The GOP's Descent into Minimalism

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            Once upon a time, the Republican Party was a progressive political party with big ideas about the future of the United States. Its leaders endorsed a broad vision of policies and programs designed to promote the general welfare.

            President Abraham Lincoln defeated the forces of disunion and persuaded the country to abolish slavery and to guarantee equal rights to all male citizens with the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Despite the demands imposed upon him by the Civil War, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act in 1862 that made available millions of acres of government-owned land in the West for purchase by settlers at substantially reduced costs. That same year, he also signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, which provided government grants for creation of agricultural colleges in every state in the union. The Pacific  Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 provided federal support for the construction of the United States' First Transcontinental Railroad which, upon its completion in 1869, linked all the United States from coast to coast.

During the First Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt pursued policies designed to curb the excessive economic power wielded by the Robber Barons and their trusts, condemned predatory practices by corporations, and spoke out in support of organized labor.  Theodore Roosevelt successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and The Pure Food and Drug Act. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the expansion of the national park system and the subsequent transfer of the administration of the park system from the Agriculture Department t to the Department of the Interior.  As his successor, Republican President Howard Taft continued Roosevelt's progressive domestic policies and vigorously enforced antitrust legislation.

In the early decades of the twentieth century also, Wisconsin Governor and later U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette, Sr. enjoyed the loyal support of unionized workers and farmers as a populist. An elected Republican office-holder, he condemned laissez-faire and emphasized the need for government to serve as an advocate for ordinary citizens, as opposed to corporations and other moneyed interests. He later challenged Teddy Roosevelt unsuccessfully for leadership of the Progressive Party and thereafter founded the Farm-Labor Party of Wisconsin.

            Former Congressman and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia burnished his credentials as a reform politician and as a progressive who, appalled by the excesses of the 1920s and the misery caused by the Great Depression, championed the policies of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. At the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, he and Nebraska Republican Senator George Norris successfully co-sponsored the Norris-LaGuardia Act. That act declared yellow-dog contracts illegal, forbade the federal courts from issuing injunctions against unions in non-violent labor disputes, and prohibited interference by employers against workers trying to organize trade unions.      


             The success of Franklin Roosevelt and New Deal subsequently changed the direction of the GOP. Beginning with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, the GOP, prodded by reactionary interests committed to undoing the legacy of the New Deal, became increasingly hostile to unions and supportive of business interests and Wall Street.    

             After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a new Republican agenda was cobbled together. Nixon's cynical and craven decision to adopt a Southern strategy required that the GOP abandon its historic commitment to civil rights to attract the support of hard-scrabble, disaffected white Southerners who felt threatened by the elimination of Jim Crow.

             The rest is history. Within a decade, the "Solid South" became the preserve of the GOP, whose rank and file members, despite their increasingly straigtened circumstances, have become unabashedly anti-intellectual, anti-science, and hostile to unions, minorities, women, public sector employees, and to the idea that government should  be used as a positive instrument to promote the public good.  

             Ronald Reagan delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce. He successfully refined a winning political strategy for the GOP by intentionally appealing to the basest instincts of Americans. With his attacks on welfare queens and "'strapping young bucks' using public assistance to buy T-Bone steaks," Reagan further stirred the pot of racial animosity. His insistence that government was the problem, not the solution, and his endorsement of trickle-down economics was a repudiation of the GOP's venerable heritage as an opponent of Social Darwinism and was at loggerheads with the observation Republican jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."

             Lee Atwater, who was Reagan's campaign strategist, described how and why this strategy worked:  "In the 1980s campaign, we were able to make the establishment, in so far as it is bad, the government, in other words, big government was the enemy, not big business. If the people think the problem is that taxes are too high, and government interferes too much, then we are doing our job. But, if they get to the point where they say that the real problem is that rich people aren't paying taxes...then the Democrats are going to be in good shape. Traditionally, the Republican Party has been elitist, but one of the things that has happened is that the Democratic Party has become a party of [rival] elites."

            Reagan's divisive rhetoric, which appealed to an increasingly distracted, unsophisticated base of white males, enabled him to attract "Reagan Democrats" and other low-information voters who did not understand that the policies that he set in motion - the destruction of traditional  pension plans, and the privatization of pension risks through the creation of defined contribution plans -aka 401K plans - with the enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) - and the out-sourcing of jibs were inimical to their own best interests. Reagan also successfully waged war against public unions with his destruction of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATC) during their strike in 1981.  

            Since the Reagan era, the template has remained the same. But, with the advent  of Roger Ailes and Izvestia-like propaganda outlets such Fox News, as well as the onslaught  of private, undisclosed 501C interests unleashed by Justice Scalia's 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case, the GOP strategists have become vastly more sophisticated and cynical.

         The cascade of unaccounted and unidentified money has crippled the ability of the government - at the federal, state and local level - to gather data, to promote the general welfare, to regulate in the public interest, and to fulfill its duties with adequate funding. Grover Norquist's oft repeated desire to reduce the size of government so that it could be drowned in a bathtub now resonates as craven Democratic officeholders, equally beholden to business interests and concerned about their own political futures are, with precious few exceptions, afraid to challenge the GOP's absurdities head on.    

          The success of the GOP's wedge politics has been replicated throughout the South as GOP Governors and Republican-controlled legislatures have prevented the extension of Medicaid to the uninsured,  eliminated or substantially reduced taxes on businesses, gutted the public sectors of their states, and imposed every conceivable obstacle to dissuade students, minorities and the poor from voting solely because they tend to vote Democratic.


           In Northern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Indiana, GOP Governors and their legislatures have uniformly supported legislation to emasculate the rights of employees to unionize and to bargain collectively, and they have successfully demonized public employees and attacked their pension benefits while simultaneously transferring control of many public goods - such as the prisons, roads, and schools - to private, for-profit entrepreneurs.  

            This past week, in an extremely low turnout, off-year Congressional election in Florida's 13th Congressional district, a majority of eligible voters, possibly overwhelmed and confused by the tsunami of negative advertisements, failed to vote, while large numbers of older white voters, concerned that Obamacare threatened their Medicare benefits, voted for the GOP candidate David Jolly, a former Washington lobbyist. The Huffington Post quoted Irene Wilcox, a 78-year-old retired waitress and Republican from Largo who voted for Jolly, "No more big government. We've got to stop."

            Ms. Wilcox's comment underscores the reasons for the GOP's singular success. It has been able to persuade large numbers of poorly-informed voters that, rather than protect or uplift their standards of living, the primary role of government should be to empower the private sector and to promote its interests, irrespective of the adverse effects that such policies may have upon the environment, the nation's infrastructure, the social safety net, or the country's past commitments to the ideas of progressive taxation and equality of opportunity for all citizens.

            According to Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and other GOP illuminati, the problem is not increasing economic misery in the United States or wage stagnation. Rather, there are too many takers and moochers who are getting too much "free stuff" from the government. In the words of Congressman Paul Ryan, Americans need to relearn the discipline acquired through of hard work.

           It is in that context also, the GOP's incessant criticisms school lunch programs, food stamps, unemployment benefits, minimum wage and the litany of other "entitlements" should be understood. They are intentionally calculated to distract attention from the increasingly wealthier elite and poor performance of the U.S. economy by appealing to the envy and resentment of voters: "You would be better off if it were not for these free-loaders."     

           The late British philosopher and former Labor Party advisor A.D. Lindsay proposed a vision of government that was inspired by the wisdom of the ancients and is one which stands in stark contrast to the GOP's minimalism. In The Modern Democratic State, Lindsay argued that the purpose of the state was to ensure conditions for the full development of human potentialities: "That the end of all state activity is the development of human personality can never be sufficiently emphasized. This is to assert the moral basis of the state....Personality develops in a fellowship or a common life and if men are to be treated as persons, they must be enabled to share in a common life." The purpose of the state "is to serve the community and in that service to make it more of a community."

           By contrast, the GOP's vision is utterly pessimistic. It insists that we are all on our own, and that government can and should do nothing - except to protect the rights and prerogatives of those who already have and their descendants. To the extent that the GOP's vision controls the public discourse in the United States today, our capacity to care for one another is eroded as is our collective belief that, as citizens in a democracy, we have the ability to improve social conditions through concerted government action. We are all diminished as a result.


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