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Mammon On Their Side: The Republican Project

September 26, 2011
By

It appears the battered working and middle classes are beginning to grasp the true nature of the Republican project.  If the ludicrous and ever-increasing concentration of wealth at the top of the income scale over the last several decades hasn’t awakened their ire, then mounting economic pain and decaying living standards surely must. They are sobering and pervasive reminders that American-style capitalism, driven relentlessly rightward in the last few decades by conservative ideologues, has almost exclusively benefited the rich while exhausting the working class and gravely undermining the foundations of the middle class.

The recent negotiations between Republican House leaders and President Obama over the budget and debt ceiling revealed the operative guiding principle of the Republican leadership to be this: Those with wealth shall not share the pain; those with pain shall not share the wealth.

While Boehner and Cantor fought to preserve gratuitous tax breaks, tax loopholes and subsides for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, they were positioning those hurt the most by the recession to make the real sacrifices, ostensibly oblivious to the simple truth that a slight reduction of one person’s massive paper wealth is hardly on par morally with slashing another’s already austere food budget or ability to pay for winter heating oil.

America is facing some difficult challenges and clearly we need to put our fiscal house in order, but there is time to get it right and how we do this is more than just a matter of economics — there is a deep and fundamental moral dimension to this issue and that dimension is apparently imperceptible to the Republican leadership and Tea Partyists.

Those responsible for the financial meltdown got taxpayer bailouts and subsequent huge bonuses. Working men and women got laid off or their wages cut, benefits cut, and a grim outlook for the immediate future. In the last ten years, productivity has increased about 30%, but all of that has gone to the upper income levels; working people have gotten stagnant wages at best. Consider that between 1989 and 2007, 56% of all income growth went to just the richest 1%. That is, in a word, iniquitous.

The Republican Legacy

A little over ten years ago George Bush was elected president after receiving half a million fewer votes than the Democratic candidate, Al Gore. Republicans retained control of the House and took control of the Senate in January of 2001. President Bush inherited a budget surplus and marginal-to-moderate economic prospects. Through 2006 the Republican Party owned the government; they controlled the House, Senate, and Executive branch, while also enjoying a protective five-four majority on the Supreme Court and a majority of Circuit Court of Appeals judgeships after Bush’s initial appointments.

In addition to the above, Bush exercised enormous and sometimes abusive executive authority, justifying that authority with the administration’s version of the Unitary Executive Theory[1]. (A theory Republicans have implicitly repudiated since the election of Barack Obama.) Bush’s unconventional and unconstitutional use of signing statements alone sets his administration apart from all others. Both Congress and the American Bar Association had serious concerns about this practice, each issuing reports. The congressional report stated that Bush had challenged “over 1,100 provisions of law, more than all previous presidents combined.”  The ABA task force affirmed that Bush was violating the constitution. Clearly, the Bush Administration was exercising extraordinary powers. It was in a sense a perfect (Republican) storm.

As was done under Reagan, newly appointed federal agency bureaucrats began implementing the same project: undercutting regulatory enforcement, internally defunding governmental oversight, turning a blind eye to corporate misbehavior, and ignoring extremely risky investment innovations in the financial sector.

This time the results were far worse than the S&L debacle of the 1980s, an earlier Republican deregulatory fiasco.  But the party of “accountability” claims it is blameless. They have crafted a simplistic narrative that lays the blame entirely upon a select few; on African American home buyers, on liberal members of congress, on the Community Reinvestment Act, on Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac — but no blame for the people in charge whose ideology was the very heart of the problem.

What is missing from that narrative? Strikingly greedy and irresponsible investment bankers, the broker-lender-Wall-Street securitization chain, diluted and ineffective Republican government oversight, Phil Gramm’s reckless legislative adventures  (one of which overturned Glass-Stegal[2] ),  the SEC’s failure to enforce regulations, and the failure and possible criminal negligence of all three major ratings agencies. Add to that the Bush administration’s Ownership Society program, the entire complex of opaque transactions, horrendously bad incentive structures, a shadow banking system that was allowed to operate virtually unregulated and a Fed Chairman who was blind to financial bubbles while feeding them with low interest rates and you have a recipe for a financial meltdown.

Why do the Republicans ignore all those facts? Because those missing facts constitute a powerful indictment of free market capitalism and Republican ideology. In 1999, after fending off an attempt by Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to regulate derivatives, Fed Chairman, Allan Greenspan said, “Derivatives have become indispensable risk management tools.” The degree of irony is astonishing.

In retrospect, the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001 clearly signaled a watershed moment for the United States, ushering in a new corporatism which quietly implemented a program of de facto deregulation through both legislative channels and lax regulatory enforcement, while allowing and feeding a huge debt bubble in order to float the economy on credit and debt. Between 2000 and 2007, U.S. household debt nearly doubled reaching 13.8 trillion dollars[4]. Most of that debt came from credit card debt and home equity loans. The consequence of this is that working and middle class Americans are now so deeply in debt that there is little hope of consumer spending restarting the economy. This recession, unlike most other recessions, has no consumer savings to jump start it.

In spite of having controlled all the levers of power, Republicans see themselves as innocent victims of the “blame Bush game.” It is a truly remarkable act of intellectual dishonesty, but should not surprise anyone given the history of the party over the last several decades. A culture has emerged of anti-intellectualism, anti-science, and fantasy economics, promulgated by under-educated, millionaire know-nothings like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity, who have made their fortunes convincing the have-nots that “the greatest country in the world” can’t afford to give its citizens what every other advanced industrialized democracy provides: universal healthcare, living wages, affordable and nearly free college tuition, and so on and so on.

It’s deeply disturbing to watch a political party, as well as the system, losing its mind. We should face the unpleasant truth that our two-party system is now in failure mode and does not serve the People — it serves “money.” Both parties have been hijacked by big money and big corporate interests. The Democrats have become the new conservatives; the Republicans, extreme reactionaries.

The ludicrous sums of money required to run for high office in the U.S. and the Swiftian-like parodies the media profit from and call campaigns make a mockery of the notion of democracy. But the situation is only going to get worse. The “floodgates” have truly been opened all the way by the five-to-four Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision of the Supreme Court, which allows unlimited, unregulated, and likely untraceable, political expenditures. It may be the death knell for the hope of real democracy in the United States.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to rational and civil policy discourse (and legislative progress) has been the hysterical tone set by the Tea Partyists. Their grandiose delusions of death panels, of Sharia Law, of a Kenyan Muslim President, their nonsensical view that every policy that isn’t brutal laissez faire capitalism is “pure socialism”, and their intransigence and relentless pseudo-certainty about dubious economic ideas have made actually dealing with our current crisis nearly impossible. From their inability to distinguish between welfare capitalism and Stalinism, to their certainty that thousands of dedicated climatologist and every Academy of Sciences worldwide is wrong or corrupt, stands as a stark indictment of the Party’s emerging collective mania.

Insisting on continuing the Bush tax cuts for the upper income levels is to either not grasp the economic issues or to slavishly serve the interests of the wealthy. If the Bush tax cuts haven’t worked by now, and they were a dubious proposition in the first place, we should try something else.

The problem is aggregate demand. Giving more money to people who already have more money won’t create demand. No one is going to build a factory and hire workers if there is already idle factory capacity, but putting money into the hands of working people who will buy new tires or a new refrigerator or pay for a visit to the doctor, will create demand, will stimulate the economy and do so immediately. Funding infrastructure projects will do it all if the Republican mania over government spending can be contained.

The Republican Party has of late evolved into the Mr. Hyde of its former Dr. Jekyll, becoming a regressive and unsustainable burden to America. With each election cycle it becomes more extreme, more reactionary, continuing a trend that emerged after the first Bush lost to Bill Clinton. The policy solutions to social problems that virtually all other advanced democracies have embraced are off limits in the U.S. and we are still struggling with a healthcare system that leaves 50 million Americans without healthcare insurance because of Republican obstinacy and backwardness. Many central scientific theories and much social science is rejected merely because it conflicts with bronze age prejudices about human nature or fear that somewhere, someone may get something they didn’t earn.

One consequence of all of this is that many pragmatic conservatives have abandoned the party.  A 2009, Pew Research poll revealed that just six percent of practicing scientists claimed they were Republicans. That’s a startling number given that a few decades ago it would have been about evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats, with a few independents.

After George W. Bush one might have thought the Republican Party was finished for a decade, but they ingeniously spawned new parties out of the old far-right legions, re-christened themselves as Tea Parties, merged together and came roaring back with the most hysterical politics yet seen in America. Precisely how they did this political historians will have to sort out, but part of the answer is this: There are two broad dimensions to American politics: One is governing, the other campaigning.  If a party excels at campaigning, sadly, they can govern poorly. (Put another way: a good commercial ad can sell a lousy product.)  It’s the way the political marketplace works in the United States. Elections are largely about money and the art of messaging. If you have well funded propaganda machinery (like the surfeit of wealth and corporate-funded think tanks and party-based media the Right has developed), you can make people forget that your ideas have not worked out so well.

One tragic aspect of this is that millions of hard working conservative Americans who deserve honest representation are getting cheated by the very people they imagine represent them.   It is an unfortunate fact that people are often swindled by their own ideology.  Income inequality in the United States is growing and the U.S. now ranks 39th in income inequality (on par with that of Cameroon, Jamaica, and Uganda; Sweden ranks 136 with the lowest income inequality of any nation). We should ever be reminded, lest we forget, that concentrated wealth is the natural enemy of democracy.  It is concentrated wealth that turns members of congress into lobbyists for the few.  To wit, the Republican Party has become the staunchest promoter of inegalitarianism, of concentrated wealth and of inequality. They have consistently fed the false consciousness that undermines working class prosperity while “ennobling” the rich and greedy with absurd titles like: “the job creators” (Kneel! — All hail Mammon[5]).

Boehner claims increasing taxes on the rich will harm the economy. Can he point to where he thinks we are on the fabled Laffer supply-side curve to back that up? Surely there is some analytical and empirical support underlying the Republican claims. But there is not and most interpretations of 75 years of domestic and global economic data contradict those claims and suggest that upper income marginal tax rates could be higher by five to ten percent or even more. So without knowing where we are on the Laffer curve, even if you are a supply-sider, you can’t say what an increase in marginal rates will do. So why are the Republicans so intransigent? Answer: because it is a religion with them; science and economics be damned.

Recently Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the 2001, Nobel Prize in Economics, said this about Republican economics:

Just a few years ago, a powerful ideology – the belief in free and unfettered markets – brought the world to the brink of ruin… Moreover, output growth in the United States was not economically sustainable. With so much of US national income going to so few, growth could continue only through consumption financed by a mounting pile of debt… In the US, this right-wing resurgence, whose adherents evidently seek to repeal the basic laws of math and economics, is threatening to force a default on the national debt.

A New Conservative Culture

A new conservative culture has emerged in parallel with the old one. It’s a culture that has in many ways abandoned earlier conservative traditions and pragmatism and is steeped in vitriol and hyperbole; its paranoia is in many ways reminiscent of that of the John Birch Society. It rejects scientific consensus and embraces an obsessive absolutism. It calls the Democratic Party the party of “big government and big spending” while pretending that the biggest part of the federal government’s discretionary spending, the military and its concomitant budget, has nothing to do with big government and big spending.

But there is no William Buckley, Jr. this time to pull the party back from the precipice. Conservative intellectuals like David Frum, George F. Will, Richard Posner, or Bruce Bartlett, don’t carry the same weight with Tea Partyists and religious conservatives that vituperative authors like Jonah Goldberg, Mark Levin, Anne Coulter, Dick Morris, and Michelle Malkin do, who see their liberal political adversaries not as Americans with different political views, but as evil betrayers and agents of malevolent forces.

Much of the most recent extremism has been cultivated by Fox News, whose slogan, “Fair and Balanced”, is more a punch line than a predicate. Their vision of news is a kind of “disinfotainment”, characterized by weak-to-nonexistent journalistic standards and a heavy reliance upon insinuation-based reportage; replete with video game sound effects[6] and pre-spun news reports crafted to frighten and enrage. 1980’s talk radio was the forerunner of this new rage-based disinfotainment, emerging after the Reagan Administration repealed the fairness doctrine[7]; Fox News is its supreme culmination.

Arguably Fox should not be called a news organization at all; not by hitherto conceptions of “news organization.” They are staffed at the editorial level almost entirely by one-time Republican Party functionaries and rightwing talk radio veterans. From the President of Fox News, Roger Ailes, who was a media consultant to Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I, to their show hosts and nearly every contributor, they are a Republican operation. Fox is in reality a propaganda machine of a kind we have not seen in the U.S.: A political-party-based network and “information” agency whose function is to twist every event and news item into a rage-inducing fear of the Democratic Party and liberalism in general.

Perhaps Fox’s greatest offense against journalistic standards was the airing of the Glenn Beck show. Fox aired his daily hour-long hallucinations for years. The damage he alone has done to the cause of civil discourse and conscientious reportage is in all likelihood beyond repair. His paranoid megalomaniacal style infused panic, paranoia and conspiracy into every issue, largely foreclosing any hope of civil discourse with his inspired “flocks.”

Dismantling the EPA

What is perhaps most disturbing about the current group of Republican presidential candidates is the unpragmantic and irresponsible nature of so many of their ideas. During the recent Republican debate, Michelle Bachman vowed to shut down the EPA and referred to “job killing regulations.” She received nods from nearly all of her colleagues on stage and applause from the audience. This raises the question: how did reckless ignorance become a political platform? There is another and more honest way to view environmental regulations: that they are in fact life saving regulations. Bachman’s twisted logic is yet another manifestation of the widespread false consciousness that is undermining the integrity of our political system; as if putting your health, the health of your children, and the health of future generations before corporate profits is subversive.

Millions of working and middle class conservative Americans have been led to believe that we must eliminate agencies which function to protect all Americans. Without these agencies corporate pollution and propaganda (which virtually every American is drenched in every day by the media) will be unchecked. There will be no one looking out for the common person. It is the sheep demanding the wolf be appointed shepherd.

Consider that regulations capture and reflect our standards and values: how much we value life, our health and the safety of our children, how much we value the world and its environs. Regulation is at the heart of civilization and is a critical piece of the puzzle that makes civilization possible. Regulations protect us from destructive business and private externalities that would otherwise be unleashed upon everyone if mentalities like Bachmann were to prevail. Do we want to give up that protection for cheaper trinkets? The world has become very complex and antiquated eighteenth-century notions of (business) freedom are unsustainable. There are bad regulations, to be sure; all systems have defects, all signals have noise, all software contains bugs, but we don’t scrap them all because they are imperfect. There are bad cops – but we don’t foolishly dismiss our police forces en masse and anyone who argued for that would be recognized as a lunatic. The EPA is the cop on the beat protecting Americans; we must not allow the foolish to triumph.

The Founders could not have imagined laboratories or factories that synthesize (sometimes on a large scale) hitherto non-existent molecules that disrupt the human endocrine system, are mutagenic, can cause cancer, birth defects, retardation and a host of other maladies. There are more than a thousand new chemicals created each year and how they will interact with biological systems is often unknown. How are we to protect ourselves from potential personal and global disasters some of those chemicals might cause? Does anyone really prefer an environment laced with lead, mercury, bisphenol-As, dioxin, PCBs, benzene, Chlordane, etc. in order to marginally increase business profits?

Again, there are some on the right who dispute or reject the science, but tell me please what better guide we have for finding and assessing facts than scientific consensus? And I’m referring to peer-reviewed-journal, academic science, not the “corporate science”  that pays upward of $10,000 to authors who will publish industry-friendly papers by attacking climate change scientists, or the profusion of phony astroturf websites promoting industry pseudo-science and fake citizen outrage.

Perhaps this is why the anti-science element is so strong among the right-wing, pro-business lobby today. Facts can interfere with the unrestrained and amoral pursuit of profit at any cost. Will we be better off if corporations can dump their commercial toxins into our rivers, streams and air, whatever the marginal increase in jobs or profits might be? And we’re not talking cost benefit analysis either; we’re talking no analysis, because without the EPA, without regulations, without mandates, businesses will not spend the money to honestly assess risk factors and toxicity of their products, especially if the Republicans can engineer tort “reform” that limits liabilities to the ridiculous minimums they are currently proposing.

The Government as Enemy

Anti-government paranoia is central to the Republican project and that is the primary reason it spikes upward dramatically when there is a Democrat in the White House. There was no future-Tea-Partyists response when Bush ordered unconstitutional domestic wire tapping, violating the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans. No response when he suspended habeas corpus for some. No response when he allowed his administration to out a CIA agent merely for cheap political revenge. No response when he insisted that we must embrace torture[8]. No response when he presented an insane notion of preemptive war. And worst of all perhaps, no response when he justified the unnecessary invasion of a nation based upon imaginary threats of WMD, that left somewhere between a hundred thousand and half a million Iraqi civilians dead and cost the lives of well over four thousand American soldiers.

No – because “tyranny” for them is defined as the Democrats using the basic democratic institutions of our political system to pass a law[9] by majority vote that, among other things, prohibits health insurance companies from rejecting children with preconditions[10] and from canceling the coverage of people when they become ill. For them, as someone put it, “tyranny is when the other side wins the election.”

The furtive mantra of this project has been: “Government doesn’t solve problems; government is the problem.”  It is a profoundly anti-democratic slogan and calculated to provoke paranoia and fear of the one institution that can potentially stand up for the common person who can’t afford to hire a Wall Street legal firm; who can’t pay millions for televised public relations drivel; who can’t buy full-page ads in major newspapers, who can’t, sadly, afford health insurance.

Perhaps the most effective evangelist of this notion was that “great communicator” (surely an Orwellian sobriquet) Ronald Reagan, who honed his skills as an actor and corporate spokesman for GE and Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company. He was, whether he knew it consciously or not, speaking on behalf of all future corporate oligarchs, who knew then and know now that a strong democratic government is a government that can challenge corporate power.

Alas, this axiom of right-wing thought was true then and remains true today in the same deceitful way. Yes, no doubt, governments can be a problem, particularly when they are not actually controlled by or responsive to the People or when they become plutocratic or authoritarian; but a truly democratic government (and if we don’t have one, why are we not demanding one) is a problem only for illegitimate power.

In America that illegitimate power is the power of concentrated wealth and corporations. Over the last several decades congress has come to look more like a collection of lobbyist than populists. As the last remaining supports for a robust middle-class — the unions — are destroyed, the voices of the People, of the carpenter, the firefighter, police officer, and teacher will fade.  Shrink government, deregulate, weaken or eliminate agencies, privatize, and you will marginalize or eliminate the only force for fairness, for an environment that’s livable for all, for safe working conditions, for economic justice, and decidedly – for democracy.

Thomas Parslow is the editor of The Leftist Review.



[1]Construed from portions of Article II, Section 1 & Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution. The Republicans interpreted this to imply broad Presidential powers including the power to use the Department of Justice as a rubber stamp and apologist for illegal and unconstitutional acts. (See endnote 8).

[2] The Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. Also knows as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Sponsored by Republicans Phil Gramm, Jim Leach, and Thomas Bliley. Signed into law by Bill Clinton.

[3] Supported by many Democrats also.

[4] Will US consumer debt reduction cripple the recovery. McKinsey Global Institute,2008

[5] Mammon, the god of money and greed.

[6] Sound effects that the other cable networks have begun to mimic.

[7] In 1987, the FCC under Reagan voted to stop enforcing the doctrine. Later that year, Congress passed a law to codify the doctrine which Reagan vetoed.

[8] The International Committee of the Red Cross determined in a secret report ‘categorically’ that the CIA used torture, as defined by American and international law and “warned that the abuse constituted war crimes.” A previously classified Department of Justice Memo states, “interrogation techniques including waterboarding, do not violate the Torture Statue.” This is a case of a subservient Justice Department that interpreted constitutional and international law according to the desires of the President and Vice President.

[9] The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, contains many provisions, some of which should be changed, but on the whole the bill does much to protect Americans from the market predations of health insurance companies. Unfortunately, it contains provision that were written by healthcare lobbyists (Lieberman, Nelson, et al.) A revised bill is needed that establishes a single payer system or Medicare-for-all.

[10] The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that The Patient Protection and Affordability Act (Obamacare) would open up health coverage for 3.8 million children.

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5 Responses to Mammon On Their Side: The Republican Project

  1. leftylawyer on December 7, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    We should be calling the republicans by their well-deserved epithet: “the torture party.” Really… a patriot ought be more than just a fanatical psychopath.

  2. SteveH on November 16, 2011 at 9:41 am

    “The People” you refer to seem to have forgotten how terrible the republicans are at governing. “The People” made them the majority in the House and the first thing they did was create a fake debt crisis and get our credit rating lowered! Right now several republican candidates are close in the polls to Obama. To paraphrase P.T.Barnum, you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, to which Gore Vidal added: “Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” Sad.

  3. liberalvoice on October 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Arguably, FDR saved capitalism with New Deal programs. Obama’s programs may do the same, but so few of his ideas have gotten through congress and he’s much too cozy with Wall Street money. Obama’s student loan program is surely a step in the right direction, but the Republicans will undo it all if they get into the White House. I’m not optimistic. Their ideas always lead to sham/crony capitalism. You are right, as governors they are an unmitigated disaster (unless you’re a millionaire). I’m not so optimistic about the working class waking up. It doesn’t look like they have, not to the level they should given how badly the Republicans have been screwing them.

  4. globalcitizen on October 25, 2011 at 11:22 am

    That’s an interesting point about good propaganda overcoming a well deserved bad reputation. It’s surely true about both parties, but far more so I think with the Republicans who have made a science of it. Yes, Bush took a surplus and turned it into a massive deficit and a financial crisis. It was done by implementing all the basic Republican notions of free market governing in spite of their claims to be innocent of any blame. Let’s hope the American people have learned something about the Republicans and their ideology. Although, I’m a cynic in that regard; I think if they spent enough money, they could get the majority to vote for anything, no matter how lame, including a police state.

  5. Benjamin on October 4, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Great article!
    It seems the Republican party once had something intelligible to say, but this new Corporatism has to stop. Something has to be done about the Republican extremism that is destroying our country. Check out Occupy Wall Street, speak out and join the revolution http://occupywallst.org/

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