Skowronek Season

 

xkcd


Ah, it's Skowronek Season already! Coming unusually early this term, when pundits gather to ask themselves what kind of relationship the current presidency is going to have with the longer-term current "regime", or complex of ideologies and interests out of which politics of a whole period are made, according to the framework put together by political scientist Stephen Skowronek in the 1990s: will it be a presidency of reconstruction, effectively opening a new regime, like those of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan?  Or of articulation, clarifying and maintaining the ideological goals of a reconstructive predecessor, like Madison, I suppose, Van Buren, Grant, Truman, G.H.W. Bush? Or of preemption, struggling for change against a resilient regime that remains more powerful than they are, like the Democratic presidents, A. Johnson, Cleveland, and Wilson, of the Lincolnian regime (Skowronek, I'm told by a critic of the theory, doesn't have a lot to say for this category), or of disjunction, over a regime in collapse (Quincy Adams, Buchanan, Hoover, Carter)? 

So Corey Robin, who came out strong in 2019 for the theory that the Trump presidency was a disjunctive one, is already out with a judgment on Trump's successor on the Times op-ed page ("Why the Biden Presidency Feels Like Such a Disappointment"), which is, well, that it's disappointing, or "feels" disappointing, which may come down to the same thing. Because while Robin doesn't say what kind of presidency Biden's is going to be, he's pretty sure it won't be reconstructive, and a lot of people, including himself, had hoped it might be.

In the first place, because the Trump presidency had been so extremely disjunctive, like nothing the nation had ever seen before, with a Congress unable to accomplish anything but preserve itself (tax cuts and deregulation to hold onto its donors, and judicial nominations, and judicial nominations to prolong such power as it was able to retain) and a president unable to accomplish anything at all, not even build his stupid wall or withdraw from Afghanistan, let alone his promised revolutions in infrastructure and health care. And then of course with the arrival of the Covid pandemic a situation of actual collapse from which it took the Democrats in the House of Representatives (and the Federal Reserve) to begin rescuing the nation, with the extraordinary "stimulus" bills of 2020. 

And then after the disappointment of Robin's own hopes for a Sandernista revolution, the disappointingly "moderate" Biden roused new hopes by beginning seemingly to transform himself with an idea of reconstructionism, to be trying to picture himself in the shoes of FDR or at least Obama with his "big fucking deal":

The combination of the Covid economy, with its shocking inequalities and market failures, and a summer of fire and flood seemed to authorize a left-leaning politics of permanent cash supports to workers and families, increased taxes on the rich to fund radical expansions of health care, elder care and child care, and comprehensive investments in green energy and infrastructure, with high-paying union jobs.

Most important, the package cohered. Instead of a laundry list of gripes and grievances, it featured the consistent items of an alternative ideology and ascendant set of social interests. It promised to replace a sclerotic order that threatens to bury us all with a new order of common life. 

Which, of course, the Congress has indeed begun to pass, for $3 trillion so far in the American Rescue and BIF packages, with another trillion or two to come in the BBB, in spite of the Democrats' precarious hold on the legislature (compared with Roosevelt's massive majorities from the 1932 election).

But it's all ashes in Robin's mouth because of what Biden has not accomplished after 11 whole months in office—the end of the filibuster, the curbing of the gerrymander, statehood for Puerto Rico and DC, essential reform on voting rights and election procedures, and "labor law reforms, enabling workers to form unions," because of the factors we all know about.

I really think this is a mistake, and not only because it's not being given enough time. I'm saying it because, if Skowronek's theory really is any kind of theory, it positively predicts that these other elements will come, sooner or later, because the structural conditions for a reconstructive presidency are met, and the Biden plans (as Robin describes them, including the things Biden hasn't done yet) responds to it so neatly. Unless there is some completely different kind of transformation in the offing, like the end of democracy altogether in Bannonite fascism, which Stephen Bannon, and Erik Prince, and the other rich-boy fascist cosplayers, don't have the skills or energy to produce (Stone and Manafort did). 

The other possibility we're looking at right now, the Republican takeover of the presidential election system through GOP legislatures in blue or blueing states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas) is a preemptive attempt to prolong the agony, not a decisive reconstruction, in my opinion. It'll be awful, and could take a very long time, but it won't overturn whatever gets passed in the Biden agenda and it won't achieve anything permanent. The "new order of common life" Robin sees in the BBB will survive—just barely, perhaps, the way the Affordable Care Act did in the first round—for the time when the reconstruction proper begins.

(1) Reconstructive presidencies are most likely to follow moments of extreme crisis, like the secession of the Confederate states in 1860 or the Great Depression, the worst crises the Union has ever endured (Pearl Harbor was very scary, but the government in late 1941 was very resilient. The Reaganaut regime has been in effective collapse for a long time, since at least 2005 or 2006, when it became clear what disasters the two Bush wars were, followed by Hurricane Katrina and then by the 2008 financial collapse; the Obama administration decided to rescue it without attempting a reconstruction, even as they pushed through very important legislation on healthcare and banking, only to see their successor plunge the country back into crisis with unsustainable deficits, an unplanned withdrawal from foreign engagements, and finally a lethal plague.

(2) Robin is certainly right to say that 

What each of these presidents had at their back was an independent social movement. Behind Lincoln marched the largest democratic mass movement for abolition in modern history. Alongside F.D.R. stood the unions. Each of these movements had their own institutions

—but Biden has two of those: an extraordinarily rejuvenated labor movement that has taken off in the middle of the pandemic to win unprecedented wage gains for workers, and an extraordinarily successful group of Black activists, mostly female, who were behind Biden's victory in the South Carolina primary (while Robin was still mooning over the Nevada caucuses) and the conquest of Georgia in the general election.

(3) The Biden administration has saved the economy in a way that's much clearer to the public than the way the Obama administration did in 2009, as Professor Newman says:

In fact, the US is the only leading economy where real household income - which takes into accounts inflation- as well as overall GDP, are higher now than before the pandemic hit. Every country has struggled with pandemic recovery challenges, from reopening schools to dealing with supply chain disruptions, but strong government action meant the U.S. has recovered far better than other countries.

Something huge is going to happen, if there's anything to Skowronek's theory, and it's just as likely to be the nice thing as the dreadful thing—indeed, at least a bit more likely, to the extent that the dreadful thing hasn't ever happened before and the nice thing has, quite a lot, considering.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.