Saturday, November 05, 2022

How Long Will The Second Redemption Last?

If you asked me to summarize the contemporary conservative legal mantra, it would go: "We had to suffer through the Second Reconstruction; so you're going to endure a Second Redemption."

There's little doubt in my mind that we are in the era of the Second Redemption: a fundamentally anti-democratic backlash against racial equality and progressivism more broadly that has captured elite institutions (particularly the federal courts) and seeks to entrench minoritarian political power as against liberal political priorities. In particular, the Supreme Court right now is not just conservative, it acts basically as the Republican Party's anti-democratic goon squad for the precise purpose of decoupling conservative political power from democratic accountability.

The cast of cases that fit this mold is sprawling. You have the cases that hoist nigh-insurmountable barriers to popular progressive priorities (Bruen, Citizens United, Parents Involved) , those overturn prior precedents which had secured rights and projects central to the liberal project (Dobbs, the Harvard/UNC affirmative actions cases), and -- most worrisome to me -- the cases which directly undermine the very structures of representative democracy that reflects the popular will (Shelby County, Rucho, Brnovich, the "Independent State Legislature" cases). 

That conclusion felt quite the downer, and so it got me to thinking how long the Second Redemption is likely to last. Of course, the whole purpose of the Redemption -- first and second -- was to insulate itself from political recourse, so it is far from guaranteed that even wildly unpopular judicial machinations will be abled to be countered by "democratic" responses. Nonetheless, I am generally of the view that politics is cyclical -- periods of democratic progress are followed by backsliding and regress, which eventually yield to renewed progress again. The big question is simply how long the cycles last. And while there's obviously no guarantee that the Second Redemption will mirror the timeline of the first, it does offer at least a point of reference.

The original Redemption refers to the successful reclamation by White supremacists of political institutions in the American south that had temporarily been integrated during Reconstruction. Its beginnings are typically dated to 1877, and generally had succeeded by the 1890s. However, the "Long Redemption" -- if by that we mean the period in which the Supreme Court was generally a force for anti-democratic retrenchment as against progressive political initiatives -- continued for quite awhile after that, and probably should not be deemed over until the "switch in time" of 1936.*

1877 to 1936 -- that's nearly sixty years. Well, that's not too comforting, even if it does suggest that eventually the reign of the witches will pass. But then the next question is, "how far along are we in the Second Redemption"? Put differently, when did the Second Redemption begin? Many legal commentators have dated the beginnings of the earnest judicial backlash to the Second Reconstruction (typically dated roughly from 1945 - 1968) as starting in the 1980s with the Reagan administration (though some would place it even earlier, in the Nixon administration). If that's the case, we may be pretty far along in the process!

Of course, what settled for a conservative backlash in 1980 is positively tame compared to what's happening right now. But the Long Redemption was not a slow crest followed by an equally slow decline. Some of the most reactionary justices and judicial decisions were present right up to the end of the line (Justice McReynolds could give even the most racist 19th century SCOTUS justice a run for his money). There's good reason to think that anti-democratic forces in elite institutions will be at their most extreme and fight most fervently when they sense that the end may be nigh.

We can only hope.

* While 1936 is more often viewed as a dividing line for the Court's economic jurisprudence -- the abandonment of Lochner-ism and the accession to New Deal programs -- it also tracks when the Court started to pivot towards more concern for racial minority rights. Carolene Products, whose "footnote 4" became the ur-text of the liberal judicial approach to civil rights, was decided in 1938. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, which augured the changing of the tides against school segregation, was decided that same year.

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