By Angelo Codevilla
On January 1, 2013 one third of Republican congressmen, following their leaders, joined with nearly all Democrats to legislate higher taxes and more subsidies for Democratic constituencies. Two thirds voted no, following the people who had elected them. For generations, the Republican Party had presented itself as the political vehicle for Americans whose opposition to ever-bigger government financed by ever-higher taxes makes them a “country class.” Yet modern Republican leaders, with the exception of the Reagan Administration, have been partners in the expansion of government, indeed in the growth of a government-based “ruling class.” They have relished that role despite their voters. Thus these leaders gradually solidified their choice to no longer represent what had been their constituency, but to openly adopt the identity of junior partners in that ruling class. By repeatedly passing bills that contradict the identity of Republican voters and of the majority of Republican elected representatives, the Republican leadership has made political orphans of millions of Americans. In short, at the outset of 2013 a substantial portion of America finds itself un-represented, while Republican leaders increasingly represent only themselves.
The ever-growing U.S. government has an edgy social, ethical, and political character. It is distasteful to a majority of persons who vote Republican and to independent voters, as well as to perhaps one fifth of those who vote Democrat. The Republican leadership’s kinship with the socio-political class that runs modern government is deep. Country class Americans have but to glance at the Media to hear themselves insulted from on high as greedy, racist, violent, ignorant extremists. Yet far has it been from the Republican leadership to defend them. Whenever possible, the Republican Establishment has chosen candidates for office – especially the Presidency – who have ignored, soft-pedaled or given mere lip service to their voters’ identities and concerns.
Thus public opinion polls confirm that some two thirds of Americans feel that government is “them” not “us,” that government has been taking the country in the wrong direction, and that such sentiments largely parallel partisan identification: While a majority of Democrats feel that officials who bear that label represent them well, only about a fourth of Republican voters and an even smaller proportion of independents trust Republican officials to be on their side. Again: While the ruling class is well represented by the Democratic Party, the country class is not represented politically – by the Republican Party or by any other. Well or badly, its demand for representation will be met.
Representation is the distinguishing feature of democratic government. To be represented, to trust that one’s own identity and interests are secure and advocated in high places, is to be part of the polity. In practice, any democratic government’s claim to the obedience of citizens depends on the extent to which voters feel they are party to the polity. No one doubts that the absence, loss, or perversion of that function divides the polity sharply between rulers and ruled.
Representation can be perverted. Some regimes (formerly the Communists, and currently the Islamists) allow dissent from the ruling class to be represented only by parties approved by the ruling class. Also, in today’s European Union the ruling class’ wide spread and homogeneity leaves those who do not like how their country is run with no one to represent them. Though America’s ruling class is neither as narrow as that of Communist regimes nor as broadly preclusive as that of the European Union, the Republican leadership’s preference for acting as part of the ruling class rather than as representatives of voters who feel set upon has begun to produce the sort of soft pre-emption of opposition and bitterness between rulers and ruled that occurs necessarily wherever representation is mocked.
To see how America’ country class can be represented, let us glance at how the current division of American politics into a ruling class and a country class came about and why it is inherently unstable.
Ins and Outs
Those who attribute the polarization of American politics to the partisan drawing of congressional districts at the state level have a point: The Supreme Court’s decision in Baker v. Carr (1962) inadvertedly legalized gerrymandering by setting “one man one vote” as the sole basis of legitimacy for drawing legislative districts. Subsequent judicial interpretations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act demanded that districts be drawn to produce Congressmen with specific features. No surprise then that Democratic and Republican legislatures and governors, thus empowered, have drawn the vast majority of America’s Congressional districts to be safe for Democrats or Republicans respectively. Such districts naturally produce Congressmen who represent their own party more than the general population. This helped the parties themselves to grow in importance. But the U.S. Senate and state governments also have polarized because public opinion in general has.
Political partisanship became a more important feature of American life over the past half-century largely because the Democratic Party, which has been paramount within the U.S. government since 1932, entrenched itself as America’s ruler, and its leaders became a ruling class. This caused a Newtonian “opposite reaction,” which continues to gather force.
In our time, the Democratic Party gave up the diversity that had characterized it since Jeffersonian times. Giving up the South, which had been its main bastion since the Civil War as well as the working classes that had been the heart of its big city machines from Boston to San Diego, it came to consist almost exclusively of constituencies that make up government itself or benefit from government. Big business, increasingly dependent on government contracts and regulation, became a virtual adjunct of the contracting agents and regulators. Democrats’ traditional labor union auxiliaries shifted from private employees to public. Administrators of government programs of all kinds, notably public assistance, recruited their clientele of dependents into the Party’s base. Democrats, formerly the party of slavery and segregation, secured the allegiance of racial minorities by unrelenting assertions that the rest of American society is racist. Administrators and teachers at all levels of education taught two generations that they are brighter and better educated than the rest of Americans, whose objections to the schools’ (and the Party’s) prescriptions need not be taken seriously.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of American education’s centralization, intellectual homogenization and partisanship in the formation of the ruling class’ leadership. Many have noted the increasing stratification of American society and that, unlike in decades past, entry into its top levels now depends largely on graduation from elite universities. As Charles Murray has noted, their graduates tend to marry one another, perpetuating what they like to call a “meritocracy.” But this is rule not by the meritorious, rather by the merely credentialed – because the credentials are suspect. As Ron Unz has shown, nowadays entry into the ivied gateways to power is by co-option, not merit. Moreover, the amount of study required at these universities leaves their products with more pretense than knowledge or skill. The results of their management– debt, decreased household net worth, increased social strife – show that America has been practicing negative selection of elites.
Nevertheless as the Democratic Party has grown its constituent parts into a massive complex of patronage, its near monopoly of education has endowed its leaders ever more firmly with the conviction that they are as entitled to deference and perquisites as they are to ruling. The host of its non-governmental but government-financed entities, such as Planned Parenthood and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, argue for government funding by stating, correctly, that they are pursuing the public interest as government itself defines it.
Thus by the turn of the twenty first century America had a bona fide ruling class that transcends government and sees itself at once as distinct from the rest of society – and as the only element thereof that may act on its behalf. It rules – to use New York Times columnist David Brooks’ characterization ofBarack Obama – “as a visitor from a morally superior civilization.” The civilization of the ruling class does not concede that those who resist it have any moral or intellectual right, and only reluctantly any civil right, to do so. Resistance is illegitimate because it can come only from low motives. President Obama’s statement that Republican legislators – and hence the people who elect them – don’t care whether “seniors have decent health care…children have enough to eat” is typical.
Republican leaders neither parry the insults nor vilify their Democratic counterparts in comparable terms because they do not want to beat the ruling class, but to join it in solving the nation’s problems. How did they come to cut such pathetic figures?
The Republican Party never fully adapted itself to the fact that modern big government is an interest group in and of itself, inherently at odds with the rest of society, that it creates a demand for representation by those it alienates, and hence that politicians must choose whether to represent the rulers or the ruled. The Republican Party had been the party of government between the Civil War and 1932. But government then was smaller in size, scope, and pretense. The Rockefellers of New York and Lodges of Massachusetts – much less the Tafts of Ohio – did not aspire to shape the lives of the ruled, as does modern government. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal largely shut these Republicans out of the patronage and power of modern government.
By the late 1930s, being out of power had begun to make the Republicans the default refuge of voters who did not like what the new, big government was doing. Some Republican leaders – the Taft wing of the Party – adopted this role. The Rockefeller wing did not. Though the latter were never entirely comfortable with the emerging Democratic ruling class, their big business constituency pressed them to be their advocate to it. A few such Republicans (e.g. Kevin Philips The Emerging Republican Majority) even dreamed during the Nixon-Ford Administration of the 1970s that they might replace Democrats at the head of the ruling class. But the die had been cast long since: Corporations, finance, and the entitled high and low – America’s “ins” – gravitated to the Democrats’ permanent power, while the “outs” fled into the Republican fold. Thus after WWII the Republican Party came to consist of office holders most of who yearned to be “ins,” and of voters who were mostly “outs.”
This internal contradiction was unsustainable. The Republican leadership, regarding its natural constituency as embarrassing to its pursuit of a larger role in government, limited its appeal to it. Thus it gradually cut itself off from the only root of the power by which it might gain that role. Thus the Republicans proved to be “the stupid party.”
n 1960 Barry Goldwater began the revolt of the Republican Party’s constituent “outsider” or “country class,” by calling for a grass-roots takeover of the Party. This led to Goldwater’s nomination for President in 1964. The Republican Establishment maligned him more vigorously than did the Democrats. But the Goldwater movement switched to Ronald Reagan, who overcame the Republican Establishment and the ruling class to win the Presidency by two landslide elections. Yet the question: “who or what does the Republican Party represent” continued to sharpen because the Reagan interlude was brief, because it never transformed the Party, and hence because the Bush (pere et fils) dynasty plus Congressional leadership (Newt Gingrich was a rebel against it and treated a such) behaved increasingly indistinguishably from Democrats. Government grew more rapidly under these Republican Administrations than under Democratic ones.
In sum, the closer one gets to the Republican Party’s voters, the more the Party looks like Goldwater and Reagan. The closer one gets to its top, the more it looks like the ghost of Rockefeller. Consider 2012: the party chose for President someone preferred by only one fourth of its voters – Mitt Romney, whose first youthful venture in politics had been to take part in the political blackballing of Barry Goldwater.
One reason for the Republican Party’s bipolarity is the centripetal attraction of the ruling class: In the absence of forces to the contrary, smaller bodies tend to become satellites of larger ones. Modern America’s homogenizing educational Establishment and the ruling class’ near monopoly on credentials, advancement, publicity, and money draws ambitious Republicans into the Democrats’ orbit. That is why for example a majority of the Republican Establishment, including The Wall Street Journal and the post-W.F. BuckleyNational Review supported the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and its premise that big, well-connected enterprises are “too big to fail” - which three fourths of the American people opposed vociferously. For these Republican cognoscenti vox populi is not vox dei, but the voice of idiots. Accordingly, after the 2010 elections produced a large contingent of Senators and Congressmen pledged to oppose measures such as the TARP, former Senate Republican majority leader Trent Lott expressed confidence that Washington would soon break the new members to its ways, that pledges to voters would count for little against the approval or disapproval of prestigious personages, against the profit to be made by going along with the ruling class and the trouble that comes from opposing it.
Some Democrats seem to believe that taking these Republicans unto themselves while deeming the remainder “unworthy,” withdrawing “tolerance toward [their] regressive opinions,” will crush serious opposition. Maybe. Surely however, incorporating the Republican Establishment into the ruling class leaves the dissidents free coherently to pursue their own vision, and with a monopoly of opposition. In two-party systems, the opposition eventually wins. Considering that, according to a 2013 Pew poll, 53% of Americans view the government as a threat to their welfare and liberties (up from 36% in 1995 and that a third of those who feel that way are Democrats); considering that government’s very legitimacy decreases as government grows in size, that victory may come sooner rather than later.
Because of the aforementioned, the political representation of America’s country class is fragmentary. But the uniformity of the ruling class’ pressure on the fragments is pressing them toward similar responses and perhaps unity.
It matters less whether two thirds of Republican congressmen vote against their leaders as they did on January 1, 2013 out of conviction or because their constituents demand it. Fact is, Republican leaders become less significant with every passing year because they have no way of reversing the intellectual trends from above or the popular pressure from below. Recent Presidential elections have shown that contemporary Establishment Republicans elicit scarce, unenthusiastic support even from longtime Republican voters because they are out of synch with their flock. In short, the Republican leadership finds itself in a position analogous to that of Episcopal bishops: They own an august label and increasingly empty churches because they have been chasing off the faithful priests and congregations.
This of course is what happened to the Whig party after 1850. After it became undeniable that party leader Henry Clay’s latest great compromise had sold the party’s principles cheap, the most vigorous Whigs, e.g. New York governor William Seward and national hero John C. Fremont – joined by an obscure Illinois ex-congressman named Abraham Lincoln whose only asset was that he reasoned well – looked for another vehicle for their cause. In 1854, together with representatives of other groups, they founded the Republican Party. Today the majority of Republican congressmen plus a minority of senators – dissidents from the Party but solid with their voters – are the natural core of a new party. The name it might bear is irrelevant. Very relevant are sectors of America’s population increasingly represented by groups that sprang up to represent them when the Republican leadership did not.
This representation is happening by default. It is aided by the internet, which makes it possible to spread ideas to which the educational Establishment gives short shrift and which the ruling class media shun. In short, the internet helps undermine the ruling class’ near-homogenization of American intellectual life, its closing of the American mind. Not by reason but by bureaucratic force majeure had America’s educational Establishment isolated persons who deviate from it, cutting access to a sustaining flow of ideas that legitimize their way of life. But the internet allows marginalized dissenters to reason with audiences of millions. Ideas have consequences. No surprise then that more and more of Republican elected officials seem to think less like their leaders and more like their voters.
The internet also spread the power to organize. Already in the 1970s Richard Viguerie had begun to upset the political parties’ monopoly on organization by soliciting money from the general public for causes and candidates through direct mail. The internet amplified this technique’s effectiveness by orders of magnitude, making it possible to transmit ideas and political signals while drawing financial support from millions of likeminded people throughout the country. Thus informed with facts and opinion, sectors of the country class have felt represented and empowered vis a vis the ruling class. Those on the electronic distribution list of the “Club for Growth,” for example, are at least as well informed on economic matters as any credentialed policy maker. The several pro-life organizations have spread enough knowledge of embryology and moral logic to make Roe v. Wade, which the ruling class regards as its greatest victory, a shrinking island in American jurisprudence and society. The countless Tea Parties that have sprung up all over have added their countless attendees to networks of information and organization despite the ruling class’ effort to demonize them. The same goes for evangelicals, gun owners, etc. Though such groups represent the country class fragmentarily, country class people identify with them rather than with the Republican Party because the groups actually stand for something, and represent their adherents against the ruling class’ charges, insults, etc.
Since America’s first-past-the-post electoral system produces elections between two parties, it was natural for any and all groups who oppose the ruling class to gravitate to the Republican Party. But the Party’s leaders, reasoning that “they have nowhere else to go,” refused to notice that voters were lending their votes out of allegiance to causes rather than to the Party, and that Republican candidates increasingly sought votes through the medium of groups that advocate these causes rather than through the Party Establishment. It was shocked when candidates won Republican primaries by aligning themselves with such groups, against the Party itself. The flood of votes that such groups energized in 2010 signified that the groups, not the Party, had come to represent opposition to the ruling class. But post 2010, the Republican leadership continued to pretend to be the county class’ representative while not actually representing it. Its donors buried opposition to Mitt Romney in attack ads and picked its own kind of candidates wherever it could.
After the leadership’s electoral disaster of 2012 and its subsequent pathetic fecklessness the only vision of a possible future in Republican ranks – the only programmatic and organizational coherence –was among the Party’s dissident majority in the House and dissident minority in the Senate. By 2013 it was less meaningful to ask what the leadership would do with the dissidents than what the dissidents would do with the leadership. The answer seemed to be: increasingly to ignore it, to go one’s own way; more and more, to go along with conscience and with voters. By 2013 as their numbers continued to grow without counter trend, it was difficult to imagine how the leadership might reduce their numbers.
At the same time, the groups that represent the country class’ pieces were mounting and winning more primary challenges to Establishment Republicans. The establishment responded with its main asset: money. The New York Times reported a concerted effort by the Party’s biggest donors led by longtime Bush staffer Karl Rove (yes, the Rockefeller wing) to support Establishment candidates in the primary process. But establishment candidates are already better funded than dissidents, usually massively so. The establishment candidates who have survived dissident challenges have seldom done it through sheer cash, but rather by fuzzing the differences between themselves and the dissidents. Designating themselves formally as “establishment,” was almost sure to hurt them. Moreover to set up the Republican establishment as a separate caucus invites the dissidents to unite and present themselves united as an alternative. That is the natural path to the dissidents forming a new party while Republican leadership dissolves into the Democratic party. In sum, the value of the label “Republican” is problematic.
The instrument and its use
A new party is likely to arise because the public holds both Republicans and Democrats responsible for the nation’s unsustainable course. Indebtedness cannot increase endlessly. Nor can regulations pile on top of regulations while the officials who promulgate them – and their pensions – continue to grow, without crushing those beneath. Nor can the population’s rush to disability status and other forms of public assistance, or the no-win wars that have resulted in “open season” on Americans around the world, continue without catharsis. One half of the population cannot continue passively to absorb insults without pushing back. When – sooner rather than later – events collapse this house of cards, it will be hard to credibly advocate a better future while bearing a label that advertises responsibility for the present. Why trust any Republican qua Republican?
To represent the country class, to set about reversing the ills the ruling class imposed on America, a party would have to confront the ruling class’ pretenses, with unity and force comparable to that by which these were imposed. There will be no alternative to all the country class’ various components acting jointly on measures dear to each. For example: since the connection between government and finance, the principle that large institutions are “too big to fail,” are dear to America’s best-connected people who can be counted on to threaten “systemic collapse,” breaking it will require the support of sectors of the country class for which “corporate welfare” is less of a concern than the welfare effects of the Social Security system’s component that funds fake disability and drug addiction – something about which macroeconomists mostly care little – and vice versa. Similarly the entire country class has as much interest in asserting the right of armed self-defense as does any gun owner, because the principle of constitutional right is indivisible. Nothing will require greater unity against greater resistance than ending government promotion of abortion and homosexuality. Yet those whose main concerns are with financial probity cannot afford continuing to neglect that capitalist economics presupposes a morally upright people. All this illustrates the need for, and the meaning of, a political party: disparate elements acting all of one and one for all.
Diversity is not a natural barrier to pursuing common interests. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic party included every unreconstructed segregationist in the South, as well as nearly all Progressives in university towns like Hyde Park, Illinois and Madison, Wisconsin – people who despised not only the segregationists but also the Catholic Poles, Italians, and Irish from Milwaukee to Boston whose faith and habits were as foreign to them as they were to Southerners. Yet all understood that being mutually supportive of Democrats was the key to getting what they wanted.
The common, unifying element of the several country class’ sectors is the ruling class’ insistence, founded on force rather than reason, that their concerns are illegitimate, that they are illegitimate. The ruling class demonizes the country class piece by piece. Piece by piece it cannot defend itself, much less can it set the country on a course of domestic and international peace, freedom and solvency. None of the country class’ politically active elements can, by themselves, hope to achieve any of their goals because they can be sure that the entire ruling class’ resources will be focused on them whenever circumstances seem propitious. In 2012 for example, the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms seemed politically safe. Then, one disaster brought seemingly endless resources from every corner of the ruling class to bear on its defenders. The rest of the country class’ politically active elements stood by, sympathetically, but without a vehicle for helping. Each of these elements should have learned that none can hope for indulgence from any part of the ruling class. They can look only to others who are under attack as they themselves are.
Far be it from a party that represents the country class to ape what it abhors by imposing punitive measures through party line votes covered by barrages of insults: few in the country class’ parts want to become a ruling class. Yet the country class, to defend itself, to cut down the forest of subsidies and privileges that choke America, to curb the arrogance of modern government, cannot shy away from offending the ruling class’ intellectual and moral pretenses. Events themselves show how dysfunctional the ruling class is. But only a political party worthy of the name can marshal the combination of reason, brutal images, and consistency adequately to represent America’s country class.
Angelo M. Codevilla is Professor Emeritus of international relations at Boston University and a fellow of the Claremont Institute.