Watch Out for GOP Populism
It's easy to underestimate conservatism's chances in these dark days. Over the last year, the Republican Party has appeared to be either a gang of obstructionists or a confused relic of some prehistoric past; its thinkers seemed to do little more than repeat catch-phrases you've heard dozens of times before; even its most earnest activists sometimes appeared to be the pawns of lobbying organizations.
But the movement might stage a comeback yet. According to the demented logic of American politics, the world began anew with the Obama presidency, and so it is the Democrats who will have to go before the public this fall and defend the bailout of Wall Street. Similarly, it might be the Republicans who seize the opportunity to capture public outrage this time around, denouncing concentrated economic power, insisting on holding big business accountable, and promising to settle scores with the nation's erstwhile financial rulers.
Given the GOP's doings over the past 30 years, such a reversal may strike you as implausible, if not downright ridiculous. But it can be done. The first step in what could become a movement in that direction is the essay by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) that appeared in Forbes magazine in December. Its title: "Down With Big Business."
Now, Mr. Ryan seems at first like no more of a radical than do the editors of Forbes. The "philosophy of governing" spelled out on his campaign Web site rails against the New Deal, "class envy economics," and a federal "regulatory leviathan."
Mr. Ryan's fund raising also follows an unremarkable conservative pattern. According to the Web site maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics, many of his donations come from people or Political Action Committees associated with insurance, banking and a certain private equity firm that invests in banks and insurance companies.
But the tone Mr. Ryan takes in his Forbes article makes him sound like the Jacobin of Janesville.
He savages "crony capitalism," pausing to note the "resentment" it is inspiring. He depicts the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP, as a well-intentioned measure that has become "an ad hoc, opaque slush fund for large institutions that are able to influence the Treasury Department's investment decisions behind-the-scenes." He complains about lobbying, offers the obligatory denunciation of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, and bemoans the economic disasters befalling small companies while the rescued banks enjoy "record profits."
Had he stopped there, Mr. Ryan might have become my favorite Republican since William Allen White.
But the problem seems not to be that government made poor decisions over the past year; it's that government made any decisions at all. Government, in Mr. Ryan's view, is alternately the tool and the terror of big business, doing one firm's bidding as it crushes another one. The solution is to get government out of the game altogether, and Mr. Ryan fondly recalls the great deregulatory campaigns of the past (leaving out the embarrassing story of how he and his colleagues overturned Glass-Steagall and then watched the banking industry explode in a fireball of freedom).
This was once a familiar line of criticism: Big business's sin was that it wasn't entrepreneurial enough. If given the opportunity, business would use government to form cartels and suppress competition. Free markets must thus be protected from the grasp of the corporate monster. The way to bring big business down is by deregulating even more.
If this sounds twisted and counter-intuitive, that's because it is. This is an argument that might have sounded good in 1979 but for it to make sense today one has to disregard the wreckage all around us courtesy of three decades of regulatory rollback.
Still, for a large part of the Republican base all this will no doubt ring true: the problem with big business is big government.
For millions of disaffected independent voters, meanwhile, the tail-chasing logic behind the "down with big business" rhetoric probably won't make any difference. All that will matter will be the sincerity of the emotion, and if Mr. Ryan's essay is any indication, this is a job Republicans can do as well as any Code Pink activist.
That's why we may be heading for the greatest burst of fake populism since those TV commercials 10 years ago that showed a mob breaking down the doors of a stock exchange-not because the revolution was on but because they wanted to trade like the pros, which the sponsor promised to let them do.
Democrats, for their part, will find it difficult to respond in kind, especially after having spent their first year delivering regal gifts to the insurance industry and dithering over the urgent matter of new financial regulation. Their friends in the labor movement, meanwhile, got a lump of coal.
Oh well, many Democrats probably figure. Those people have nowhere else to go.
We shall see.
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