I had a bad dream the other night that I still cannot get out of my head. It’s January 20, 2017. Inauguration Day. The Republican candidate for president has triumphed over Hillary Clinton, ushering in the largest Republican majority since 1929. The inaugural balls are finished, the parties over.
The new president retires to the Oval Office, and sits down with the top leaders of Congress to ask: “Okay. We have the largest majority we’re ever going to see again. What do we do with it?”
“Let’s accelerate depreciation!” somebody says.
“Let’s repeal the inheritance tax!” another chimes in.
The new president, nodding solemnly, responds, “Okay, okay. These are good. But what we really need to do is quadruple our guest-worker visas.”
Nightmarish? Yes. Fanciful? Maybe a little (bad dreams are like that), but it still derives from a stark truth: the Republican Party, while far preferable to the unchecked liberalism of the Democrats, is not all that conservative.
Sure, it has conservative members, important ones who cannot be ignored. And it talks a good game about small government; just about every Republican candidate for every office is duty-bound to aver his fidelity to Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism.
However, if we understand conservatism as advocating smaller government that treats people impartially, many in the party struggle mightily not to act on those principles. Instead, the recent history of “conservative” governance has been one of ever-larger government, and an expansion of the cronyism and corruption built into the system. The last time the GOP had complete control over the government, 2003-07, it massively expanded Medicare and enacted more pork-barrel spending than any prior Congress in history.
Political parties are not coterminous with ideologies. They are big, broad, unwieldy coalitions that contain lots of factions and varying traditions. Oftentimes, these forces are in direct conflict with one another. Conservatives are part of the Republican Party, but so are other forces that—while they might call themselves “conservative”—are actually something quite different.
From Slavery Defeaters to Business Defenders
Conservatism as we know it today did not really exist before the twentieth century. Prior to that, it was just the way things were done. The powers of the federal government were limited, states and localities were dominant, and people did not look to Washington DC to solve every last problem. Granted, the scope of federal power increased during the nineteenth century—for example, during the Civil War—but conservatives today are wont to celebrate those expansions.
Conservatism really began to develop as a political force in the wake of the New Deal, which effectively inverted the constitutional schema. Previously, the federal government was only allowed to do what the Constitution expressly authorized. From the New Deal onwards, the government could more or less do anything that the Constitution did not expressly forbid. This inversion gave birth to the conservative movement.
Eventually, American conservatism found a home in the Republican Party, where it now almost exclusively resides. But the GOP predates the conservative movement by nearly a century, and has long been home to a very different political tradition.
Formed in 1854 to oppose the spread of slavery, the Republican Party achieved its principal objective—and much more—over the next decade. Yet the party did not disband. The glue that held the GOP together for a generation after the Civil War was made from “Bloody Shirt” callbacks to the Civil War and federal patronage.
By the 1880s, this strategy had played itself out. The bad memories from the Civil War were fading away, and the assassination of President James A. Garfield ushered in civil service reform, eventually ending the old-style patronage politics. The Republican Party once again had no raison d’être.
That’s when a new, postwar generation of Republicans transformed the party into the defender of Northern business interests. This was a fairly natural transition for the GOP. The Republicans had formed from the remains of the Whig party, which favored government efforts to develop the economy (e.g., protective tariffs). But the GOP of the 1880s and beyond took this to another level.
As I argue in my new book, “A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption,” Republican Party leaders came to view the interests of the country and the interests of its largest businesses as one and the same. For advocating this position so effectively (often winning elections despite public opposition to their policies), party leaders were showered with campaign cash, and many acquired vast personal fortunes.
Hardly anybody remembers Gilded Age Republican leaders like Nelson Aldrich, James Blaine, and Matthew Quay, but the choices they made at the end of the nineteenth century remain hugely consequential to today’s GOP. Their view that business interest and the national interest are one and the same is an ideal that many in the party, particularly its upper quarters, still hold dear.
The Republican Party of Business Handouts
It is not hard to see why small government conservatives would align themselves with pro-business Republicans. There is a lot of overlap in the worldviews. Conservatives believe in the free market as society’s real progressive force, and have always opposed the Democratic Party’s expansive regulatory ambitions. Meanwhile, businesses do not want regulation, at least of themselves. Similarly, conservatives want to reduce the overall tax burden on society, and businesses want their taxes cut, too.
But the two factions were never identical. They were always in an alliance, based on shared goals, conditioned by the broader political climate. Recent developments have strained the relationship.
The main problem is that the economy is stuck in second gear of late. Businesses are not hiring Americans at anywhere near sufficient numbers. Moreover, the biggest American firms are now multinational, employing large workforces overseas. It used to be that growth in the average American’s income and corporate profits grew in tandem—the success of one facilitating the success of the other. But over the last quarter century, there has been a notable divergence.
This has caused leftists like Sen. Elizabeth Warren to complain about income inequality, demanding ever more government as the tonic to what ails us. But conservatives are worried about this divide, as well. They are increasingly looking at the ways the government distorts the free market, especially how it subsidizes particular businesses at the expense of the public interest—through the tax code, preferential regulations, farm subsidies, federal guarantees like “too big to fail,” and corporate welfare. Conservatives are beginning to prioritize cleaning up our tangled economic policy as a way to jumpstart broad-based economic growth.
Yet this is something that business interests predictably oppose. Not all of them, of course. But each of these targeted policies benefits some corporate group or another, and each will work like hell to protect their personal slice of the pie. And they have plenty of friends in the old business wing of the Republican Party, which persists to this day. This is why conservatives have so far failed to cut farm subsidies or eliminate the Export-Import Bank. These are probably the most egregious forms of corporate subsidy, but the beneficiaries have enough friends in the GOP to preserve the status quo.
And then, of course, there is immigration reform, an issue where the divergence between the two sides has grown especially wide. Business-oriented Republicans support measures like expanded guest worker programs and increased legal immigration because these will lower the input costs of businesses. But this is precisely why so many conservatives oppose such changes; lowered input costs in this case means lowered wages. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring of the Rubio-Schumer immigration bill predicted lowered wages and an increased unemployment rate over the next decade as a consequence of the legislation. To one side of the party, this is a defect; to the other, a virtue.
Is the Republican Party’s Corporate Sponsorship Over?
Today, the balance of power in the party still rests with the business-oriented side. We see this most clearly in the presidential nomination process, which almost always produces a GOP candidate amenable to corporate America. Insofar as the mainstream media likes the GOP, it only ever likes the business-style Republican.
Still, the trendline seems to favor conservatives. In Congress, conservative reformers are on the rise, though they have not yet reached a critical mass in either chamber. They have grown much stronger in the House, which may help explain why House leaders often seem incapacitated. It is very hard to manage a caucus with a split personality. The Senate, as it so often does, has resisted these changes, but young senators like Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Ben Sasse are quite different than the old guard.
This internecine warfare looks like it could dominate the 2016 nomination. There will be some candidates from the business side, others from the conservative side, and then maybe one or two offering themselves as compromise or fusion nominees. History suggests the smart bet is on the business side of the ledger, but then again the laws of history work … until they don’t. Maybe the rising conservative tide in Congress will also sweep up the presidential nomination, too.