Friday, February 26, 2021

Republicans Are Rejecting Democracy Because They Lost the Battle of Ideas


Last September, Bill Kristol posited that American conservatism died in 2020.

Modern American conservatism was born in 1955, peaked in full flower in the 1980s, and then aged, mostly gracefully, for three decades. Until it could easily, if suddenly, be pushed aside in its dotage—forced, or induced, to surrender to its younger and stronger, if disreputable, distant relative.

In sum: 2020 was the year in which American conservatism as we have known it for three generations was weighed in the balance, and found wanting.

You don't have to agree with Kristol about much of anything to see that he has a point. We might quibble, however, about the timing. As Jonathan Chait suggested, the conservatism that is dying is the one that's been focused on rolling back the New Deal. I could provide you will all kinds of historical references to the battle Republicans have waged against the New Deal. But instead, I'll simply share one of my favorite video clips, in which Ann Coulter says that, if she could be a person from history, she'd chose to be FDR and NOT introduce the New Deal. You'll love Al Franken's response.


For decades now, the central disagreement between Democrats and Republicans has been about the size and role of the federal government. When it comes to domestic politics, the GOP has promoted tax cuts in order to "starve the beast" and deregulation. In that way, Donald Trump fit right in with the classic Republican agenda. But no one paid much attention because the central theme of his message was nativism fueled by fear-mongering. That has now become the central theme of the Republican Party.

I've been suggesting for a while that, at this point, Republicans don't actually have an agenda other than grievance politics. But as Democrats prepare to vote on a COVID stimulus package, something interesting is happening.
  1. Senator Mitt Romney has proposed a universal child allowance,
  2. Senators Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney have proposed raising the minimum wage to $10/hr, and
  3. Senator Josh Hawley has proposed a three-year program that would increase worker wages in 2021, paid by taxpayers rather than employers.
Romney's universal child allowance has shifted a debate that used to take place between Democrats and Republicans to one that is happening within the GOP. Senators Rubio and Lee objected based on this argument:
We have long said that the Child Tax Credit must be further increased to help working families. In the current pandemic relief bill under consideration, we would support increasing the Child Tax Credit to $3,500, and $4,500 for young children.

However, we do not support turning the Child Tax Credit into what has been called a ‘child allowance,’ paid out as a universal basic income to all parents. That is not tax relief for working parents; it is welfare assistance.

In other words, Rubio and Lee are making a classic Republican argument: tax cuts are good and welfare is bad. 

Since Romney, Cotton, and Hawley don't have the votes to actually pass their proposals, the most likely rationale for them is to distract Democrats from being unified in their support of the COVID stimulus package. But it is still significant that they are putting alternatives forward that are basically Democratic-lite ideas. 

That is a far cry from how Republicans responded to former President Obama's stimulus proposal to address the Great Recession, as Chait points out.
During the Obama administration, Republicans embraced perhaps their purest anti–New Deal fundamentalism. Conservative members of Congress insisted Roosevelt’s policies had lengthened the Depression, and insisted only immediate spending cuts would restore the economy to health.

When it comes to actual policies being put forward by the two parties, we are witnessing a significant shift. Democratic policies are not only overwhelmingly popular with voters, they have been demonstrated to work. On the other hand, the Republican policies of trickle-down economics and deregulation have been a colossal failure, but conservatives haven't come up with a reasonable alternative. They're stuck arguing among themselves about whether to return to those failed policies or embrace a Democratic-lite alternative. 

In the meantime, what Republicans have to replace a policy agenda are anti-democratic means to maintain power: voter suppression, gerrymandering, etc. In many ways they are conceding that they lost the battle of ideas. That's the good news. The bad news is that David Frum's prediction is coming true. He once wrote that, "If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”

Bill Kristol isn't the only one pontificating about whether or not conservatism is dead. There's a lot of chatter about where the Republican Party goes post-Trump. But to me, there are two clear paths they have to chose from: (1) develop policy proposals that will work and appeal to the majority of voters, or (2) reject democracy. For right now, the GOP has gone all-in on #2. 

UPDATE: At The Bulwark, Richard North Patterson writes that Biden "wants to do to Ronald Reagan's governing philosophy what Reagan did to FDR's."

As David Leonhardt has noted, since 1933 GDP under Democratic presidents has grown at nearly twice the rate as under Republican. Observes Leonhardt: “Democrats have been more willing to heed economic and historical lessons about what policies actually strengthen the economy, while Republicans have often clung to theories that they want to believe—like the supposedly magical power of tax cuts and deregulation.” In sum, the Reagan paradigm has outlived its time. The question becomes how best to replace it...

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for that. But I also appreciate your adding at least some skepticism, along with the citation of Jonathan Chait. The post really gets off on the wrong foot, although you make up for that.

    Kristol isn't saying that Republicans, much less arch conservatives like him, have lost the battle of ideas. He's saying that the party has shown itself too ready to abandon advocacy for what true Americans and right-thinking people still believe, which is pretty much the entire GOP agenda. It is all about authoritarianism, in order to support Trump. And you're right to be skeptical of all that.

    It's also why, aside from making use of a system that favors rural voters and gaming a system with voter suppression and gerrymanders, it also has to lie about its program. Naw, we're not the party of wealth. We're against the real insiders, Democrats who are just taking working class money, YOUR money, on behalf of the underserving, socialism, and more. And there's an entire propaganda network led by Fox to hammer it home.

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    1. It is important to note when a former conservative leader like Bill Kristol says that American conservatism is dead. That's why I opened with his piece. He's not wrong.

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    2. Again, it's fine, but it's not what he means. He doesn't mean that we're finally past Reagan and back to the New Deal or, thanks to a new generation, onto an electorate comfortable with economics for the people or diversity.

      All he means is that, if Democrats (those awful people) had already rejected conservatism, now so have Republicans. Its voters, he says, have rejected it in favor of Trump as authoritarian leader, and so have Republicans in Congress and state capitols by going along for the ride. That's not nearly as comforting. And of course he wishes they hadn't because he thinks that they'd have a viable platform as conservatives, and now in his mind they don't.

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    3. I totally agree. Kristol says that Republicans have rejected conservatism in favor of authoritarianism. He is absolutely correct about that. It is precisely why they have no real agenda - other than maintaining power. What Kristol hopes for isn't addressed in the piece I linked to and is not my concern.

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  2. "There's a lot of chatter about where the Republican Party goes post-Trump"

    Judging by Trump's prime speaking spot at CPAC this weekend and the literal larger than life size golden statue of him put up at CPAC, I think the answer to that question is that the party is not ready to start any post-Trump era yet and is likely to become even more cult like in its adherence to him.

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  3. So, now they are worshipping a golden calf. LMAO.

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    1. You really can't make this up. The party that is always complaining about the importance of adhering to their very strongly held Christian beliefs no matter what is putting up an actual golden idol at their yearly main event, while attendees show up to kiss the ring of their leader.

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  4. Was "conservatism" ever an ideology? The think tanks were in the heyday, starting in the 50's to the 80's, but they were mainly providing fig leafs for Republican governance. The main goal was to weaken governance so it could not stand up to business interests. That turns out to be really bad for society and thus businesses--but most businesses can not see beyond their nose. Now Republicans have event stopped going through those motions and have completely given up on governance.

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  5. There was a great article in the Atlantic a few months ago about Conservatism’s direction and it was commented by a prominent (group of?) conservative that they’re so glad they don’t have to go through the motions of having to tow the line of acting like they are the party of inclusion or family values, etc, or anything because now they can just say ‘whatever Trump wants’ like it was so freeing.

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    1. For authoritarians being told what to do, what to say say, and what to think, without having to worry about any of that yourself is liberating.

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