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Can He Save the GOP from Itself?

Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, 1967

Religion. One of the original selling points for the Tea Party was that it had moved on from the obsessions of the religious right. It was about deficits, jobs, and small government, not about abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, and creationism. But as soon as Republicans gained a majority in state legislatures, there was a flood of anti-abortion laws proposed or passed, with religious rationales or backing. Since abortion is legal, those who want to outlaw it just try to make it impossible to get, on fake grounds of “women’s health” (as they exclude blacks under cover of “voter fraud”).

On similarly fake grounds, Republicans use the Catholic bishops’ opposition to contraception as an excuse based on “religious freedom” to oppose the Affordable Care Act. The bishops’ case is phony—no one is forced to use or not use contraception by the act. But bishops say that countenancing the act offends the bishops who follow Rome in condemning it (not actual Catholics who overwhelmingly exercise their right of conscience in using contraceptives).

The defense of victimized Catholic bishops reached a comic peak when Jeb Bush (one of Scarborough’s moderate Republicans) speculated that Obama closed our Vatican embassy (he didn’t) as “retribution for Catholic organizations opposing Obamacare.” The religious right is alive and well in all kinds of Republicans—in global warming deniers, whose attitude toward climate science resembles their denial of evolution; in voter restrictions to exclude “un-Americans”; in those who oppose gay marriage, the rights of Muslims and atheists, or the need for sex education in the schools.

Money. One bit of Scarborough’s wishful thinking is that Republicans will be saved by Wall Street correcting Main Street. The rational money managers will rein in the extremists of the Tea Party. But the Tea Party’s eruption in the town hall meetings of 2009 was funded by the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. The right-wing laws passed by Republican state legislatures follow a plan drawn up by the millionaires-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Corporate money, spouting from the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, has flowed into elections for local judges, state legislatures, and “citizens’” opposition to government. There is every reason for the rich to promote measures that limit the vote, promote a defiance of science, or stigmatize “aliens.”

This is not cynical opportunism on their part. They believe what Romney told them in their plush hideaway—that 47 percent of Americans are moochers who earn nothing, pay nothing, and deserve nothing. By that logic, the moochers should be kept from voting, or from getting anything the earners have acquired. Their attitude is perfectly summed up by Republican Bruce Rauner, a multimillionaire now running for Illinois governor, who issued this statement:

I’ve worked extremely hard and feel incredibly blessed to have earned financial success…. Capitalism is the greatest poverty-fighting machine in the history of mankind…. I can’t be bought or intimidated by the special interests.

The astonishing thing is that much of the public agrees with that “too rich to be bribed” creed. The proof that we live in a plutocracy is not that the wealthy get most of the prizes in our society, but that majorities think that is how it should be. Even to criticize what the super-wealthy get is to wage “class war.” That is why Democrats must shy from words as toxic as “redistribution.” Rebecca Blank, a former acting secretary of commerce, could not be nominated to the Council of Economic Advisers because she voiced the truism that “a commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources.” A new foundation set up to study unequal income found that the gap between the super-rich and everyone else has grown, but that support for the belief that “government should reduce income differences between the rich and poor” has gone down even as the gap widened. So the supposedly “Third Way” think tank warns Democrats that any populist talk of raising taxes on the rich will doom them. Wealth is untouchable, is sacred, for reasons the pope just diagnosed:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.

The opposition to any tax raise on the rich explains why America has the greatest disparity of income between the top few and the rest of society. That disparity is actually greater in four other countries (United Kingdom, Greece, Poland, Ireland) when income is measured before taxes. It is only after taxes that America surges to the lead among all nations. Does it matter that America leads in this disparity? Jill Lepore suggests one way that it does, when she discusses our deadlocked Congress:

Polarization in Congress maps onto one measure better than any other: economic inequality. The smaller the gap between rich and poor, the more moderate our politicians; the greater the gap, the greater the disagreement between liberals and conservatives. The greater the disagreement between liberals and conservatives, the less Congress is able to get done; the less Congress gets done, the greater the gap between rich and poor.

Actually, income disparity accords with many other things, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found. The greater the income gap, the higher the teenage pregnancy rate (poverty, ignorance, lack of sex education, and opposition to contraceptives are all at play here). The greater the income gap, the more education suffers, the less there is of social mobility, the greater the difficulty of reaching higher education, and the higher the premium put on it.

How can big money be the cure for our politics when it is the cause of most of its problems? Scarborough, along with every second pundit in Washington, claims that Republicans will get a national majority when they trim back their extremist positions. Others say that demographic trends among blacks and Latinos, women and young people make it dangerous for them to court majorities. Andrew Hacker, in these pages, shows that the power of the Republicans, in the House, the state legislatures, and the courts, comes from their ability to thwart majorities.* A majority of votes cast for members of the House in 2012 went to Democrats, but—thanks to gerrymandering after an off-year election with low turnout and fierce Republican focus—the Republicans won by a disparity mimicking the income gap. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Republicans won only 47 percent of the votes but walked away with 72 percent of the seats.

The House still has the power that Scarborough credits Gingrich with gaining for them in 1994. But the situation is more like the reverse of the one Scarborough thinks he is describing. In fact, the things he opposes—the New Deal, Obamacare, “Yalta”—are the mainstream, and Republicans only have the obstructive power their extremists give them. Republican power is minority power, seen in their record-breaking resort to filibusters to block majority votes in the Senate, and in their plans to stock the Senate with majority-thwarters by rescinding the Seventeenth Amendment: they want to take away the people’s power to elect senators and give the power to appoint them back to state legislators, who are already limiting voting times and qualifications.

On issue after issue—reasonable gun control, women’s rights to contraceptives or elective abortion, marriage equality, easier voter access—a majority of Americans disagree with Republicans, who cannot admit this without losing their fanatical core. They claim they have no war on women, but they cannot change positions on abortion without losing their religious base. They cannot admit any gun restrictions without bringing down the wrath of the NRA. They cannot loosen immigration laws without infuriating the nativists among them. They cannot loosen their voting restrictions or votes on welfare without alienating their Confederate avengers. Yet in all of this they are protected by their untouchable backers, the rich who can never, never, ever pay more taxes. Scarborough’s silly picture of American politics leaves out most of the things that matter—including (but not restricted to) race, religion, and money. And the greatest of these is money.


China Is More Unequal February 20, 2014

  1. *

    See “ 2014: Another Democratic Debacle?,” in this issue. 

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