So you get pairings like Buchanan and Pierce followed by Lincoln, Hoover followed by FDR, Carter by Reagan, etc. These categories map fairly well onto conventional wisdom about presidential rankings and the book explains both how inherited circumstances shape presidencies and tries to refocus scholarly attention on the impact of presidential action. The central idea is that presidents are in part characterized by their relationship to the political order – the ideas, institutions and dominant party of a particular period in time.
An important feature of these orders are the social movements that energize the parties in power and help to define the issues. These movements tend to start their work creating a new political order well before the transition to a full reconstructive politics. The conservative movement that defined the Reagan years began to really gain influence during the Nixon years. The abolition movement helped shape the politics of Lincoln’s presidency. FDR was drawing on decades of Progressive movement thinking and action.
Simply put, Biden’s party affiliation allows him to reject the politics of Trump, Reagan and the Republicans in between – but no matter who the Democrats nominated this year, that person was never going to actually be the engine for major political change. Rather, that groundwork has been in progress for many years. If Biden wins in November, he might be in a good position to be a reconstructive leader. He’s an odd candidate for such a position – he seems much less likely than Obama at first glance. The thing is that reconstructive politics is about more than the president.
Some of the apparent gaps between Biden and parts of the possible new Democratic coalition highlight why the president might be less important this time around. There was a significant age gap in his support during the primaries. And if Biden is elected, its unlikely to restore institutional trust immediately or create faith in the political process in groups that have been left out (including but not limited to young people). Like many social movements, this one isn’t specifically within a political party. Nevertheless, it seems likely to heavily influence the agenda of the one currently seeking the White House. Reconstructive politics is typically a combination of social movement pressures and decisions by politicians working within the political system. And in this case, I think there is some reason to believe that it makes sense to look at movements and activists, not just politicians, to get a sense of what a new political order might look like.
Shifting political power
There are two things here that I think are worth paying attention to when it comes to the possibility of a new Democratic coalition. First, there’s the nature of the coalition. Previous eras of reconstructive politics have involved creating a new coalition. Jackson and Lincoln owed their presidencies to new political parties. FDR and Reagan are both associated with lasting changes in their party coalitions. But this is tricky in 2020. Parties are changing but coalitions are hardly in flux – in contrast, the connections between partisanship and other forms of social identity seem to be deepening. It’s possible that there will be a significant defection from Trump and maybe the GOP more generally among moderate, establishment Republicans. Some people expected this in 2016 and it didn’t happen.
But the nature of the Democratic coalition could still change, even if the groups in the electorate don’t. Parties in power have often sought votes from various minority groups – racial, ethnic, religious – but have rarely let these group really drive the agenda or access real power. (The story about evangelicals and movement conservatives and Reagan era Republicans is a whole other blog post. Or book chapter.) This is a massive oversimplification, of course, and I don’t mean to erase the agency and work of political actors in these groups. The story of the modern Democratic Party, however, has largely been one of managing a multi-racial coalition to win votes in a majority-white nation. Scholars have documented the ways in which this dynamic has sidelined the concerns of Black Americans and narrowed the path to political office for some candidates. Population numbers are what they are. But a combination of changing attitudes (see next section) and the possibility that the Black Lives Matter movement could be a significant political force in the party might mean that the balance of power could shift in a meaningful way.
Second, a reconstructive period usually entails a shift in the terms of debate – what kinds of ideas serve as recurring justifications for new policy directions, what kinds of changes are assumed to be possible or with the scope of standard politics. There are several areas where I’ve observed this shifting, although these are impressions. Politicians across the ideological spectrum have had to address income inequality. Moderate Democrats – and perhaps even some Republicans – may not support Medicare for all. Others may disagree about what it means. But the idea has become somewhat of a starting point for conversations about health care, forcing politicians, especially Democrats, to respond to it. Slogans like “abolish ICE” and “defund the police” may also take on this role. We’re already seeing major shifts in public opinion. However, the mere presence of something like “defund the police” on a major poll – suggests a shift in the public conversation.
Public opinion about racial injustice, like polling data about LGBT rights, suggests that Americans are ready to reject the idea that some people are less equal because of their identities. How deep this goes – and how it translates into policy – will depend on both the strength of existing power structures and the decisions of those seeking change.
Slogans about defunding the police or abolishing ICE make defenders of institutional stability nervous. But the kind of fundamental change associated with eras of reconstructive politics also sometimes means dismantling institutions.
When we think of the changes brought about by the FDR presidency, they mostly involve creating new institutions – government agencies, an expanded executive branch, new laws and social programs. Ronald Reagan, in establishing a break from the New Deal order, promised to cut back the federal government and end some of those programs. Scholars have debated about the degree to which this reconstruction was “rhetorical” or whether real institutional change and erosion occurred.
But earlier reconstructive eras were more clearly born out of the dismantling of institutions. Andrew Jackson’s destruction of the second Bank of the US and the end of slavery during the Lincoln presidency are the most obvious examples. In the modern era, it’s been much more difficult to talk about dismantling institutions. Even unpopular agencies develop entrenched constituencies – those they serve, those who work in them. This also isn’t to suggest that these ideas are strategic or that I do or do not advocate for them – my personal views on those things aren’t the point of this post – but that getting rid of established institutions is sometimes part of changing the political order. And it seems likely that while maintaining institutions is always a political decision, defending these institutions is more likely to be seen as a distinct political stance now.
Two of the pressing crises, public health and policing, are typically addressed at the local level. Social movements addressing racial and economic inequality also have strong grassroots components even as they are nationally coordinated. While this is happening, national institutions like Congress are dysfunctional, nationalized party politics has proven to be a polarized and unrepresentative mess. It’s not entirely counterintuitive that a new political era could be driven by local movements and institutions.
It does bring up some major contradictions with the way that the Democratic Party has understood its stances and purpose. And this history isn’t an accident – state and local control have been associated with racist policies and unequal social services.
In a later revision of the theory, Skowronek addresses the possibilities for the next reconstructive period and suggests that it’s not always an ideological pendulum swing. Jackson’s reconstruction was essentially Jeffersonian in a lot of ways. Both mostly tried to move away from the vision of a larger national government embraced by Federalists, National Republicans, and eventually Whigs. Lincoln and FDR, in contrast, both led nationalizing movements. The guiding rhetoric of the Reagan era was to pull back federal on federal involvement. It might make sense that an impending reconstructive period would pull in that direction, too.
Like all political orders, the possibilities I’ve outlined here have serious contradictions. It’s possible that a president deeply connected to old forms of politics will be president even as new ideas, propelled by new movements, come into the mainstream. These new sources of political energy seem poised to push back against not only the Republican Reagan order, but also some of the assumptions and values that have long defined the Democrats. These include placing a high value on institutional stability over more radical and equalizing change, and focusing on national over local politics. We might also be about to witness the first national political coalition that wields majority power and puts the interests of people of color at the center of its agenda. A reconstructive era isn’t just about changing which party tends to hold power in government most of the time, but also about the dynamics and priorities within that party. It’s also not a prediction that change occurs simply because things get bad under the old order. Change takes concerted effort. This time we might see change that is less tied to presidential leadership, and instead comes from the people who are working toward a vision of something new.