Unlike Democrats, Republicans know how to make their accomplishments last.
To liberals puzzled by the GOP’s hypocrisy about deficits resulting from tax cuts for the rich, since when do Republicans care about deficits?
Dick Cheney put it best: “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” By this, the former vice president and un-indicted war criminal did not mean to imply that running up huge deficits is sound fiscal policy. Rather, he was talking about how, when it comes to the actual goals of the GOP and conservatism generally, deficits are irrelevant. Those goals being increasing the power of the rich (whom they view as virtuous and completely deserving of their wealth) and hobbling the state’s ability to spend on social programs. In fact, from this perspective, deficits are a good thing.
Sure they talk a good game about being “deficit hawks” and “wasteful spending,” but this is merely a charade. Because, as we know, when American conservatives talk about cutting spending, they’re only talking about cutting social spending. If the aim is to limit the government’s role in providing for the public’s needs while turning everything over to the market, deficits are an effective weapon.
This point about limiting government spending cannot be understated. It shows that Republicans think ahead. After all, the GOP recognizes that they still operate in a democratic republic. There is a chance that they will, at times, lose the White House and Congress. They’ve prepared for this.
As soon as a liberal-leaning government takes power conservatives have an automatic way to shoot down any proposed social welfare spending. “The country can’t afford it because it will add to the deficit that we’ve run up during our time in power.”
The already fiscally cautious, centrist leadership of the Democratic Party does not want to increase taxes on the rich in order to fund more spending. They are petrified of alienating the donors that keep them in charge of the party. So even the most mildly social democratic fiscal policy is off the table.
What the deficit charade shows is that the Republicans can concoct methods of ensuring that their agenda survives even while they are the opposition party. By forcing the Democrats’ hand in opposition, the GOP brings their agenda back from the dead. Author and historian Thomas Frank in a 2008 interview explains,
The way that they have totally reconfigured the state, the government, down in Washington, they want to make that permanent, so that it’s [not] reversible, so that even if a liberal does get in, even if one of my guys gets elected… there’s nothing they can do about it, that this is the way the state is set up and, you know, too bad.
Contrast this with a liberal/centrist approach to fiscal policy. When Barack Obama was handed a popular mandate to change the DC status quo, he squandered it. Mainly because he never believed in changing the status quo in the first place.
Obama, a neoliberal school-privatizer posing as the next FDR, instead took a “let’s get everyone at the table” approach to issues like the deficit (his bipartisan commission proposed austerity measures to programs once thought of as untouchable like Social Security) and bent over backwards in a naïve attempt to get Republican votes for his signature (woefully inadequate, market-based) Affordable Care Act — as if that would somehow improve the law!
These two completely different approaches— one hardball and the other conciliatory — show that the GOP sees politics as war without bloodshed, unlike the other side. As they make their destruction of the 20th century welfare state practically irreversible, Democratic leaders’ impotence in opposition is on full display.
Our Enemy, the Constitution
Yet, when they’re not resorting to fiscal malfeasance the GOP goes straight to the highest laws in the land. An inherently conservative document, Republicans recognize that if the virtually immutable US Constitution can be interpreted in line with conservative ideology, much of their work is already done. They don’t have to pass unpopular laws or answer to the public when they can just point to the constitution. It’s a convenient out for them. It’s also a very effective way of limiting government since the constitution is so painstakingly difficult to amend.
Liberals and the Democratic establishment, in their unending quest to show respect for our nation’s “norms,” talk about how the final word on the constitution, the Supreme Court, needs to be “above politics.” To the extent that they actually believe this is anyone’s guess. For instance, those who were shocked and outraged by the Merrick Garland affair were either putting on an act or really do live in a West Wing fantasy world. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
However, to imply that the Supreme Court and, consequentially, its interpretation of the Constitution is anything but political shows another contrast between the two parties. While liberals took a decidedly moderate approach to the court and tried to appoint someone who might get Republican votes, the GOP would have none of it. They obstructed and essentially made Antonin Scalia’s replacement a 2016 general election issue.
Liberals balked at how this flew in the face of bipartisanship (a concept that only liberals hold as a virtue) and the mythical neutrality of the court, but conservatives knew exactly what they were doing. They correctly recognized that this was an opportunity to cement their agenda for possibly generations to come.
Though, Obama and the Democrats could have done the same thing. This goes beyond simply explaining that in order to save Roe v. Wade we cannot allow a right-wing majority. They could have nominated a real progressive justice and explained to their base that this was a chance to take the court back from conservatism. It was a chance to institute an interpretation of the constitution that works in favor of the left. But of course, liberals can’t play hardball.
Since winning the battle for the Supreme Court, the Republicans have permanently weakened the Democratic Party. For instance, the partisan Janus v. AFSCME decision will likely cut off a major source of the Democrats’ funding and mobilizing, public sector unions. Again, we return to the theme of this piece. Put simply, Republican political victories become all the more implausible to reverse, i.e. permanent, when the only political party capable of opposing them cannot get out the vote or fund their campaigns.
Now, with the looming criminalization of abortion in nearly half of the US, the possible abolition of same-sex marriage, and a host of coming roll-backs of the regulatory state, the partisan nature of the court is undeniable.
The Left Advantage
Although Donald Trump and the GOP failed to overturn Obamacare through legislative means (thanks in no small part to a popular backlash) this ghoulish administration continues to substantially undermine it. And they will soon likely score some legislation from the bench in the way of yet another partisan Supreme Court decision.
Though, what the 2016 election showed was that Obamacare carried no currency with voters. Trump famously ran on a promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. This did not motivate voters to rise up and defend the modest, though important gains of the Affordable Care Act as evidenced by low voter turnout across the board.
The mirror image of the GOP’s permanent transformations of American politics are the fleeting, impermanent liberal accomplishments. Obamacare, aside from carrying the flaws of any market-based program, has one glaring flaw. It’s just too damn complicated, meager, and means-tested for the public to understand how it helps them exactly.
Compare that with Social Security and Medicare. Republicans have a seething hatred for these wildly popular New Deal and Great Society accomplishments, but they cannot make this known because of the inevitable backlash they will face from the public.
This shows the major advantage the left, socialists in particular, have over conservatives. Universal, social democratic policies carry a much larger degree of permanence than reactionary ones.
Support for reactionary policies, in addition to having to fend off the pressure of social change throughout history, pales in comparison to the kind of mass support that can be won for progressive policies. It is perhaps this fact that most animates the right’s quest for permanence. Once the left wins, the right understands that, oftentimes, there is no going back.
With the decay of American liberalism after nearly forty years of defeat, socialists have an opportunity to replace the centrist leaders of the institutions that have failed the working class. Though it is tragic that it has taken this long and we have had to endure so much right-wing revanchism, there has been no better opportunity for the left to make its permanent mark on the American political system.