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The New Structuralism

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Very interesting essay by Osita Nwanevu on the state of American politics and the increased desperation we who want any kind of positive change find ourselves.

The materialists of the American left have been ahead of the pack on this, of course, and the rise of systemic racism as a concept indicates the extent to which liberals have been pulled toward macroanalysis over the last decade. But we’ve also seen similar thinking on the right: As the writer John Ganz has noted, the conservative figures leading the crusade against critical race theory and cultural Marxism are as reliant on totalizing, systematizing diagnoses for America’s ills as the thinkers they criticize. Conservative moral panics like this are nothing new, but party activists are hitting some novel targets: The hidden forces pulling us toward degeneracy can be found not only within our perennially embattled public schools but also in the major corporations that loud voices on the right now denigrate as “woke capital” and the military, as well. The screeching about voter fraud and immigration is a cousin to all this—Republicans have come to believe that basic demographic shifts justify a structural assault on voting rights, obviating the need for political argument and persuasion.

The Democratic and Republican bases have arrived at structuralism from different directions. For Democrats, the backlash to the Obama presidency and the party’s inability to enact most of its long-standing agenda have encouraged both a reexamination of the rules of the game in Washington and a hunt for the origins of white identity politics. But for Republicans, the structural turn seems like a product of their decades of policy success. Taxes are low, the regulatory state has been weakened, the welfare state has been severely constrained for all but the elderly, the American labor movement has been decimated, and a chastened Democratic Party celebrates its efforts to win the GOP’s approval on its major policy objectives. The right’s turn toward amorphous sociocultural grievances less responsive to political action but ready-made for conspiratorial, system-level analysis shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise—there isn’t much more left on its wish list.

Politicians in both parties have nodded to the new discourses. But this president and the last have both, in their own way, been evangelists for the art of the deal—taking it upon themselves to revive faith in political agency and dynamism. Overcoming structural obstacles, they’ve told us, is simply a matter of putting the right man with the right temperament in charge at the right time. Joe Biden, for his part, is no closer to furnishing proof of this than he was in January. And even if the filibuster does eventually go and a voting rights bill is passed, all the straining to get those basic items done will have demonstrated something conclusively: The Democratic Party cannot reasonably be expected to deliver timely, large-scale policy change on the most important and complex issues facing the country.

However dearly some on the left might hope to take it over eventually, a party that struggled to advance an update to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will not be fundamentally remaking American health care, the American energy economy, or anything else anytime soon, given the ambivalence or opposition of its current leaders and the deepening biases of our federal institutions. The only force that might eventually transform those institutions is the transformation of the American electorate—a long project of ideological conversion that might gradually encourage voters to demand not the protection but the establishment of a system that we might reasonably call American democracy. A utopian aspiration? Yes. But our situation is what it is. If the basic trajectory of our national politics doesn’t change soon, progressives won’t have any other national political projects left in which to engage.

As the continued decimation of the Voting Rights Act today shows, we are in a very deep hole. And having Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema actually prefer this situation is beyond depressing.

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