The government is largely shut down, and a debt crisis looms. How did we get into this mess? Since the mess is entirely due to the Republican Party’s crazed radicalism, the question amounts to “How did the Republican Party get so crazy?”
That question in turn breaks down into two: what makes the crazy Republicans the way they are, and how did they get control of their party? The first question may seem logically prior to the second, but since the second is actually easier to answer, I’ll deal with it first.
A good part of the answer to the second question is laid out in a recent book by Geoffrey Kabaservice entitled Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party. Starting in the 1950s, Kabaservice tells the story of how hard-core right-wingers, building an extensive grass-roots movement, out-organized and out-maneuvered the party’s once formidable moderate-to-liberal wing, eventually marginalizing it fairly completely by the turn of the 21st century.
In part, the right’s success reflected the natural advantages that zealots have over moderates—moderate Republicanism never developed the extensive membership organizations that the rightists were so good at growing and mobilizing. A number of broad trends in American society and politics also helped move the balance of power within the Republican Party: the shift in population and power from the Northeast—bastion of the relatively moderate Republican Establishment–to the more conservative regions of the south and west; the collapse of the segregationist southern wing of the Democratic Party, which in effect moved over to the Republicans; and the increasing use of primary elections to choose presidential convention delegates, which benefitted the forces able to bring grass roots true believers to the polls. The GOP’s formulae for allocating delegates to presidential nominating conventions—disproportionately benefitting the south and west—also played a role. On the other hand, the decline of the corruption-tainted big-city Democratic machines, along with the conversion of the Jim Crow wing of the Democratic party, attracted away moderates and liberals who had once gravitated to the Republicans for want of a cleaner alternative.
Kabaservice’s book is a good read for anybody who enjoys following the game of US partisan politics, but it left me with some big question marks. The Republican Party since the early post-civil war years had been the premier exponent of business interests in politics. Big business, and especially Wall Street, formed the core of the Eastern Establishment that generally shaped national Republican Party politics. Even after FDR’s New Deal challenged the old business-dominated political order, the Establishment prevailed in naming a succession of moderate presidential nominees–Wendell Wilkie, Thomas Dewey, and Dwight Eisenhower—who largely accepted the New Deal as more or less settled policy. When the radical right captured the presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater in 1964, big business deserted the party en masse to help Lyndon Johnson win a landslide victory. Where has big business been since? Why has it not played the moderating role that it so effectively did in earlier years?
There are, in fact, indications that business groups—including even that bastion of right-wing small business, the Chamber of Commerce—have been disconcerted by the recent nihilistic behavior of the Congressional Republicans. It seems likely that Boehner’s reported intention ultimately to allow a vote on the debt ceiling reflects the influence of the Wall Street crowd that he is cozy with. Still, it is clear that there has been no serious, much less systematic, effort by organized business to reign in the pseudo-conservatives. What has happened to that moderate business Establishment?
That question is asked and answered in an important new book by Mark Mizruchi, The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite. This book is sure to become a standard reference for scholars interested in the role of business in American society and politics. Mizruchi describes a fairly cohesive and politically and socially active American corporate elite in the quarter century after World War II that followed a course of enlightened, moderate conservatism. Big business (he is basically interested in the leadership of the Fortune top 1000 corporations) largely accepted that government would play a significant role in the American economy, including the maintenance of the modest welfare state erected by the New Deal. It also acknowledged the legitimacy of organized labor. It spurned right-wing extremist groups like the John Birch Society and the Goldwater movement.
Of course, there were always significant sectors of American business that never reconciled themselves to the New Deal, and these did help to sustain the Birchers and other radical right-wing organizations. But the prevailing orientation of the corporate elite was moderate and pragmatic. Far-sighted business leaders saw that American capitalism could thrive even as business accepted modest restraints on its freedom under an implicit social contract that enabled all classes to share in the fruits of economic growth.
This changed as American business came under various new pressures in the 1970s—new regulatory bodies like the EPA and OSHA, strengthened international competition, and the aftershocks of the 1973 oil embargo by the petroleum exporting states. Business turned right, mounting an increasingly ferocious campaign against organized labor and organizing to resist the new regulatory regime. Business financing also contributed to the growth of a panoply of new or re-invigorated think tanks and other advocacy organizations that pushed an aggressively conservative policy agenda. In this new course, the corporate elite found useful allies in the more militant reactionaries of the radical right, whose ideological fervor naturally served business interests. By the time of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, business had already achieved much of its objectives; the Reagan administration, of course, sweetened the pot still further with corporate tax breaks, further assaults on organized labor and extensive effective deregulation.
What followed, according to Mizruchi, was a fragmentation of the American corporate elite. Partly because individual firms and industries were doing so well at getting what they needed for their own narrow interests, and partly because of changes in the structure of America industry and particularly banking, big business became less cohesive. The old industrial statesmen who sought to shape a broad role for business in society that went beyond the pursuit of special interests had departed from the scene. Instead, a fractured corporate elite has in effect ceded a leading political role to the radical right, enabling the latter to wrest control of the Republican Party. He summarizes the situation during the Obama years as follows: “Seemingly cowed by conservatives in the Republican Party, satisfied with their ability to gain specific political favors for themselves, and mired in a state of disarray that rendered collective action virtually impossible, the leading American corporations sat passively by as the nation’s political life lurched from stagnation and gridlock on one hand, to aggressive efforts at reactionary change on the other. “
A relevant development that Mizruchi doesn’t consider is the increased business friendliness of the Democratic Party. The Democrats had long had important ties to Wall Street and international business, but these were strengthened and extended during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Early in his administration, Clinton, having accepted his pro-business advisers’ views on the need to keep the bond markets happy, remarked sardonically that they were now acting like Eisenhower Republicans. If the Democrats fit that role, what need did moderate, pragmatic business people have for the actual Republicans?
So, a number of changes in American politics and society have helped to transform a party that was on balance moderately conservative into a party that is unbalanced in its radical pseudo-conservatism. But why are the radical Republicans as extreme—I‘ve used the word “crazy” with tongue only half in cheek—as they are? I’ll try to answer that thorny question in a future post.