Having commented favourably on a recent piece by LA Times political columnist George Skelton, I feel duty-bound to revert to my less agreeable self. His article titled “Ruling on redistricting a wake-up call for California GOP” makes the point that the GOP is increasingly “out of sync” with political reality in California. Today’s GOP, Skelton argues, is a bad brand, in danger of dying off.
Their share of the vote is shrinking, they were unable to win statewide office in the last election, and are at odds with Californians on many issues.
But Skelton and other commentators who make similar points about the California Republican Party are missing something important. The Republican Party of our era has ceased to be one interested in participating in government as we think of it. The goals of a traditional political party are to win seats in a legislature, win the governorship of a state, and draft laws designed to better the lives of a given polity’s inhabitants.
But the Republican Party has so ceased to be an institution devoted to representing a conventional slice of the electorate (i.e. a slice big enough to allow it to legislate in the usual sense) that it now eschews the characteristics of a traditional political party. Instead, it has transformed itself into an institution that embraces a hard-hearted brand of economic fundamentalism. Whether this fundamentalist stance is genuine, or whether it is designed to give cover to the Republican Party’s only serious constituency—wealthy and powerful interests whose sole ambition seems to be the accrual of still more wealth and power—is difficult to say.
Because in the enfeebled democracy we inhabit, it is now enough to rely on dollars rather than votes given that history has proven that the former can buy the latter through the use of industrial-scale advertising. Casting its economic fundamentalism as an empowering populism, and having worked assiduously to move the economic debate in California steadily to the right in recent decades, the Republican Party enters elections with the support of real estate, oil, bankers, insurance companies, polluters and those amongst the wealthy who feel entitled to hoard their gains beyond what is conscionable—all those interests which in our increasingly deregulated state constitute the Predatory Classes.
This is a powerful combination which in California and nationally has proved to be enough to keep the Party in business even if, as in California, that means winning a shade over a third of the seats in the legislature (the Republican share of the overall vote would be slightly larger than this).
But back to the point...
The Republican Party is not interested in governing in the usual sense because its loyalty to its corporate handlers and its fealty to its callous economic dogma require that it focus all its efforts on dismantling the institutions of government and the regulations those institutions have imposed on predatory industries and interests.
Think about it: the great innovation in government during the twentieth century, spurred by the need to harness the energies of the nation in a moment of acute economic depression, was to take the decision that it was right—and indeed imperative—to use its authority to protect its citizens.
To protect them from the vagaries of an economic system hitherto run according to the priorities of predatory industrialists or bankers. To protect them when they were sick and the “free market” dictated that they were insufficiently deserving to get better. To protect them when the environments in which they lived were threatened by needless growth and development, or outright greed. To protect them from employers who forced them to work in dangerous conditions for unconscionable hours for inadequate pay without just representation. And to protect them from those who abused the nation’s natural resources and imperilled citizens’ health by fouling waters and fields and the very air those citizens breathed, or by producing food which was unsafe.
These safeguards and the philosophy behind them are antithetical to the Republican Party because they inhibit “free enterprise”, perhaps the world’s greatest faith-based initiative. “Free enterprise” as the Republican Party and its masters publicise it, is a state in which the virtuous prosper and the morally compromised fail. But in place of a deity, the predatory classes sit to judge citizens. And coincidentally, power drifts away from institutions which are democratically accountable and have as their raison d’être the welfare of the people and accrue instead in the hands of those who, in the absence of regulation and unchecked by conscience, are little better than economic gangsters.
In California, whether by chance or design, the Republican Party has played on people’s worse natures to create the perfect environment for a party dedicated to the dismantling of the institutions of government. The Republican Party doesn’t need to win elections or majorities to realise their reckless ambitions. It is enough to win 34% of the seats in one house of the California legislature. In fact, their minority status in a state like California (which requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature to generate revenue) is ideal: provided your program is a destructive one, minority status confers all the power and none the irksome responsibility which ought to come with it.
The one thing the Republican Party needs to do to achieve its aims in California is to retain its power to choke off revenue in the state...to put a kink in the hose through which the funds that give material meaning to our value structure flow. If it can starve our universities, our schools, our state parks, our regulatory agencies, our welfare agencies, our public healthcare providers, it will have won.
And we will have lost. Because in starving these institutions and agencies, the Republican Party and its corporate paymasters will have killed off the idea of an even playing field, no less equality. It will have killed off the idea of collective responsibility, of citizenship, inasmuch as that means being a part of a common endeavour in which we treat one another as we would wish to be treated ourselves. It will have killed off those institutions which continue to foster critical thinking in an age in which an unchecked flow of what passes for information threatens to swamp and parcel us out according to our natal comfort zones. And it will have killed off the very basis for our current political association, for absent the public endeavour to which our country and our state ostensibly subscribe, what indeed would be the point of nationhood?
It might be an exaggeration to claim that the Republican Party’s approach to government is unprecedented. But the sheer destructiveness of its agenda—a destructiveness borne out by its success even in the absence of an endorsement by voters in California, and its ability to flourish in California’s broken political system—seems frighteningly novel.