What About Today's Republican Party?: DeLong FAQ

What about today's Republican Party?

Let me give a stream-of-consciousness-personal-psychodrama-confessional-oversharing answer to that question:

I am not a political scientist. I am not an especially deep student of politics.

My government experience came from working in 1993-1995 in Lloyd Bentsen's Treasury Department, when he had just gone from being senator from Texas and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Treasury Secretary. He and his staff, broadly, believed that what you did in order to govern--with a kinder and gentler, technocratic, equitable-growth approach to policy--was to start with a centrist block, Bentsen and his friends and allies, people from Jack Danforth on the right to Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the left. You would then call for bids from the left and right. You would ally with whichever was willing to give you better deal to build a majority. And you would then vote your bill out of the Senate Finance Committee 12-5 and roll it through initial passage, conference, and presidential signature.

That was how he thought policy worked. That was how he thought policy was going to work--building coalitions from the center out.

Yet in 1993-1995, over and over again, we started with what we regarded as centrist positions. We started with lots of commitments from Packwoods and Doles and Kassebaums and Domenicis. And then the heat on the burner would get turned up and potential Republican allies would run away from centrist technocratic governance as fast as they could and things that had been some of George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light" would become ultra-left commie initiatives--where do you think Midnight Basketball came from--and then the lobbyists would peel off Democrats and we couldn't get the Democratic senators from the Oil Patch to vote for the BTU tax and so the budget-balancing targets would be endangered by the collapse of the financing portion of the bill--it was like fleeing the wolves through the Russian forest in the troika, throwing everything we could out of the back to make the troika go faster so we could make it across the finish line.

That was governance in 1993-1995. And we thought then that was exceptional. We thought then that things were going to come back to normal.

We blamed the fever we were facing then on the cynicism of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich thought he could obtain power the Republican Party by painting Democrats as unpatriotic. And Gingrich thought that once he had power he would be able to govern. But then he found that his allies who did not care about governing could use his willingness to strike bipartisan deals--and his problems with his zipper--to bounce him out as well.

We could blame the fever-insanity of Republicans on how they thought that Bill Clinton and Ross Perot had together stolen the election of 1992. Republicans thought that there was no legitimate reason why Mr. 38%-hick-from-Arkansas should be President--especially given his problems with his zipper, and also his problems with commodity brokers who kept letting him roll double-or-nothing even though he could not meet margin requirements. Note that he definitely was the best president we have had, in terms of his substantive policy smarts and judgment, at least since FDR. But Republicans thought that he was illegitimate. And so they did not treat him like a President. So we thought that the fever of the 1990s was temporary. We thought that after Clinton left office things would become more normalized, and politics and legislative processes would return to a more normal pattern.

And then we found ourselves with a President who was genuinely illegitimate: elected not by the people of the United States but by a 5-4 vote of a Supreme Court majority that could not ground its opinion in any principles or doctrines of law or justice.

And now we have a Republican Party has still not recovered its sanity. We can argue that this is incredibly short-sighted--that the Republican Party today is gaining some offices and a teeny-weeny bit of power to enact preferred policies now at the price of bankrupting itself. You and I alike still wonder what Pete Wilson thought he was doing, and how the other senior Republicans in the California Republican Party reacted, when Wilson decided that he could try to win another term's governorship by blowing up the party's future in an increasingly Hispanic California. Wilson's strategy was momentarily advantageous to him, but enormously shortsighted--and unjustifiable if he has any sense of loyalty to his Republican comrades or to the Republican Party of the future.

Perhaps it is bet to think of it as the curse imposed on the Republican Party by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. The 1964 Civil Rights Act seemed to them to create an opportunity for the Republican Party. It could attract Southern Democrats conservative and hostile to civil rights by covering the flag of racism under the banner of libertarianism and individual freedom. They could thus make the South competitive.

There is this line in the comic book The Watchmen: "You think I am locked in here with you. But actually you are locked in here with me!"

Nixon and Goldwater thought they were locking a segment of ex-Southern Democrats into the Republican Party under conditions that would I've them a subordinate role. But now the Eisenhower, the Nixon, and I would say even the Herbert Hoover and Barry Goldwater Republicans find themselves locked in and in a subordinate role with a bunch of people who are very difficult to live with. People who think the world is against them. People who think that, somehow, others are manipulating the system and stealing their stuff. Sometimes those others are "eggheads"; sometimes they are, in Nino Scalia's terms, those "pursuing the homosexual agenda"; Black welfare queens are a constant threat; immigrants--God alone knows why a party that thinks it is for the entrepreneurial and upward-striving doesn't regard someone who has managed to dodge the dogs and walk a thousand miles from Chiapas to get here as their best friend--are a threat; feminists seems to be a constant threat. I really do not understand it.

Most recently, over the past month we have seen a normal United States military exercise, Jade Helm--the kind of thing which has, since before World War II, always designated pieces of the country as "opposition-controlled"--turned by talk radio into a U.S. plan for the military takeover of Texas. And we we have the Republican senators and the Republican governor of Texas not daring to tell their base that they are being silly. They are, instead, saying: We have to take this seriously. We must have the Texas Guard watch the U.S. military. That political cowardice is, I think, the scariest thing.

The Republican Party is 30% of the country. The Republican primary electors are only 15% of the country. The truly loony right-wingnut majority of the primary electorate is only 10% of the country. But that is still 10% of the country. And that 10% exercises a greatly outsized political influence. This is extremely worrisome to us all. And if you are a Republican, it ought to be especially worrisome to you.

Alongside this transformation of the Republican Party into the Party of the Wingnuts, there has come the end of the Republican Party as a party of economic development, economic growth, and upward mobility. They are, now and for the forseeable future, much more the party of entrenched, and increasingly, inherited wealth--people for whom economic development and creative destruction is actually a minus.

A generation ago the Koch enterprises were interested in economic growth: disrupting old arrangements and building a high-productivity petroleum-based economy as the energy sector and energy businesses expanded massively. A generation ago Sam Walton was very interested in growth, productivity, prosperity, and disruption as he sought to build up the most efficient nationwide retail chain in the world. And now? Are the Koch brothers today interested in accelerating and profiting from the structural transformation that is coming as we move from a petroleum to a non-carbon energy economy? Not at all. Kansas governor Sam Brownback used to be in favor of wind energy in Kansas. The Koch brothers said: "frog". He hopped. Now he is opposed to it.

Are the grandchildren of Sam Walton going to be incredibly interested in creative destruction when it takes the form of the destruction of the value of Walmart? No.

This is what Piketty's book Capital in the 21st Century is mostly about--although I don't think he wrote it in the clearest way. It is about the threat to long-run prosperity caused by a society in which inherited wealth is as dominant in political economy as it was a century ago in Belle Époque France.

We face the very strange combination of a Republican Party that's increasingly dedicated to protecting inherited wealth on the one hand, and to placating people who fear Jade Helm on the other.

And whatever reasonable politicians, intellectuals, and analysts they still possess are trapped in there with them.