Political polarization is the hallmark of our age. And terms like “right,” “left,” “conservative,” “liberal” come out of the mouths of our opinion leaders with little or no thought behind them. Just to take one example, Social Security has not been a “left” position since the Great Depression and the New Deal. But, in our times, someone who supports Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, all long established laws and programs, is now on the “left” – a “liberal.”
The most accurate term for defining our times is rarely heard. It is “reactionary.” We live in an age of reaction, one that started with “white backlash” some 50 years ago and is today the most powerful, well-organized political force in our country. In these five decades, the reactionary movement has compiled a set of remarkable achievements.
Its most notable success may be putting black people “back in their place” and, in the process, quietly but relentlessly, re-segregating American society. It has also blocked environmental action at the behest of large corporations and spawned a nation of climate change deniers. It has discredited government as a vehicle for social and economic progress, destroyed unions and turned a “market economy” into a “market society” in which everything has a price. Pretty impressive.
Reactionaries make a series of consistent arguments. They have become more subtle in an age when being openly racist is no longer acceptable, but even that taboo is eroding. The first of these arguments is that, if you try to improve things, you will just make them worse. The recent debate over Obamacare is an excellent example of this argument.
The second is that, if you change things, you will put previous gains in jeopardy. Let’s just leave things as they are, especially since I’ve got mine.
Then there is a big favorite, the hopelessness argument. Look, “these people” (fill in name of group that you don’t like) have had a chance, and they blew it. We can’t waste any more money or effort on them. This is the “money down the rat hole” theme.
As in many other areas, the Virgin Islands and the mainland are pretty much out of sync with one another when it comes to reactionary politics. There is a general sense that reaction and reactionaries are movements on the political right. But, as the Virgin Islands experience demonstrates, there are also left-wing reactionaries. Or maybe it isn’t a left-right thing at all.
Here are a few examples of mainland-territory divergence. A predominant theme of the reactionary right on the mainland, often unstated, but always there, is that white people are the best, still the number 1 race even in these difficult times. This is obviously a tough sell in the Virgin Islands where the reactionary left has its own take on things. It can be summed up in two words: “born here.”
Then there is the attitude toward government. On the mainland, a basic tenet of reactionary thought is that government – except for the military – is evil and wasteful. Ronald Reagan planted this seed and it has blossomed into something that now threatens the country’s stability and the very ability of government to function.
Not in the Virgin Islands. Government, for all its faults, is respected as a service provider and for its role as the employer of large numbers of people. But even this difference with the mainland has a reactionary face. It involves a sharp focus on what could be called “divisible” goods, things that benefit small groups of people rather than all Virgin Islanders, e.g., a subset of bad teachers at the expense of the territory’s children. The face of reaction also shows itself in entrenched resistance to change, public education possibly being the most glaring example.
Then there are attitudes toward business. For the mainland reactionary, business and “the businessman” have assumed the status of a cult, the source of all wisdom, innovation and efficiency. And at the head of the cult is the sacred figure of the corporate CEO. By God, if they are making all that money, they must be geniuses, and we had better listen to them.
Not so in the Virgin Islands where business people are viewed by many with suspicion and, often, on the part of government agencies, a degree of hostility. While healthy suspicion can be useful, the hostility has often served as an impediment to progress in the territory. The fact that a businessperson may not have been “born here” reinforces the reactionary impulse to encourage failure rather than success.
If reactionaries don’t overreach – a big if – they can achieve a great deal and do a lot of damage to society. In their own ways, right wing reactionaries on the mainland and left wing reactionaries in the Virgin Islands have already had a big negative impact, with no real end in sight. The reactionary response to the Hovensa closing, an irresponsible attitude toward taxation (which strangely mirrors the right), and the continued willingness to spend money that the territory does not have on special interests are just two examples.
In describing the impact of reactionary movements in reversing social progress, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “It is the first step in sociological wisdom to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” That may be an overstatement for both the mainland and the territory, with their different flavors of reaction. But we are still early in the game, and there has already been a fair amount of wrecking, with no end in sight.