Follow the Money

Why the GOP keeps winning

The seating of Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court ends one of the most successful political ploys in American history. With Justice Antonin Scalia’s body still warm in February 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that under no circumstances would President Obama be allowed to seat a justice. Over a year later, as Donald Trump’s nominee for the high court takes his seat, McConnell is taking a victory lap. He managed to do the impossible: deny Obama a Supreme Court pick that was rightfully his to make; rally the Republican base to vote for Trump in order to secure “Scalia’s seat” on the Court; keep the Senate in Republican hands when all signs pointed to a Democratic takeover; change the rules of the Senate to allow for majority confirmation of justices; and do it all without suffering even the slightest opprobrium from anyone other than disillusioned Democrats wondering how this all happened. It was a virtuoso performance worthy of Machiavelli himself.

McConnell’s success brings up important questions: how did this happen? How did Democrats get so completely beaten on what should have been an easy confirmation of Merrick Garland? How did Scalia’s untimely and surprising death — which ushered in the promise of a liberal majority on the Court for the first time since the 70s — turn into the undoing of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party? How did McConnell manage to pull this off, and suffer no consequences?

There are many answers to these questions, mostly revolving around the notion that Republican voters care more about the Supreme Court than Democratic voters; that McConnell is a better politician than just about anyone; and that, in the end, Republicans wanted it more. Their Will to Power is simply greater than that of Democrats. The Democrats have a complicated relationship to power in all its forms, Republicans have no such qualms about abusing norms and rules if it gets them what they want. McConnell, as numerous authors have recently pointed out, is personally responsible for much of the breakdown of the federal government since the election of Obama in 2008. He was uncompromising in his goal of obstructing Obama’s agenda, and has brought his caucus with him. Democrats have looked on in dismay and disapproval as their agenda has stalled and now is being reversed due to endless and pitiless GOP obstruction. The question, then, is why? Why do Republicans have a stronger will to power than Democrats? The answer is as obvious as it is unspoken: money.

We live in a post-Citizens United and McCutcheon world. For all his army of small donors, even Bernie Sanders could not turn American politics from being the purview of the rich and powerful. But here lies a major discrepancy in the system: while Republican policies benefit Republican donors directly, Democratic policies do not, for the most part, benefit large Democratic donors financially. At least not in a direct way. It is possible to make the economic argument that providing healthcare to millions of people helps the economy perform better, and if you believe that a high tide lifts all boats, then even the rich who donate large amounts to parties will benefit, despite higher taxes. Ditto with racial justice, higher minimum wages, and paid family leave. And climate change mitigation is a lovely moral issue, but not one that pads donors’ pocket books. (The preponderance of the finance industry is the big anomaly here, and it should not be overlooked. However, the uniqueness of finance’s direct benefit from recent Democratic policies is the exception that proves the rule.) These are all moral and ethical imperatives, but they require higher taxes and more spending; they do not make donors money.

On the Republican side the calculus is completely flipped, and it is this asymmetry that drives American politics today. Trump’s agenda has laid this reality bare in a way that the GOP has avoided since the Bush years. Republican donors benefit significantly from specific Republican policy proposals on tax cuts, spending cuts, environmental regulations, internet privacy rollbacks, and a host of other issues, which just happen to be on the front burner in the Trump administration. Whereas Democrats benefit morally, ethically, and, occasionally, financially from progressive policy changes and regulations, Republican donors benefit directly and heavily from Republican policy changes. Energy companies make billions on a reduction of anti-CO2 regulations; wealthy taxpayers soak up hundreds of thousands of dollars in repealed Obamacare taxes; the private prison system reaps the harvest of Jess Sessions’ increase in immigration detentions. And so on. These are individuals and corporations who see a specific increase in their income and net worth through the enactment of Republican policies. There is no comparable benefit to Democratic elites in the enactment of Democratic policies. And in this world, money talks.

There is a reason that the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and other groups can and do raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Republican candidates and issues each election cycle: they stand to benefit financially from the outcome. One need look no further than the financial incentives of the Republican party elite to understand why Mitch McConnell was able to beat Democrats so badly: he wanted it more because his donors wanted it more. And they wanted it more because they will now all get rich. Ethics, morals, a sense of justice, a concern for the future of the planet: these are excellent reasons to vote for Democratic policies. But never in the history of humanity have those laudable goals trumped cold, hard cash.

If you want to understand why the GOP is running rings around the Democrats, why McConnell is willing and able to subvert the rules and norms of Congress to achieve his goals, and why Democrats don’t seem to be playing at the same level, just remember that money talks, and ethics walk.