With Mitt Romney’s ascendancy to the helm of the Republican Party, there has been a notable change of tactics from the GOP. You could chart the change—between the days when Republican voters were entertaining the notion of President Bachmann to their decision that the unlikable, unprincipled, unreasonable and uncompassionate Mr Moneybags was the winning head of the ticket—as one between constitutionalism and corporatism.
There was a latent populism associated with Paul, Bachmann and their ilk. And if it was one which drew some strangely un-intuitive conclusions (let’s fight corporate greed by giving corporations more power; paper money constitutes an artificial economy, so let’s replace it with a chunk of shiny rock; etc), it at least recognised that something was wrong. And both the libertarian and Tea Party ‘revolutions’ proposed a reinvigoration of popular democracy through a level of grassroots participation that will be absent in Romney’s proposed path towards election day this November. The Tea Party movement may have been manipulated and funded by corporate interests, but its representatives were instantaneously dropped and promptly buried the moment their rhetoric strayed outside the bounds of the orthodoxy built up around the corporate welfare state so solicitously constructed by the likes of the Koch brothers.
Another characteristic shared by the briefly-ascendant populist wing of the Republican Party was its willingness to be governed—down to the crossing of the last ‘T’ and the dotting of the final ‘I’—by the arbitrary interpretation of a centuries-old document penned in a very different time in a very different country. Every plank in the GOP’s increasingly fundamentalist platform was defended along constitutional lines. Any policy that failed to adhere to its rigid economic orthodoxy was attacked as ‘un-constitutional’. Obama—that liberal, communist, Islamic, fascist, racist, secularist threat to America—was accused of shredding the constitution. Rival Republicans were called to task for failing to show sufficient respect for the mangled, right-wing interpretation of the founders’ intentions.
Some amongst the constitutionalist wing of the Republican Party undoubtedly actually believe that we should allow ourselves to be governed by the long arm of the founders as it stretches out of the eighteenth century to tap us on the shoulder and remind us that our predecessors were slave-holding, anti-populist, oligarchs. (They were also mostly humanists, but that’s a piece of history that the Republican Party conveniently overlooks). Thomas Paine inveighed against what he called “the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave”, calling it “the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man”, he wrote, “has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow ... There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the ‘end of time’, or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it” (Rights of Man).
Constitutionalism appealed to other Republicans, I suspect, because they realised that, given enough imaginative elasticity, they could condemn almost anything as un-constitutional, thereby tarring any measure they disapproved of with the association without having to actually engage in an intelligent argument.
It is possible that Romney might have continued the constitutional charge in a modified form had not John Roberts handed down the Supreme Court victory of sorts for healthcare reform. The Chief Justice’s defensive move was that of a man who knows that the institution he represents is treading on thin ice and flirting with illegitimacy. Roberts, who has never been shy about introducing naked partisanship into the court, however much it might insult the intelligence of the public (think of the Citizens United ruling: corporations are people and money is free speech) was, I suspect, as disingenuous in this ruling as the constitutionalist arguments emanating from the financial backers of his party’s populist wing. But he felt that he had to save the GOP and the radical wing of the Supreme Court from itself so that it could live to fight another day. In so doing, he forced a change of strategy on his party—one which, it must be said, was already underway. Attacking the Obama administration’s (admittedly half-hearted) efforts to provide universal healthcare to Americans had become, after all, the centrepiece of the GOP’s constitutionalist argument, and even they aren’t quite ready to attack the Supreme Court on legal terms (though if I were Roberts, I’d avoid any Tea Party gathering for the next couple of decades).
The GOP’s march towards the very real possibility of electoral victory in November has not, alas, been accompanied by a corresponding heightened rationality. Romney was never going to be comfortable with the populism embraced so fulsomely by Bachmann, Paul and Perry. He would, after all, wound up directing the blame at himself—a point that his opponents made repeatedly during the seven thousand or so primary debates.
Instead, he has switched to blatant corporatism. He’d toyed with this approach before—declaring “People are corporations!” at one rally. A keen proponent of trickle-down economics (memorably characterised as “voodoo economics” by George H W Bush), Romney faces what would ordinarily be the daunting task of persuading people that bailouts for financial interests, tax cuts for the wealthy, and loopholes for the corporation are the best way to address the unconscionable inequality that plagues our country—a level of inequality, it should be mentioned, which was deliberately generated by earlier rounds of bailouts, tax cuts, and loopholes.
In an article in the week-end’s Guardian, Will Hutton observed how—through precisely the kind of deregulation of industries, elevation of corporate personhood, assault on workplace rights, and dismantling of public institutions that Romney is proposing—the wealthy in the U.S. and Britain are increasingly sealing themselves off from the rest of society. Hutton’s article is worth reading because he goes on to explain how “the rise of rightwing individualism and an accompanying celebration of the private and distrust of the public” generates a domino scenario, one affecting the workplace, communal life, schools, and the family.
But all of this will be an easier sell for Romney, because part of his work has already been done...in part by the constitutionalist wing of his party that he is currently sidelining. Citizens United has transformed the already trashy, debased, vacuous and Manichean American Presidential campaign into something even worse. The universally self-congratulatory, jingoistic, a-philosophical, dumbed-down campaign rhetoric that characterised 2008 will look quaint and sober-minded compared with the barrage of odious, off-topic, nauseatingly inaccurate ads paid for by the candidates’ corporate backers beneath which “hope and change” are being buried in 2012.
Romney and Obama will slog it out not with ideas (already in short supply in political campaigns), but with their credit cards, and whomever wins will emerge in serious debt to some seriously wealthy and serially irresponsible interests. The experience of this election cycle signifies that reality is being put on the bench more or less permanently in U.S. politics. It doesn’t matter, for example, that Obama inherited enormous debt, a financial and housing crisis, unemployment that was bound to get worse before it got better, a profound absence of morality amongst our country’s business community, and is now grappling with global uncertainty and a European fiscal and economic crisis, about which he can do very little. If Romney spends enough money he can convince people that each and every one of these things is the President’s fault—and that Obama is a socialist-fascist and a secularist-Islamist anti-Christ from Kenya and/or Indonesia in the pay of the Soviet Union to boot.
Even if Romney loses the election, the corporatist wing of the Republican Party will have won. The critique of capitalism—however hesitant—that was emanating from its populist wing, will have been soundly quashed. The Occupy Movement will have been consigned to temporary oblivion. The political left in the United States will have held its nose, its stomach, its bile, and strangled a good many of its principles to vote for Obama. And if Obama triumphs it will be because he too embraced the notion that our politics should be governed by corporate dollars.
Constitutionalists are usually those who use the spectre of disorder threatened by the rise of their ideological opponents in their electioneering. But this won’t work for the Republican Party. For in suspending the rules, in elevating greed and avarice to the status of virtues, in seeking to rip up the foundations of our society for the personal and corporate gain of a very small number of people, and in shamelessly promoting social and economic inequality, they are the ones threatening to upend our lives as we know them.