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Pitching from the centre to a divided nation

What is the challenge that awaits President Joe Biden as he takes office just days after the storming of the US Capitol by the supporters of his predecessor, who leaves a powerful legacy of radical conservatism which has energised his followers and could pose a new and complex threat to democracy? Dr David Holloway, Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of Derby, assesses the potentially rocky road ahead.

By Dr David Holloway - 20 January 2021

There is always a ritualistic dimension to Inauguration Day in America, a feeling of renewal that doubles, at times, as a banishing of the immediate past. This sense of ceremonial cleansing is particularly pronounced when the past being banished has been traumatic or riven by crisis. Trump's "American carnage" address, at his own inauguration in 2017, offered a characteristically bleak and warped version of this.

A more conventionally optimistic version was on show in 2009, when the inauguration of Barack Obama heralded not only the historic incumbency of America's first black president, but also the arrival of a commander-in-chief who, simply put, "was not George Bush".

Joe Biden's determination to "govern from the centre" offers a similarly positive sense of the bright new dawn that inaugurations always promise to Americans. His administration's ability to achieve this is another matter entirely.

The challenge for a centrist president

Sociologist Robert Bellah placed the presidential inaugural at the centre of what he called American "civil religion", a phrase he borrowed from Rousseau to describe a body of secular texts, symbols, events, beliefs, practices and places that have a quasi-religious function.

They reproduce reverence for the institutions and processes of American democracy, and set limits around what is tolerable in the national political imaginary.

Shared agreement on the limits of what is tolerable is the bare minimum needed by any centrist administration. The biggest problem facing Biden as he enters the White House is that those limits have shifted considerably in the last four years, and have moved again, in scarcely credible fashion, during the last fortnight.

At the end of a period when a sitting president has enabled the sacking of the US Capitol by a white supremacist mob, trusting that reverence for the symbols of American democracy might help stabilise a new centrist administration seems a rather quaint and hollow hope.

Can President Biden govern from the centre, as his supporters hope? In such a polarised climate, the centre looks vanishingly slim in US politics today. Control of both houses by the Democrats may help, but Biden will come under pressure from the progressive wing of his own party, and, while the future of Trumpism as such is unclear, the loose coalition of radical conservatives who propelled Trump to power are not going away.

The trajectory of radical conservatism

It has become fashionable to think of Trump as an aberration, and his followers as a cult, but these descriptions tend to ignore the increasingly radical trajectory of movement conservatism in the US during the last decade.

The furious reaction of the right to Obama's election in 2008 triggered a migration of extremist agendas associated with American "Patriot" and militia movements into the conservative mainstream; while the foremost conservative faction of the Obama era, the Tea Party, opened the door in turn to the white nationalist, and white supremacist influences of the "alt-right" that would gather in support of Trump in 2015, and sack the Capitol five years on.

The desire to portray Trump as a rogue figure is understandable, not least among some of those who have enabled and promoted his worst excesses, and who now fear for their own political futures.

But Trump's MAGA movement is entirely consistent with main currents in contemporary US conservatism, and many of his supporters in the grassroots and the Republican party alike will not be deflected by calls for national healing or appeals to political centrism.

In last week's vote on impeachment in Congress, only 10 Republican representatives voted in favour. 197 voted against. Ultimately, as many previous incumbents of the Oval Office have found, Biden's ability to govern effectively from the centre may rest less on his own abilities and initiatives, and more on those of his enemies.

An on-going threat to democracy and society

Bellah's "American Civil Religion" was published in the winter of 1967, as the political violence and mass civil-disobedience over US race relations and the Vietnam war were approaching their peak.

His essay struck a pessimistic note about the future resilience of those "sacred" American institutions. It might be, he wondered, that successful negotiation of this "time of trial" would require a "major new set of symbolic norms".

Not for the first time since 1967 Bellah's words resonate loudly today as Americans inaugurate their 46th president, not least because they raise the question as to whether governing from the centre according to conventional "symbolic norms" is what the United States actually needs in 2021.

After four years of Trump, in a climate where political polarisation is one root cause, among others, of so much dislocation and trauma, this may seem a counterintuitive question. But meaningful renewal, and progressive reform, will not happen in America while the "burn it all down" radicalism currently infecting both the conservative grassroots and the Republican party continues to hold sway on the right.

The threat that radical conservatism poses to democratic institutions and processes has been laid bare, dramatically, since November. It also remains a powerful blocker to substantive progress on racial equality, social justice, the climate crisis, and public health, to name just the most immediate emergencies confronting the Biden administration.

A declared intent to govern from the centre, and to restore normalcy to American politics, may seem persuasive on this inauguration day, of all such days. But it is difficult to see how the centre can hold in the longer term, without a concerted strategy, first of all, to tackle and repudiate the insidious influence of the far right - without, that is, a further polarising of the political climate in the short term.

Amidst widespread relief at the passing of Trump as President, we should also not lose sight of the glaring truth that generations of "normalcy", with their accumulation of injustices and resentments, is precisely what has led America to the brink.

The most important question today might not be "can Biden can govern from the centre?", but rather "what can be achieved during the next four years, to lay the ground for a truly progressive, and electable, ticket in 2024?".

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About the author

Dr David Holloway
Joint Honours Lead (Academic)

David is the Academic lead for the Joint Honours programme. 

Email
d.j.holloway@derby.ac.uk
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