In their tempestuous primary, Republican presidential aspirants have campaigned as if they were competing in an extreme reality TV show called “How Far Right Can You Go?” While presidential primary candidates traditionally play to the party’s hardcore believers before the winner moves to the center for the general election, candidates this year have crawled much farther into the swamps of right-wing beliefs, fears, hatreds and vindictive solutions than at any time in recent history.
In their fight to be deemed truly conservative, almost all have called for deeper tax cuts for corporations and the rich (disregarding their jeremiads about deficits), for boosting military spending while drastically shrinking federal government (if only they could remember which parts), and for wiping out new regulations of financial markets or for any environmental protection. They would repeal the new Affordable Care health insurance and begin privatization of both Social Security and Medicare. And they would deport all – or most – undocumented workers.
But in their efforts to out-flank all competition from the Right, the candidates embraced even kookier positions as well: ending child labor laws (Gingrich), arresting judges and abolishing federal court districts that violate right-wing principles (Gingrich, again), erecting electric fences on the Mexican border (Cain), and occasionally denying separation of church and state (Bachmann). And beyond Ron Paul’s not-so-old racist newsletters, he opposes key civil rights legislation, he supports a gold standard and has been closely tied to white supremacists, John Birchers and much of the worst of the old Right.
Romney, still the favorite to win the nomination after his eight-vote margin of victory in the Iowa caucuses, may once have been a moderate Republican, but he has since repudiated those positions. On major issues of class power and benefits, as well as most social issues, all the Republican hopefuls are united and far to the right.
This primary spectacle raises questions about how and why the Republicans have devolved so dramatically over nearly four decades into a party of extreme reactionary politics. Why have they been so successful when polling shows substantial majorities of the public oppose their stands on many key issues? According to the Pew Research Center, despite widespread skepticism about government and taxation, most Americans favor increased taxes – especially on the rich – plus spending cuts to reduce deficits, protection of Medicare and Social Security, strong environmental protection and alternatives to carbon fuels, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Put simply, how did the GOP win as much as it has while becoming so much more conservative than the country?
Tea Party charades
The emergence of the Tea Party, followed by record Republican midterm victories, makes the move right seem a response to popular pressure. It’s true that Tea Party agitation has often effectively shaped news media political narratives and pushed Republicans (and some Democrats) rightward. But wealthy individuals and business elites – not right-wing, middle-class, anti-government faux-populists – have primarily orchestrated the long-term shift.
In the 1970s, reacting against growing economic equality, a profit squeeze during the stagflation, and new regulation on behalf of workers, consumers and the public interest, both the corporate elite and rich right-wing families began investing in building an infrastructure of a new “winner-take-all politics,” which is the title of a book by political scientists Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of the University of California, Berkeley.
These monied interests underwrote a vast expansion of corporate lobbying for the insider political combat over legislation and regulations. And powerful outside groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the Club for Growth added the threat of election challenges to enforce discipline, especially on cutting taxes.
The Republican Party also developed an effective, if often vicious and demagogic, electioneering style – associated with infamous campaign consultant Lee Atwater. Especially after Gingrich emerged as a leader in 1994, the scorched earth campaigning morphed into an obstructionist, uncompromising approach to legislating and governing. The new corporate Right used deceitful economic arguments and loads of campaign contributions – also to Democrats, when needed – to win these policy goals:
• lower taxes.
• higher corporate subsidies.
• deregulation that created “market outcomes” favorable for the few.
Very little was conservative – in the popular sense of acting slowly and cautiously to conserve something of value in traditions – about most of the new corporate agenda, such as deregulation of financial derivatives – “economic weapons of mass destruction,” according to billionaire Warren Buffet.
To win a majority on behalf of their agenda for the business elite, the new corporate Right enveloped itself in a phony populism directed against liberal, intellectual elites. It encouraged a broad range of resentments against the “undeserving,” minorities and undocumented immigrants. Indeed, the televised rant that launched the Tea Party excoriated foreclosed-on homeowners as losers asking for bailouts from more sober homeowners – though all homeowners would have benefited if victims of the burst housing bubble had received help.
While shifting almost all newly generated income to the pockets of the very rich, winner-take-all politics stoked social resentments and undercut social solidarity among those whose pockets were being picked. Promoting the idea, in economist Jared Bernstein’s words, that “you’re on your own” rather than, as Obama said, “we’re in this together,” the new corporate Right obscured how much the rich benefited from rigging the rules of the game. As Hacker and Pierson note, government drift or inaction more often helps the rich and powerful. The Right wins when governments adopt its policies and also when there’s stalemate and obstruction. But the left needs to change the status quo to make any progress.
This fact is well understood by Tea Partiers, who, as Harvard social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson write in The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, are mainly older, white, relatively well-educated and financially well-off Republicans. They have pre-existing right-wing organizational experience. Ideologically they split between social conservatism and libertarianism.
Tea Partiers have shifted the Republican Party toward a more ambitious right-wing agenda – and a more intransigent, uncompromising political style. They have organized most effectively at the local level but also have support from better-funded, “astroturf” national groups like former Rep. Dick Armey’s Freedom Works. Yet the Tea Party’s popularity is on the wane, even where its candidates won, according to a November Pew poll. In a year, public agreement with the Tea Party dropped from 27 to 20 percent while disagreement rose from 22 to 27 percent (half had no opinion). This fall paralleled a decline in public approval of the Republican Party (from 42 percent in March to 36 percent) that exceeded the slippage in Democratic approval (from 48 to 46 percent over the same period). That suggests a growing rejection of the Right, even as candidates take more hardline positions.
Democrats have been too often complicit in waging this war on behalf of the corporate class, as they too have drifted right, becoming dependent on corporate political contributions and declaring “the era of big government is over,” as President Clinton did in January 1996. Democrats have done a sorry job of exposing how the Republican Right is serving the 1%, partly because they have been doing the same thing. They have neither designed policies to make the state visible in people’s lives nor promoted government’s positive role and highly effective performance.
Today’s Republican Party increasingly embraces a strain of right-wing thought that Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books, describes as “redemptive reaction” and “apocalyptic.” Such reactionaries, he writes, “think the only way forward is to destroy what history has given us and wait for a new order to emerge from the chaos.” The first step in blocking the ongoing rightward march of the Republicans is creating a stronger movement and better infrastructure to provide a persuasive alternative from the left, including a Democratic Party that is truly committed to the 99 percent.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.