Unprecedented Times, or Media Narrative

Harvey J. Graff

AS WE CONTEMPLATE the 2024 election cycle, the present moment — or more broadly the past seven to ten years — marks an unprecedented period in American history. But it’s not for the usually repeated reasons.

None of the major factors is fundamentally or completely novel. Rather, the challenge and the significance of our times lay in the conjunction of a number of elements.

Together these do make a unique challenge, symptoms of which include uncertainties over whether the 2024 election will be conducted peacefully, the results will be accepted, whether a potential convicted felon may be nominated and elected President of the United States — and possible prospects of a fundamental Constitutional and legitimacy crisis.

Conflicting assertions that “we live in unprecedented times” surround us. How unprecedented is the looming election? In my historian’s alternative construction, I do see our times as “unprecedented” but a result of complicated, contradictory historical relationships.

On one hand, almost none of the major factors are essentially new. Notable of course are the always viciously racialized character of electoral politics, along with the pervasive dominant power of corporate greed — the latter of which, however, now becomes especially deadly at a time of escalating climate disaster.

Despite legislation and court rulings, the gun, drug, and gas and oil industries control legislators and executives at all levels of government. Reforms are far too modest.

On the other hand, the challenge to our understanding and strategic choices of responses lies in identifying and tracing those elements, larger and smaller, short- and long-term, that do uniquely confront the American experiences, and the young and old. They permeate many spheres of our lives but come together in challenging yet revealing ways.

To make sense of the relationships of precedent and novelty, patterns of continuing development and rupture from the recognized past, we must accept complexity and contradiction. Simplification is a certain path to distortion and miscomprehension. National politics illustrate this well.

Pronouncement and Reality

The uncontrolled pronouncements are contradictory. We are simultaneously in “uncharted territory” and on the verge of another civil, world, or race war. Population growth lags but the U.S. is invaded with “aliens.” We learn that we face the rise of fascism but without Hitler, National Socialism, the scapegoating of Jews, or the political economy of Germany in the 1920s.

We confront unprecedented inflation, we are told, when in fact today’s rates are nothing new. At the same time, unemployment declines at the same time that rates of leaving the workforce increase (all based on non-comparable data and only within 20 or 40 years).

The United States, we hear, is falling and rising simultaneously. Liberty and equality are simultaneously labeled as too limited and too great. And of course, the inability to read the Second Amendment and its case law leads to claims that unregulated multiple guns per person with no limitations somehow make us safer. The repetitive claims ring in self-caricature and sometimes deadly self-parody.

What is unprecedented today first, most glaringly since 2020 but growing from the 1990s, is the effectiveness of highly organized, well-funded right-wing social-media savvy campaigns of dis- and misinformation. They are funded to an unprecedented degree by under-the-cover “soft and dark money” from billionaires whose overt, public role in all spheres of life is also unprecedented. The far- right majority Supreme Court facilitates this.

Among the most active are the Koch Brothers, Heritage PAC, Bradley Foundation, Robert Gates, and Peter Thiel. This is amplified by ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) along with self-admittedly dishonest and fabricated statements by fake journalists like Christopher Rufo, and right-wing academics, lawyers, and politicians.

Inextricably interrelated is the loudly effective, high-volume echo chamber across electronic media of all kinds. They are unusually well aimed at confused and fearful, overwhelmingly white persons. Failings in education at all levels are a contributing cause and consequence.

Traditionally conservative people are bombarded with messages that they are a threatened, diminishing minority, out-reproduced by people of color and immigrants, liberals and undefined, unidentified leftists, constituting new majorities rooted in their differences. What was heralded as a partial achievement of one or another American Dream, many now see as its end.

As a comparative social historian, I reject the ahistorical, dramatically simplified framing of either or both “precedentedness” or lack of precedents. “Precedent” is a historical judgement, a matter of both context and interpretation, requiring careful comparisons and open to questioning.

Racialized Causal Connections

We cannot overly emphasize the accelerating course of racialized causal connections from President Truman’s integration of the armed forces and arming Black soldiers after World War II through the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education “separate is not equal” ruling; the often violent white response to civil rights and integration struggles of the 1960s and continuing today: the still-contested 1964 Voting Rights and 1965 Civil Rights legislation, provoking massive public and private efforts to maintain school and neighborhood segregation.

Even the nonideological academic study of these issues has become known as the three big, easily manipulated scare words: Critical. Race. Theory. While there are reflections in today’s conflicts of pre-Civil War America and incomplete Reconstruction, contexts and relationships differ.

Through the 1960s to the present, in ebbs and flows, with changes in partisan dominance at local, state and federal levels, formerly restricted public monies are transferred to fund private schooling (and even home-schooling).

Charter academies bloom — increasingly for profit, and quasi- or illegal; inner-city schools decline and/or close; redlining takes increasingly varied forms. Especially at local and state levels in radically gerrymandered red states, ignoring laws on the books intersects with revising laws by judges or unrepresentative councils and legislatures.

Affirmative action and equal opportunity programs, occasionally misapplied, are most often misrepresented and radically exaggerated without evidence, now by the Supreme Court.

In his June 2023 majority opinion on banning affirmative action in university admissions, Chief Justice Roberts demonstrates a willful ignorance of the U.S. Constitution as well as case law past and present, U.S. history, and basic logic. How can the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection guarantees have nothing to do with race, as Roberts would have us believe?

At times, national politics seems to resemble the decade before the actual Civil War. This is incomplete: a progressive-for-its-times third party developed in the 1850s, not in the 2010s and early 2020s. The historical domination of the two party system underscores the limits of American exceptionality.

Destabilizing Politics

What is most novel today is the largely unexamined, sometimes conflicting but always contradictory interplay among local, state, and federal governments; the judiciary at all levels; law “enforcement;” the no longer conservative but radical rightwing Republican party and its governance in red states; the current majority and paralysis in the U.S. House of Representatives; and the state of presidential politics.

Cross-currents that were considered to be “balancing” and “stabilizing” factors in the political system are now the opposite, as almost all issues are misrepresented and intensely divisive. Not coincidentally, at the same time, an endless variety of legal and extra-legal efforts to maintain white power are attempted, also inconsistently at all levels.

These range from anti-constitutional “gun rights” to voting restrictions, anti-choice and anti-diversity measures and environmental inaction, to bans on books and most forms of affirmative action, and personal freedoms including young people’s right to grow up as who they are, as seen in outlawing medical care for trans youth.

Reductions in funding for public social services and schools, as opposed to private sectors, accompany shifts in job opportunities with increasing prerequisites. The very real social, economic and political gains of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, women — none of which are homogeneous groupings — and others over decades now compete in dialectical struggles with counter-forces.

The complexity of these currents is seldom appreciated in the rush toward linear, contradictory narratives of one group “rising” and others “falling.” Past or present life is never a zero-sum game. Neither are our futures.

Advances and Retreats

That complex process of advances inseparable from retreats continued from the end of World War II through the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush One and Clinton administrations.

Scales began to shift between the economic downturns of the 1990s and 2000s, and the rise of Newt Gingrich’s right wing, states’ “rights” and racist power grabs in Congress, and their widespread ripples and political shifts in many states.

The national trauma of Bush Two v. Gore (the stolen 2000 election in Florida) followed by Bush’s two terms, the fright and counter reactions after 9/11, and the intensely racist response to the popular election of the United States’ first and only Black president in 232 years all contributed to the “rise” of the incoherent and policy-less Tea Party, the birth mother of Trumpism.

Over these decades, the established meanings of both liberal and conservative are lost. “Liberals” and “moderates” are now an undefined but potentially extreme “left,” and self-described “progressives” (who have little clear relationship to Progressives of the early 20th century) are labeled “far” or “extreme left.”

For their part, conservatives largely lost their historical foundations in values and doctrines of conservativism developed over centuries. Most — at least those active publicly — are now inseparable from “right-wing radicals,” “militants,” or “ideologues. Long-accepted terms and maxims lost their meaning.

Accompanying these campaigns is the Republican recognition that their minority political power depends on imperatives for voter suppression inside and outside the law. This intersects with the exaggerated, not unprecedented promotion of census trends that the white U.S. population will shortly be a minority population. Hatred against Muslims, Arabs and a generalized brown subject is a natural outgrowth of this paranoia.

In a historian’s view, the power and impact of these efforts exceeds the extent and influence of the Hearst “yellow press” of the earlier 20th century, or later, the manipulated mainstream media-enforced pro-Vietnam war “consensus” (which sent me to Canada in 1970). Partly in response, genuinely alternative media — primarily in print — developed. (The 21st century still awaits the latter.)

Into this increasingly volatile and unstable mix, the relative success of Trump’s and his Trumpists’ media- and fear-driven minority campaigns made headway, amplified by widespread disinformation efforts.

The lying distortion of the results of the 2020 presidential election galvanized a small percentage but intensively Trump-loyal minority to attempt an insurrection, the first of its kind in U.S. history.
The simple fact that Trump twice failed to capture a majority of the popular vote, but was elected once, underscores the historical contradictions and comparative anomaly of the American “system” of government. It’s another element of original compromises that long ago lost their meanings.

Toward an “Unprecedented” Election?

In this context, the combined forces of unusual but not unprecedented, sharp ruptures of the states into red and blue, with red states more right wing than at any time since the real Civil War of the 1860s and Reconstruction; a closely divided Congress with limited ability to enact policy even when supported by substantial majorities of Americans; and most starkly a packed radical right-wing Supreme Court majority hell-bent on ignoring the Constitution, case law, judicial conservatism and history, wreak havoc today and for the foreseeable future.

Along with the legislative branch, the judiciary feasts on private corporate profiteering. Formally equal under the law, all branches of government function in practice outside and above the written laws.

These are the contexts of conflicts and contradictions with which we face the 2024 presidential and other elections. To a considerable extent, they crystallize our major challenges.

The overarching questions for our short and long term futures are the relevance, resiliency, and functional interconnections of the U.S. system of 1) local, but especially state and federal governing components and their interrelationships including partisan politics and voting rights; 2) a federal system of Constitutionalism and three “separate but equal branches of government” — executive, judicial, and legislative — and their relationships; and 3) 250 years of struggle to fulfill the “American Dream” of equal opportunity, in structural tension with formal but unrealized “equal rights under the law.”

At each point, the question of the unprecedentedness of our own times comes sharply into focus. Will our incomplete and contradictory precedents, systems, structures, and foundations still stand through 2024, 2028 and beyond? With two parties or more? An amended Constitution? Enforced codes of ethics? Redefined relationships among the “separate branches”? A recommitment to genuinely “equal opportunity for all”? With what new experiences and experiments?

If we are truly at a tipping point, will politics turn sharply right, or toward the direction where the popular majority actually stand oon most issues, moderate to mildly progressive?

The 2024 election will help to answer these questions, in part that is. But it is far from the end of the story. In any case, history is instructive but never predictive.

Selected Related Articles by the Author

“America First: An Excavation of Trumpism and the Trump Agenda,” Columbus Free Press, Oct. 24, 2021; reprinted with new introduction May 7, 2022

“Media misconceptions and the ten minute historical memory,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 29, 2021

“Know Nothings: A scholar and author examines the banning of books, past and present,” Publishers Weekly, Jan. 3, 2022

“How many “projects” does it take to obstruct a truly American history?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Feb. 16, 2022

“Battle of the books: A professor examines the 1619, 1620, 1776, and 1836 projects,” Publishers Weekly, Feb. 28, 2022/Online “Battle of the Books: When Historical Reassessments Collide: A professor examines the 1619, 1620, 1776, and 1836 projects,” Feb. 25, 2022

“Book Banning Past and Present,” Against the Current, 218 (May-June, 2022), 6-7

“The nondebate about critical race theory and our American moment: The interaction of past, present, and alternative futures,” special issue on Memory Laws or Gag Laws? Disinformation Meets Academic Freedom, Journal of Academic Freedom, Vol. 13, Fall, 2022)

“The Rise, Dilution, and Death of Affirmative Action, 1970-2023,” Inside Higher Education, July 13, 2023

“Supporters must bear some blame for affirmative action’s tragic reversal,” Times Higher Education, July 16, 2023

The author thanks Stephen Weissman, Matthew Snyder and David Finkel for constructive comments.

January-February 2024, ATC 228

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