10 October 2013

Republicans vs Big Business?

One of the worst consequences of the Occupy movement was its reinforcement in many minds of a paradigm for politics pitting the "1%" against everyone else. Occupy is partly to blame for the feeling of surprise in some reports this fall of a growing rift between the Republican party and its supposedly natural base in corporate America. The New York Times reports this week that some business groups are adopting Tea Party tactics against the Tea Party, threatening to finance primary challenges to the most intransigent or provocative GOP representatives. Why would that happen? Isn't the GOP the Party of Business? It is, I suppose, if you mistake the Koch Brothers tree, and a few others, for the forest. Most big businessmen, I suspect, prefer the sort of stability that Tea Party tactics jeopardize. You might characterize theirs as a conservative stance. It's been too easy, however, to point to the Kochs as if they embody Corporate America, as if to prove that their patronage of the Tea Party movement renders the TPs mere dupes of big business as a class. It's more likely that their affinity with TP sentiment renders the Kochs a minority in their class just as the TPs are a minority in the country as a whole. Identifying them with "big business" or "the rich" doesn't really define them adequately. Yet it should have been obviously since the outbreak in 2009 that the Tea Party is essentially a populist movement, and thus unlikely to show big business the deference some in that class may expect. One business lobbyist told the Times that the TPs are a more "anti-establishment" strain of conservatism -- which is another way of saying that they're populists. Some may be reluctant to apply that label to a group that doesn't identify exactly with the working class or the poor, but the essence of populism has less to do with relative wealth or poverty than it does with the conviction that your kind are the "real" citizens, the ones who embody a nation's core values -- as they define them. Populism as an attitude -- to distinguish it from the political movement of the 1890s -- doesn't really translate to "anti-establishment." Populists may resent people in the establishment, but to the extent that they believe themselves to embody a nation's traditional core values they're a kind of establishment in their own minds -- an establishment in unfair exile from its rightful place in power. Another key feature of populism is the populist's self-image, no matter how wealthy he may be, as "the little guy." They feel oppressed by those more powerful (or wealthy) than they and threatened by those who deviate from traditions. They see themselves stuck in the middle -- I suppose every Tea Partier would claim to represent the middle class -- and exploited from above and below. Remember that they grew out of resentment of the bailouts of 2008 and 2009, and that their objections were not just to supposed "government takeovers" of banks, auto companies, etc., but to the fundamental idea that those corporations or industries were "too big to fail." This objection is envious, although the envy is disguised (since envy is a great sin to them) as principled disgust over the dependency of the poor and the crony capitalism at the highest levels. In simplest terms, they see the poor getting breaks, the super-rich getting breaks, but don't seem themselves ever getting a break -- even though they claim to be too proud ever to ask for one. The point, they tell themselves, isn't that they should get a break -- though they'd certainly accept lower taxes as a big break -- but that no one should get or even ask for breaks, bailouts or handouts. Convinced that no one would ever bail them out, they believe that no one or nothing should be bailed out, and that the chips simply should fall where they may. So you see some Republicans this week scoffing at the prospect of a default of the national debt, despite warnings from Wall Street. These Republicans may feel that whoever suffers has it coming, while they'll survive whatever comes. Some may welcome the whole thing coming down. As the Times suggests, their ideology has become self-financing and pandering to specific corporate interests may no longer be a high priority for them. If this is true, than the Tea Party is less about interest-group politics and more about pure identity politics. If we hope to do something about them, we had better be clear about what their identity is. By cutting ties with the TPs, the big business lobbies may be doing us a greater public service than many could ever imagine.

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