The Republican capture by big business has never been clearer — or more dangerous
Journalists and scholars spend a lot time focused on signs of dysfunction and breakdown in the American political system. Congress is weak and shirks its constitutional responsibilities. Public opinion is polarized. Presidents increasingly resort to executive orders, regulatory edicts, and assertions of unlimited discretion to which the Supreme Court increasingly defers. And then there's the evidence of widespread corruption within the Trump administration in particular.
The list of worrying trends is long. Yet the experience of pandemic over the past six weeks has complicated matters. Congress managed to pass the largest economic aid package in American history in short order and has added to it just this past week. The governors of several states have taken charge of public health in a decisive and effective way. And polling has showed broad-based support for and patience regarding highly restrictive measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. All of this is cause for encouragement.
But not everything has been so sunny.
Aside from Donald Trump's trademark inconsistency and incontinence, there have been anti-social-distancing protests against public-health measures in several states that were actively encouraged by leading media personalities on the right and even by the president himself in a series of astonishing tweets calling for the "liberation" of states led by Democratic governors. Most of the protests were small, and polls have revealed that relatively few Americans (just 12 percent) think public-health measures have gone too far. So why highlight them? Because support for such protests on the right demonstrates the remarkable extent to which Republicans have been captured by the part of their electoral coalition representing the interests of big business.
This obviously isn't something entirely new. The GOP has long been the party more inclined to support business interests. It has been true since before the New Deal. It continued through the postwar decades and became amplified with the election of Ronald Reagan, when ideological conservatism first came to power in Washington. Reagan cut taxes and expanded on Jimmy Carter's deregulatory moves. George W. Bush combined a message of "compassionate conservatism" with a domestic agenda that was heavy on additional tax cuts. And then there's Trump, who ran as a populist and spoke of turning the GOP into a "workers' party" but has pursued the most flagrantly pro-business agenda yet, overseeing a massive cut to corporate taxes, a huge increase in deficit spending, and a strong push across the executive branch to cut regulations.
But that's different than taking a stance during a national crisis that's beholden to right-leaning interests in the business community, which is what we've seen over the past few weeks. This is different than Congress' aid package, which made enormous sums available to businesses to help them weather the economic storms of the present so they can stay solvent and keep as many workers as possible on payrolls. That kind of thing is justified during a pandemic that threatens to plunge much of the world into a depression.
I'm talking far more about the anxious and angry response of conservative entrepreneurs and corporate executives to the pandemic — and the eagerness of leading right-wing media personalities and Republican officeholders to amplify that anxiety and anger, including the encouragement of popular unrest against public-health measures.
How do we know that Fox News anchors, right-wing talk-radio hosts, and populist politicians (very much including the president) are channeling the views of big business? For one thing, because a wide range of powerful people in the business community have been reading from the same script about "making sure the cure isn't worse than the disease." But also because their claims are those of people deeply invested in the fanciful idea that the only thing standing in the way of a full and immediate economic recovery is the government-mandated lockdowns. Lift shelter-in-place declarations, tell people they're free to go out and shop, and, we're told, we'll be booming once again, with profits flowing into the pockets of owners and shareholders.
Trump has his own political reasons to believe this fantasy, since his re-election may depend on a quick and substantial economic revival over the next six months. But he and lots of Republicans have an added incentive to push this line — and that is the desire to please the wealthy donors who foot the bill for so much of what happens on the right. These donors desperately want to believe the virus and its terrible economic consequences can just be waved away by government standing down from its emergency measures, and Republicans are desperate to play along with the pipe dream, which grows out of longstanding conservative-movement dogma about the perpetually antagonistic relationship between government regulations and commerce.
The truth, of course, is that the economy began to shut down before the first public-health measures were imposed in early March — and that economic activity is likely to remain seriously depressed until the pandemic fades on its own or a vaccine is approved and widely distributed. The ultimate cause of our economic woes is the virus, not our efforts to fight the virus.
Most Americans appear to understand this. That's why 61 percent of them support ongoing public-health measures, with an additional 26 percent wishing they would be expanded. But that isn't true for the businessmen closest to the Republican Party, who have a stake in believing otherwise. They're more than happy to ally with (and actively try to organize) the disgruntled Trump supporters who have taken to the streets in Michigan and other states over the ten days to protest these popular efforts to slow the spread of the virus. In doing so, they're showing a willingness to gamble people's lives on the hope of returning to economic normalcy through a sheer (and foolhardy) act of will.
Sometimes business interests align with those of ordinary Americans, but often they don't. They certainly don't right now. Which means that the GOP's position as America's party of big business places it at odds with the interests of most of the country.
If this solid majority recognizes this clash and remembers it in November, it would be another sign that the American political system is perhaps a bit less dysfunctional than we sometimes presume.