Lance Selfa, a member of the International Socialist Organization in the US and author of The Democrats: A Critical History, discusses how it came to be that the Republicans, US capital’s preferred political vehicle, is synonymous with government dysfunction and clownish celebrities.
Observers of the US political system today could be forgiven for asking themselves just what the hell is going on. In the presidential nomination sweepstakes for the November 2016 national election (known as the “party primary elections”), Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” is the main challenger to the neoliberal Democratic Party favorite, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the Republican Party, the leading contenders are the racist Donald Trump, a billionaire reality TV star, and Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who believes that President Obama’s America could take the road of Nazi Germany. Trump and Carson run first and second in polls of Republican primary voters in a field of 15 candidates, including current and former US senators and state governors.
In a political system renowned for its stability—where regular rotations in office of one of the two capitalist parties assures that the neoliberal agenda rolls on—this is unusual. Of course, it’s still early in political campaigns when a lot of hot air is expended, and primary voters won’t even begin voting until February 2016. But in the actual government, things also look a bit unsettled these days.
The speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, stunned his colleagues with the announcement in late September that he would leave the Congress as soon as a replacement for him could be chosen. For the House, the part of the US legislature that functions most like a European parliament, this meant that the majority party, the Republicans, would effectively choose Boehner’s successor. Boehner’s heir apparent, California Representative Kevin McCarthy, took himself out of the running when a hardline conservative faction of Republicans refused to support him.
So for most of a month, the US functioned with a “lame duck” speaker, a constitutional office that stands officially in the line of succession to the US president right behind the vice president. At the time of writing, it appeared that Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, an acolyte of Ayn Rand and the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, would win the support of enough of his party to win the speaker’s gavel [Ryan was sworn in as speaker last week]. Reportedly, Ryan promised changes in House rules that will allow rank-and-file right-wingers more say in how legislation is shaped and considered.
By any objective standard, Boehner and McCarthy are fairly orthodox conservatives dedicated to the Grand Old Party’s (GOP, a nickname for the Republicans) agenda of domestic austerity, opposition to labour unions, increased military spending, abolishing the right to abortion and reversing the legalisation of equal marriage. Yet to the most conservative members of their congressional delegation—the 50 or so members of the “Freedom Caucus”—Boehner and McCarthy were capitulators to Obama, who they’ve convinced themselves is an illegitimate president despite his having won the popular vote in two national elections.
When news of Boehner’s resignation was announced at the Family Research Council Value Voters Summit, an annual meeting of Christian conservative activists and legislators, the crowd erupted in cheers. As Socialist Worker’s Elizabeth Schulte explained:
In many ways, the fight playing out between Boehner and the others sums up the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C., where the goalposts keep getting moved, but only in one direction. So now, a very, very conservative Republican is considered too “moderate” by the very, very, very, very conservative Republicans who want him out of the way.
Something of this hostility to the Republican establishment is reflected in the early primary support for Trump, Carson and the failed Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina, all of whom share the fact that they’ve never served as Republican office-holders.
“The Republican camp is in total disarray,” said long-time GOP strategist Ed Rollins, worrying that Trump’s “reality show antics” would prolong the GOP primaries, resulting in “a long, dragged-out battle on our side [that] only makes it more difficult to get ready for Hillary.” Democrat-aligned US liberals (whose politics in the British context would vary from Liberal Democrat to Blairite) smugly proclaim the end of the GOP, and its collapse into squabbling factions. Liberal former House staff member Scott Lilly wrote that Boehner’s resignation:
was, in fact, about the steady unraveling of a coalition that has allowed the Republican Party to hold the White House for 27 [sic: 28] of the past 47 years and maintain a seemingly solid base for continuing control of the US House of Representatives.
How did it come to the point that the party that, by most accounts, is US capital’s preferred political vehicle, is synonymous with government dysfunction and clownish celebrities?
To answer that question accurately, you have to put the current disorder in a proper context. It’s still early in the Republican primary season, and it’s likely that a consensus “establishment,” albeit very conservative, candidate like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (brother of George W. Bush) or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, will emerge to take on Trump and Carson. One reason for Trump’s and Carson’s staying power is that the “establishment” field is split between multiple candidates, and the party’s big money donors and leading figures haven’t yet coalesced around one of them
And what’s more, the Republicans are highly likely to maintain control of the Congress following the 2016 elections—even if a Democrat like Clinton wins the presidency.
So part of the GOP dysfunction on display is a temporary phenomenon. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that after two landslide “wave” elections in 2010 and 2014, the GOP holds more seats at the state and federal levels than at any time since its national majority was wiped out during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Conservative Republican appointees effectively control the US Supreme Court. With the control of 70% of state legislatures and 60% of state governors, the GOP has successfully launched a conservative counter-revolution to repeal union rights and to restrict reproductive rights in states across the country.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Republicans face no problems or that they’re poised for a permanent majority for years to come. Reacting to the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush and the Great Recession, two wave elections in 2006 and 2008 handed Democrats a temporary national majority. But that majority proved ephemeral, too.
In fact, the conservative political positions that the Republicans promote regularly garner the support of only about a quarter to a third of the US electorate. But the US’s fundamentally undemocratic system of government—where states can restrict voting rights in ways that disproportionately affect racial minorities and the poor, where the US Senate delivers the same representation to conservative Wyoming (population: 500,000) as to more liberal California (population: 38 million), and where corporate money largely governs who gets elected—is tailor-made for an unpopular majority to continue to set the country’s political agenda. And even when the loopiest of conservative crusades fail, they serve the purpose, as Elizabeth Schulte notes above, of pulling the whole political spectrum to the right.
The emboldened conservativism in Washington and state capitols is the immediate product of the 2010 and 2014 elections, when Republicans swept to victory on the coattails of a corporate-funded, quasi-populist “Tea Party” of conservatives. In its first term, the “centrist,” pro-business Obama administration had failed to meet the expectations of millions of people, but it succeeded in neutering most opposition to its left. This created a political vacuum that a formerly discredited right wing rushed to fill.
The Great Recession impelled a political shift rightward among some parts of the population. The ruination of a part of the middle class and a real underemployment rate of almost 17% in 2010 pushed a section of people to embrace right-wing ideas. But the majority of active tea party members were conservatives who mostly voted Republican and who had been mobilized by a group of long-time Washington lobbyists, right-wing media outlets like Fox News, and conservative activists.
It wasn’t coincidental that the Republicans regained most of their government power in two midterm elections when the presidency is not on the ballot. In comparison to recent presidential elections, where as much as 60% of the voting-age population turned out to vote, only about half that turns out for the midterms. As a result, an electorate heavily tilted to the GOP’s older, more affluent, and heavily white “base” delivered state and federal elections to conservative Republicans, running against demoralized Democrats. It’s telling—and concerning to the GOP establishment—that the Republicans have come up on the short end of the national popular vote in five of the last six national presidential elections dating back to 1992.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, when American family income in real terms remains below what it was in 2000, American voters are in a foul mood—despite an economic “recovery”. That’s why a demagogue like Trump, who has based his campaign on bashing Mexican immigrants and China, can gain a hearing in conservative America. And it’s why thousands over the summer flocked to rallies where self-defined socialist Senator Bernie Sanders spoke out against income inequality and corporate control of the political system.
It’s important, however, to remember that Trump and Sanders aren’t competing over the same set of voters, though some superficial media analysts claim as much. Opinion poll data suggest that Trump draws substantial support from white voters without a college degree, a standard media definition of the white working class. In fact, the GOP itself gains the majority of votes from this segment of the electorate, which also tends to be older and more culturally traditional than the multi-racial US working class as a whole. The vast majority of these voters would never consider voting for Sanders, or for Clinton. If Trump lost the nomination, his core supporters would migrate to the eventual Republican winner.
These observations, however, don’t mean that right-wing voters, much less right-wing working class voters, have driven an overall shift of US politics to the right. For one thing, the majority of younger (ages 25-29) white voters without college degrees voted for Obama in 2008 and, even in the 2014 low-turnout landslide for the GOP, only about a quarter of the Republican vote were whites without college degrees. This means that many more affluent (middle-class college graduates, and wealthier) people make up the GOP base than white workers do. But it’s typical of the elite media to focus on that group—as opposed to the billionaires or corporations that tore up the post-Second World War social compact with labour—to explain the longer-term shift to the right in both capitalist parties.
The crop of Republican office holders who have come to Washington in recent years are not just standard-issue pro-business conservatives, but they aren’t salt-of-earth “real Americans” (in the memorable phrase of the major Republican reality TV star, former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin) either. In fact, most of the so-called insurgents who came to Congress in the 2010 Tea Party wave are much wealthier than the average American, with substantial numbers of them being millionaires.
Many of them embrace the full GOP platform that combines devotion to neoliberal nostrums with a social agenda determined to turn back the clock to the 1950s. In some sense, that’s a result of what Neil Davidson has described as the bitter fruit of building an electoral base on appeals to race, nation and religion when both major parties have taken the big questions of economics out of contention:
The problem for the Republicans is not, however, only that the extremism of fundamentalist Christianity may alienate the electoral ‘middle-ground’ on which the results of American elections increasingly depend. What is perhaps interesting here is less the consciously oppositional elements of right-wing populist ideology, which tend to be directed against the socio-cultural views of one (liberal) wing of the ruling class, and more what I referred to earlier as outcomes which might be unintentionally ‘detrimental’ to capital. In other words, politicians may be constrained from undertaking policies which may be necessary for American capitalism, or be forced into taking decisions which may harm it.
In October, 2015, Thomas Donahue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business lobby, announced the Chamber was willing to spend as much as $100 million to keep the US Senate in Republican hands and to counter “the influence of hard-line legislators like members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have not supported the Chamber’s legislative agenda.” The conservative “populists” have either opposed Chamber- supported priorities like immigration reform and the reauthorisation of the Export-Import Bank, or they have been willing to refuse borrowing authority of the US government in support of their crusades against boogeymen like Planned Parenthood or the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) the administration’s corporate-friendly health insurance program.
Liberals often take these indications of discomfort in the Republican establishment as the death rattle of a GOP descending into warring factions before “the emerging Democratic majority” composed of multi-racial, secular and tolerant voters sweeps it into the dustbin of history. But that hasn’t materialized yet.
There are many reasons for this, but one is worthy of consideration here. And that has less to do with the Republicans as it does with their opponents. Come next year, when the GOP is united behind a presidential candidate, and that candidate is locked in a close race with the neoliberal Democrat nominee (most likely Hillary Clinton), the Democrats will be appealing for votes as the “lesser evil.”
The prospect of the full government under conservative Republican domination may be enough to scare millions to vote Democrat. And the Democrats will offer little more for their support than simply not being Republicans. And when a Democratic administration moves to carry out big businesses’ agenda, while failing to put up much resistance to right-wing GOP antics in the Congress, the result will be liberal demoralisation that will once again feed support for the right. Until labour and social movements mount a mass challenge that shakes up that political status quo, the cycle is likely to repeat.