Friday, August 17, 2012

Is there a libertarian/populist split in today's Republican Party?

Lawrence Rosenthal, the executive director Of UC-Berkeley's Center for Right-Wing Studies - yes, there is such a thing - talks about what he sees as two distinguishable groups in today's Republican Party in Mapping Paul Ryan Berkeley Blog 08/14/2012: the "libertarian" branch and the "populist" branch, in his terminology.

His post illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of using these categories to understand different aspects of today's Republican Party. The "libertarian"/free market/deregulation pitch appeals to everyone from a hardware store owner who doesn't want to have to worry about city fire codes to an investment banker who wants to snort coke, sleep with hookers and not pay taxes to support his country.

The "populist" wing Rosenthal defines as essentially the Christian Right, though he doesn't use that term:

They feel passionately that liberalism — of the Democratic Party and of the weak-kneed in the Republican Party — is so mistaken, so corrupt and sinister, that it’s hard not to consider its believers and practitioners under the sway of foreign or even treasonous influences. And it is certainly ungodly. These are the people for whom the "social issues," like opposing abortion and gay rights, carry enormous weight.
And this kind of appeal speaks more to people who think gay and lesbians couples will somehow wreck straight marriage by being, well, by just being there. And who, like chief Party ideologue Rush Limbaugh, think women who use birth control are sluts and prostitutes and who think it's scandalous to say "vagina" in public.

So these categories are ways of understanding different aspects of Republican appeals.

But are they really separate factions or operating on fundamentally different emphases? Rosenthal himself seems to recognize that they are not, when he writes, "The populist branch adheres to the free-market absolutism of the libertarians," though the thinks they have "different motivations."

What concerns me about Rosenthal's definition of the libertarian and populist branches of the Republican Party is that is sounds so much like the Wall Street/Main Street division that pundits have been saying since the Reagan Administration will cause a split in the Party. That split has yet to materialize. It's something of an echo of the division that did deeply divide the Republicans in the 1960s between Rockefeller Republicans who were focused on protecting the profits of the wealthy and opposed segregation and the Goldwater Republicans who advocated extreme deregulation, segregation and military adventurism.

To the extent there is any such division in the Republican Party today, it's between the small number of Ron Paul/Rand Paul types who aren't so overtly gung-ho on having wars all the time because they think that wars are a plot by the United Nations or the Great Jewish Conspiracy or the UFO Federation or whatever. The main ideological factions we saw in the Republican Presidential primaries was religious and ecclesiastical: Mormon fundamentalists, Catholic fundamentalists, Protestant evangelical fundamentalists and Protestant Pentecostal fundamentalists.

It's not that there are no distinctions between groups focused on economics and Christianist groups. There are. But the broad categories of economic libertarians and culture warriors don't tell us much meaningful about voting behavior or the dynamics of the Republican Party. We saw in the Republican Presidential primaries this year that the other Christian fundamentalist factions were very dubious about nominating Mormon Mitt Romney. Polls showed that in a match-up between Romney and Obama, Romney was less popular by large margins. But when it became clear that Romney would win the nomination, polls started showing Romney running close to even with Obama. Once the faction fight had been sorted out, the factions rallied around the Party standard bearer against the President that large numbers of them see as a Kenyan Marxist Muslim atheist.

But those faction fights were not along the lines of economic priority vs. culture war priority. Romney, Pappa Doc Paul, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann were all agreed that Wall Street should be free to run its casino as it pleases, that wealthy people should be freed from the burden of paying taxes, that abortion should be banned and that immigrants should be harassed and preferably deported. There were variations. Rick Perry slipped up once and said something humanly decent about immigrants. Romney took some flack for his suspiciously Obamacare-like health insurance plan in Massachusetts. But there was no breakdown of factions into an economically-libertarian-but-socially-moderate one facing off with a culture-warrior-but-pro-bank-regulation one.

The libertarian vs. populist distinction also doesn't explain the clear dynamic of radicalization we have seen at work in the Republican Party very clearly since the Gingrich Revolution of 1994. To the extent the Big Business and Christian Right sections of the Party have differing priorities, neither comes directly in conflict with major goals of the other. The anti-abortionists are down with "Biblical capitalism" which looks pretty much exactly like the Ayn Rand atheist version. The investment banker who likes cocaine and hookers if fine with the anti-abortion laws, because he figures he can satisfy his tastes whether or not women's human rights are recognized. The Christian Right's vision is too narrow to win majorities without big bucks behind them; the plutocrats' policies are too obviously unfair and anti-democracy without some emotional issues to energize voters who will be hurt by their economic policies to support them. They need each other. And it has been an enduring marriage.

There are still moderate Republicans here and there. But they are hard to tell from the radicals and the radicals are reducing their numbers with every election. Jennifer Granholm reported on this recently on The War Room, Extra: Congratulations Mitt! Moderate GOP members unwelcome and uninvited to the the new right YouTube date 08/14/2012:

Irin Carmon in Kansas gets even crazier Salon 08/16/2012 describes recent defe4ats of more Republican so-called moderates in the Koch Brothers' home state. She writes:

The obsessive focus on limiting reproductive rights in state legislatures and the House of Representatives gives the lie to the idea that Tea Party radicals and social conservatives were different beasts. The Kansas primary represents the apotheosis of their coordinated efforts: Morris, whose Senate was the only bulwark against the wholesale adoption of the [Gov. Sam] Brownback agenda, told the Huffington Post after his defeat last week that Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and antiabortion groups spent in the range of $3 million and $8 million on beating him and his allies, with an eye to major tax cuts, an overhaul of school funding and clamping down on labor unions.
Rosenthal, on the other hand, seems to see a distinction with no meaningful difference:

Opposition to the Obama administration’s attempt to provide universal health insurance, "Obamacare," swiftly became the Tea Party’s signature rallying issue after its founding in early 2009. But the Tea Party’s opposition to Obamacare as well illustrates the different routes libertarians and populists take to converge around the same political positions. For libertarians like Paul Ryan, Obamacare is an egregious extension of government’s role in the economy. It is history moving in the wrong direction, threatening to add a layer, perhaps fatal, to their goal of ending the welfare state. For the populists, with their different political driving forces, the attempt to provide health insurance to 40 million uninsured Americans is experienced instead as a zero-sum exercise in which they lose. Their problem with Obamacare is not simply its being given to the uninsured as its being taken, they feel, from themselves.
Okay, so one group is against Obamacare because it violates their free-market principles and their heroic image of self-sufficiency, and the other takes the same position because they think Jesus regards health insurance as sinful and because Obama's black. They both oppose Obamacare. And that's true across the whole range of major concerns for today's Republican Party.

Remarkably, Rosenthal regards Paul Ryan as a defender of the Tea Party's alleged role as "the guarantor of Republican conservative orthodoxy", as opposed (!) to the "populists" like Sarah Palin. He sees Romney as "a candidate of the Republican establishment," which is supposedly different from the "populists." The muddle of his analysis is a good reflection of the problematic nature of the libertarian/populist distinction he postulates.

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