Early in Western democracy, conservative parties favored old money over new money and new ideas. Coaxed along by Disraeli and, in America, by Lincoln and the Roosevelts, they learned to protect private property and free enterprise by governing competently and accommodating change. They were wealth’s best friend, but not its plaything.
Great entrepreneurs, with their own image makers and large libraries, didn’t necessarily like conservative politicians or admire their profession. They were risk-takers and often dreamers, and conservative politicians generally were neither.
However, the rich feared ideas on the left far more than the absence of ideas on the right. So, they left politics to tactically adept conservative politicians. They favored inconspicuous elite deal-making in foreign policy and economic development and didn’t put their faith in populist manipulators.
The compromisers, so-called Wets and RINOS—Eisenhower, Churchill, Nixon, and George Bush Sr. along with others—were central to the twin success of capitalist growth and mass democracy, of brutal economic change in societies that wanted ever-greater personal security and material improvement.
That was then.
Can our civilization now succeed without them?
As Congress’ super-committee struggles vainly to address the untenable US deficit, the question of greatest urgency is not whether money is politically powerful but why the friends of money today are so reckless?
Tim Dickinson has written a devastating article on the new Republican Party’s obsessive efforts to cut taxes.
He makes a powerful case that White House and Congressional Republicans favor the richest of the rich. However, the Rolling Stone headline “How the GOP became the Party of the Rich” confuses the story in an important way.
The Eric Cantors of the Republican caucus may see themselves as spear carriers for Ayn Rand and American entrepreneurship. They are, however, making their own mistakes in Washington and are not operating according to a secret blueprint written in America’s greatest boardrooms.
Indeed, it is questionable whether the boardrooms that are driving globalization and America’s slow recovery are well served by their efforts.
The refusal of these new Republicans to better align tax revenues with inexorably rising federal expenditures is a geek’s game of chicken: if they can’t slash Washington’s spending pressures in the US political arena, let the Chinese do it by cutting off America’s credit. This is not the kind of political gamble the privileged like to make.
The lack of public disclosure of the billions of private dollars financing US national politics will corrupt democracy. However, corporate money isn’t organized on behalf of one extravagant idea—never new taxes—and doesn’t explain the growing fanaticism of American right-wing politics.
Over the last decade and over recent months of escalating national peril, big money has been extraordinarily passive. They grumble about not being appreciated and pine for a time of fabulous returns and less risk. One thing they haven’t been doing, however, is intelligently advancing their economic interests in Washington. The debt ceiling crisis, the super committee’s imminent collapse, and across-the-board tax cuts on top of a structural deficit are Washington concoctions. Business has largely sat on the sidelines, while its activists and eccentrics have made Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Sarah Palin household jokes.
The collapse of the super-committee is of immeasurable significance to those interests that do not want the US to change radically, or shrink. It offered moderates their last big opportunity to end run extremists by taking a divisive fiscal mess off of next year's election agenda.
Having failed to find a compromise, there is nothing to stop the next election from being a crude showdown on income and economic inequality—except the conservative temperament of Barack Obama.