In a durable society, the majority of the population believes the basic governing structure is sound. Conservatives and liberals only differ on the speed and extent of reforms required by the inevitable changing social and economic dynamics at home and abroad. Since the Civil War, the United States has been governed by centrist coalitions shaped by Republicans, Democrats, and an occasional independent.
At times the United States leans left as with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal or to the right with Ronald Reagan’s trickledown economics. In recent years, however, a significant number of Americans has begun to question the integrity of the present system. Joe Biden, a life-long centrist, has stated that a prime objective of his presidency is to re-establish faith in the historical norms of government and mass media.
Biden’s Democratic Party is moderately center-left. It believes that problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic, racial unrest, and the wealth gap require significant legislative action like previous successful major reforms. Mass movements such as Black Lives Matter and progressive economists such as Robert Reich advocate bolder changes, but their proposed methods and long-term outcomes remain within the guiding assumptions of the established system.
To the left of liberals are radicals. The dictionary synonym for ‘radical’ is ‘extreme’. In political parlance radical is used to indicate a desire to replace the present government and economic system with something entirely new. Politicians, media, and sloppy historians often confuse the public by referring to a ‘radical right’ to indicate an extreme desire to revert to a past idealized society. The proper term for such a view is ‘reactionary’.
Currently the largest American organization definable as radical is the Democratic Socialists of America, a not-for profit political action organization with 90,000 members. The defining feature of all social democrats is the commitment to create change through incremental legislation. A handful of democratic socialists, some of them members of DSA, have been elected to federal, state, and local offices. The international counterparts are the democratic socialists in countries such as Sweden that have forged a mixed economy with ample opportunities for social mobility. DSA presently works within the Democratic Party.
Martin Luther King, a self-defined Christian socialist, championed the radical idea of using non-violent resistance as the road to change, not armed insurrection. The radical Industrial Workers of the World of the early 1900s believed revolution would be achieved through a general strike. The Communist Party USA, vibrant in the 1930s and 1940s believed unresolved social problems would culminate in a crisis like that in 1917 Russia. At that point its disciplined cadre would be accepted as the best vehicle for social change.
The only significant American radical movement committed to immediate violent change consisted of fringe anarchists at the term of the century who carried out assassinations, bombings, and acts of sabotage. No such organized tendences are currently visible in the American left.
Today’s conservatives minimize the urgency of social problems and propose moderate and slowly paced change. This is evident in positions taken regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, a failing hospital system, declining social mobility, etc. No contemporary conservative is committed to the racial justice movement in the manner of the late Congressman Jack Kemp, a Republican conservative.
The vast majority of conservatives employ the methods of the civil rights movement. They seek control of Congress and the court system. They assert state’s rights unless they have controlling power of the federal government. In that circumstance, religious groups are willing to impose their views on others who do not share their faith. Likewise, regional and self-interest groups are willing to sacrifice national needs for their own priorities.
A growing trend is for conservatives to edge toward reactionary positions. They look back to a white-washed former time, in which they believe they had more influence and honor. This is manifested in Congress where new reform legislation is often not even called for a vote while legislation is constantly proposed to reverse past changes conservatives had opposed.
A number of reactionaries have formed armed groups they like to call militias. They often display Nazi-like symbols and their social media anticipates an armed struggle for state power. Some of these groups have been associated with plots to kidnap state governors and assassinations motivated by racial or religious hatred. The FBI has documented that most political violence in America is generated by such reactionary rightists, not radical leftists.
In the next four years, conservatives and liberals need to meaningfully deal with the many concerns being aired by Americans. Failure to do so will drive more Americans to extreme positions. Usually, the first societal impulse is to accept reactionary promises of returning to the imagined glories of the past. Leftist revolutionaries also will emerge from movements whose unmet grievances have been simmering for decades. Confrontations between these opposing political forces could alter the very nature of American society.