David Frum recently asked: “Who Burned the GOP Brand?” In that blog post, he lamented that voters overwhelmingly believe that Republicans in Congress favor the rich.
Well, I think the divide between sane conservatives and the Tea Party is that the former want the GOP to be the party of free markets and the latter want it to be the party of the rich.
Some very rich people own right of center media outlets while other very rich people generously finance right of center think tanks and political activism (including the activism of the Tea Party). Furthermore, the party as a whole is unproportionally financed by rich people. So it is no surprise that the outlook of the Republican Party is heavily influenced by the rich people’s perspective.
Furthermore, the left often attacks the rich either because of envy and hatred or simply in order to attack the market economy by proxy. Such proxy attacks are more effective than actually arguing about the comparative economic merits of socialism and free markets, since, as Willi Schlamm famously observed, “The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists.” So it is a natural reaction for Republicans to rise to counter those attacks. For the same reason it is also a mistake for them to defend their economic ideals by such a proxy.
On a practical political level it is a lot simpler to defend the free market ideas themselves rather than the rich, particularly specific individuals. The late Steve Jobs was probably the most popular billionaire in the country in recent years. Yet his new bestselling biography clearly shows that on a personal level he was a nasty man. The same is true for a lot of the rich. While nice guys don’t always finish last, it usually takes certain personality traits to make a lot of money, and those traits do not look pretty upon close inspection.
On a philosophical level the enrichment of the rich is merely a byproduct of the market economy rather than its goal. In fact if that were the goal then the free markets would not even be best for achieving it – other types of economic arrangements may perform better. E.g. Russia managed to produce a whole bunch of billionaires within a span of just several years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of course, Russia has also never in history managed to provide decent life for the majority of its population. A
nd herein lies the best reason for Republicans to support free markets in this country - they have generated unprecedented amounts of wealth for the vast majority of Americans. That is also why supporting the market economy (rather than the rich) is a winning proposition for Republicans. At least as long as the economy continues to deliver.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case in recent decades, and most of the benefits of the economic growth accrued to the rich rather than the middle class. Incidentally, the GOP was also doing quite poorly in the presidential elections for the last 20 years (the average Republican share of the two-party vote dropped from 56% between 1970 and 1990 to 48% between 1990 and 2010). Conservatives need to figure out why this is happening and what to do to reverse the trend.
Allowing it to continue is simply not an option. 1) If the GOP continues to be perceived as a party which cares only about the rich (and is willing to do anything – even a government shutdown or national default – to prevent the rich from paying one penny more in taxes), it may eventually go the way of its predecessor, the Whigs. 2) Increasing capital clumping may decrease our economic performance, and that in turn may eventually cause all sorts of nasty problems – from not being able to cope with rapidly aging population to being overtaken by China. 3) Emulating wealth distribution of Russia and Latin America may eventually cause us to emulate the politics of those places as well, with the conspiracy theorists’ vision of the American politics as a Honduras style proxy fight between George Soros and the Koch brothers for control of the country inching closer and closer to reality.
Unfortunately, I’m not very optimistic about the GOP starting to focus on the middle class prosperity very soon. Its reigning orthodoxy is expressed in the Ryan Plan which proposes to cut taxes for the rich (even though they already pay lower effective tax rates than some segments of the middle class) and abolish Medicare for everybody else.