Liberty Tree

conceptualizing contemporary american politics, 2023.

Philip Dawe (attributed), The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm, 1774.

Typically, pundits portray contemporary American politics in both-siderism parallel, with an extreme right, an extreme left, and a middle caught in…well, the middle.

Perhaps this isn’t quite accurate. From the outside, looking at who is currently able to exercise power, the comparison does not line up. Moderate Democrats exercise power, to be sure, as do extreme-right Republicans. By contrast, those who seem to lack effective power in the contemporary dynamic are those on the left of the Democratic Party and those few moderates remaining in the Republican Party. It is the left-wing of both parties (if one really can can call the few remaining moderate Republicans such a thing) that lacks concrete power. They are the elected officials who struggle to enact policy.

The real battle for power today is between the right-wing of both parties. The question being legislated is something like: Should the US to be a center-left, corporate-dominated, democracy with some incomplete but not completely absent social democratic tendencies, or is it to be a fascist fantasy of guns, patriarchy, white supremacy, and anything-goes libertarianism? This seems to be the fight. It’s not a bipartisan-center versus extremist wings configuration, but rather a which more conservative vision will triumph.

This is not to say that more left-wing politics (national healthcare, so-called soft infrastructure, environmental transformation, even wealth redistribution) are unimportant. Not at all. The views, policy positions, and public personae of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, etc. matter. So too, of course, does the presence of Never-Trumpers and other conservative, but not crazy-conservative, Republicans. These figures matter. But, do they really control anything in a foundational sort of way? In the end, it does not seem so.

In this sense, it does no good to line up the parties as if they were parallel. Extreme right-wing Republicans exert far more real political force than those on the so-called extreme left of the Democratic Party. The comparison is false. The actual power held is deeply unequal, never mind the differences in sanity of the policy proposals or the willingness to work within existing norms.

Meanwhile, more conventional Republicans, the few who remain, are, we might say, far more like the left of the Democratic Party than the center. In terms of their ability to wield power, moderate Republicans lack it. At least this is what it looks like from the outside They are there, but don’t have their hands on the wheels of government even when their party controls a part of it.

In this way, the battle for the future of the United States politically is between the right wing of each party. To grasp this fact is to shift from formulaic portrayals of the American political system as a body with symmetrical wings, which is in fact inaccurate, to a kind of misshapen, windswept tree. Its trunk is tilted toward a corporate-left-liberal center. There are some fragile buds on its left. And even more fragile ones on the center-right. Many of its branches have been torn off in a storm of far-right rage. Perhaps it is the liberty tree.

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