Insight: Reactionary Democracy

This is an insight written by Sara Rissanen on the recent Bahá’í Chair for World Peace lecture, “Reactionary Democracy in the United States: How Racism and the Populist Far-Right Became Mainstream” held on September 3, 2020.

During this talk, Drs. Mondon and Winter discuss their recently published book by the same name. While they started researching and writing the book in 2016 following the election of President Trump, the topic of the book and this lecture is so timely in discussing political and social movements that have risen to the forefront this past year. With the Black Lives Matter movement at its head, America has dived into finding an understanding of and challenging the structural racism in place in our society. This, along with the fierce politics surrounding our upcoming presidential election, has brought many questions to my mind. This lecture by Drs. Mondon and Winter encouraged me to continue to ask questions and find the truth for myself. 

Within the lecture, Mondon and Winter discussed four main topics: (1) racism in the twenty-first century, (2) the mainstreaming of the far-right, (3) populism, and (4) the view of the election of President Trump as an election by the people. 

In discussing racism in the 21st-century, Dr. Winter introduces this idea of illiberal vs. liberal racism, where illiberal racism is the popular definition of ‘real’ racism that we have seen here in America through slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence. Liberal racism, on the other hand, is made up of more contemporary forms of racism where individuals deny the racism in their actions. We have seen this recently with the idea of post-race colorblindness and individualism. In our awareness of racism, it is so important to fight illiberal racism and yet also to recognize the liberal racism at play in society and politics. 

As we look for truth, it is important to understand mainstreaming and how ideas move to the forefront in media and politics. Dr. Winter explains that mainstreaming is the process where ideas move from a marginal place on the political spectrum or public sphere to a more central one where these ideas have a greater influence on politics. In our understanding of politics and the media, it is important to recognize that the mainstream doesn’t always hold the most popular ideas. Dr. Winter brought up the point that far-right racism used to be the law, making it mainstream. But even as it was taken out of the mainstream, racism never disappeared, and now as it is pulled back into the mainstream, it becomes a source for hate and blame. The fight against racism shouldn’t just happen in the mainstream but in our everyday lives. 

The media plays a huge role in mainstreaming ideas and opinions. While it would be easy to blame right-winged media for bringing far-right ideas into the mainstream, the reaction of left-wing media to actions of right-wing politicians also contributes to the mainstreaming of these opinions. To ensure truth and reality in the media, we are looking at a need for systemic change to give a full range of unbiased information where there is currently a declaration of differing-sides monopoly on truth. 

Dr. Mondon’s discussion of populism brought up how the increased use of the word “populism” in mainstream media comes to amplify the concept of populism. Many people associate populism with what is popular among the people but this isn’t reality. The media’s use of populism links populism with far-right ideas and emphasizes this link. 

This flows into Dr. Mondon’s next point which regards President Trump’s election as a (white) working-class populist revolt. Following the election in 2016, this is how many Americans viewed the election and how it was framed in the media. The narrative became that Trump was elected by the working class of the United States, but upon looking at the election data shared in this lecture, it becomes clear that this was not the case. Rather Trump did quite well in the lower middle class, not the lower working class. 

There are quite a few problems with the way that Trump’s election has been framed with the misuse of class and its implications. This idea racializes the working class as white while in reality, the working class is the most diverse class. This also normalizes racism in discourse by claiming it as popular demand. Dr. Mondon sums this up quite well:

“A most significant finding perhaps is that the largest share of Trump’s electorate does not appear to differ from traditional republican voters and particularly from Bush junior.  This means that Trump is more of a continuation of a trend, which has seen a radicalization of a Republican electorate, with racism being increasingly normalized in American politics, rather than a real break from politics as usual.” 

How do we step away from this reactionary democracy? Moving forward, what needs to be created is a democracy that empowers people. Dr. Mondon shared the importance of democracy being anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-classist where anything less than that is reactionary.

“Democracy can only thrive in a society that is rid of privileges and it is thus essential that all forms of oppression are both clearly delineated and combatted indiscriminately not as a matter of priorities.”

While the book and this lecture do discuss what individuals can do, what we need to focus on as a larger community is bringing to the forefront the influence of the elite, we can learn to find an awareness of this in both politics and society and work to find truth through a full range of information. Both Dr. Mondon and Winters ended by encouraging us to never lose sight of the bigger picture. 

I would like to thank Dr. Mondon and Dr. Winters for taking the time to share their work with us. 

You can watch the full video of the lecture on our YouTube page here.

About the Author

Sara Rissanen is a senior studying Marketing at the University of Maryland. She is currently the Marketing Specialist at the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace. Sara hopes to create a better future by opening the conversation of peace-building among her peers.

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