People frequently talk these days about how the Republican Party has shifted further right. Many long-time Republicans are, in fact, very frustrated with the positions and inflexibility of ideological Tea Party-ers. Just as, if not more, troubling than this rightward shift, however, is the change in the nature of the drivers of the Republican Party’s core beliefs. Importantly, I’m not here promoting a conservative or liberal agenda. What troubles me is the shift in how opinion is shaped; though, much of what’s most concerning is most prominent in the Republican Party. This is not surprising as—judgment aside—Republicans are generally more supportive of the interests of business and the wealthy.
I’ll begin by looking at the sturdier groundings of core conservative beliefs and the impact these beliefs had on our politics, and will then look to the evolution of influence from less reliable sources. Much of conservative thought—whether right or wrong—is grounded in deep philosophical and ethical study, analysis, and debate. And historically, academia and intellectual debate has been a, if not the, core source for many of the beliefs of right-leaning policy-makers. Much of the anti-government sentiment of modern conservatism has a pedigree going back to The Enlightenment and Classical Liberalism. Many branches of thought grew out of the central tenants of these movements, including, in the US, the much more extreme US version of Libertarianism, and non-libertarian conservatism similarly derives many of its core beliefs from these same some philosophically and historically grounded movements (again, not to say they are right or wrong).
Academic economics has provided another analytically-based source of conservative beliefs. Milton Friedman and the Chicago School provided an intellectual base for, and then evangelized what became for many decades orthodox economic theory, a theory that placed tremendous faith in the proper workings of free markets—to the extent that The Efficient Market Hypothesis became commonly accepted as fact. This economic thought was a foundation upon which the developed Washington Consensus, which long held sway among many thoughtful, informed policy-makers of varied political stripes, including those of the Clinton administration (good recent accounts of these developments are given in Justin Fox’s ‘The Myth of the Rational Market’ and Michael Hirsh’s ‘Capital Offense…,’ among many others). Before the Great Recession, I, too, also embraced much of the Washington Consensus.
Starting somewhat earlier, but somewhat contemporaneous with the above, intellectuals and evangelizers such as William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater promoted developed and promoted conservative ideas that encompassed the above ideas along with more socially oriented beliefs.
Much of the above-mentioned erstwhile orthodox economics has in recent decades by developments in Behavioral Economics and our understanding of the market breakdowns that result from information asymmetries and other imperfections (Cf. works by Joseph Stiglitz, Daniel Khaneman, Amos Tversky). These latter economic ideas have since gained consensus-status and were given much empirical validation by the Great Recession.
But there’s another quite distinct source of Republican ideology, one that is fairly insensitive to recent evolution in economic thought and which has in fact evolved—or better, devolved—in recent years. In the sixties and seventies the Republican Party was in poor shape; Democrats consistently held both the House and the Senate. Republicans, however, found salvation (excuse the pun) in Jerry Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority’ and the many evangelical preachers, making use of the growing mega churches and televangelism, that helped Republicans take back from the Democrats much of the Southern vote through the promotion of the Republican Party as bulwark for the preservation of conservative social values.
So that’s the context. Here, though, is where the money comes in, first in a much less pernicious form. In the 1970 came the rise of the conservative think tanks. The American Enterprise Institute (though started early, gained real traction starting around 1971; the Heritage Foundation was founded in 1973, The Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1976, the Cato Institute in 1977, and the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in 1983. Many others have since followed. This seems benign, but this was a key development in the moneyed elite’s effort— always present, but changing in form—to apply great wealth to sway public and policy-maker opinion. The Heritage Foundation was largely funded by Richard Mellon Scaife (publishing billionaire) and Joseph Coors (of the beer); the NCPA is largely funded by the foundations of similarly wealthy business titans such as the Koch brothers (on whom, more to follow), Josesph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife, Harry Earhart, John Olin, etc.; the EPPC is receives much of its funding from the foundations of much of the same crew again, i.e. Coors, Koch, Olin, Scaife, etc; and so on. The left has its foundations, of course, but most of them were started much later, they receive less of their funding from such magnates, and, of course, the wealthy that do contribute are not similarly forwarding their personal and business economic interests. (See Paul Krugman’s works for a good account of the conservative think tanks; Krugman is a liberal, but the account can be verified at sourcewatch.org, among other places.)
Of course, as mentioned, this is the earlier (though it continues) and less pernicious form of billionaires’ shaping opinion. At least these organizations were to some extent engaged in a somewhat rigorous, intellectual debate, in which both conservatives and liberals could participate, even if all were not equally well funded.
What’s concerning now is that the nature of the influence such mega-rich exert has, as the title indicates, shifted from academia and at least semi-academic debate, to populist demagoguery. As in the 1960’s, the Republicans again found themselves in desperate circumstances in the late 2000’s, as many citizens became disaffected with the Bush administration and in the wake of the Great Recession. Something dramatic was needed. And, alas, salvation was found in the Tea Party movement and the ideas it has promoted. This again initially seemed benign, as this appeared to be a grass-roots movement. Unfortunately, though there may indeed be some grass-roots, it’s largely Astro Turf. From the beginning Tea Party meetings and strategy and message development were funded by the (again) Koch brothers, via their Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Leading up to the first Tax Day Protest (April, 2009), to give just one example, Americans for Prosperity promoted ‘Tea Party Talking Points’ via a website it launched. Jane Mayer gives a thorough account of the Koch brothers role in creating and shaping the Tea Party in her excellent and detailed article ‘Covert Operations.’
I won’t go through examples of the demagoguery of Tea Party thought-shapers (nor the role of media such as Fox News), but I think there’s little debate even among conservative intellectuals that it is extensive. The deeply troubling problem is that the drivers of of ideas in the Republican Party has shifted from philosophers and academics (especially economist academics) and even from the billionaire-supported semi-academic foundations, to billionaire supported populist campaigns that employ demagoguery, savvy media strategies, and, indeed the psychology of influence (which I won’t discuss here, but which has made great strains in academia and is now, of course, employed by all parties) to directly shape the thinking of the general population, which myriad academic studies have shown to be mostly uninformed (and subject to all the biases, such as confirmation biases—cf. Stiglitz just-out ‘The Price of Inequality…’—that behavioral economics hold tremendous sway over us all). And, as most political scientists and informed policy-makers understand, the ideas being promoted are very much to the benefit of the wealthy, and very often detrimental to the middle class that constitutes the great preponderance of Tea Party members. To take just one example, leading up to the 2010 congressional race, Republicans, depending largely for their electoral success on Tea Party candidates, were adamantly opposed to letting the Bush reduction in the top bracket tax rate expire, something which of course would have done nothing to hurt the vast majority of Tea Party-ers This is not the way a democracy should function.
And sadly, there’s, as most have learned another stage in this story. In 2011 the Supreme Court made—and I say this based on constitutional grounds—one of its worst decisions in recent years when it ruled on a 5-4 decision conservative/liberal (based on appointing President) split on Citizens United, which opened the door to corporations and (later via the DC Federal Court of Appeals Citizens United-based ruling in Speechnow.org vs. FEC) individuals to donate unlimited amounts to organizations engaged in electioneering. Since then, via Super PACs, corporations and individuals have been able to spend unlimited amounts to promote their favored candidates. Super PACs cannot coordinate with candidates, but these organizations are generally lead by former political directors of the candidates, which makes a farce of the Supreme Court’s justification that as long as there can be no direct coordination there will be ‘neither corruption nor the appearance of corruption.’ Since then, the money has poured in, and we have a situation whereby the likes of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is opposed to a Palestinian state, spends tens of millions of dollars (and he’s suggested he’ll spend over $100M) to influence electoral outcomes.
The historical trajectory in how political ideas are shaped—from academia, to wealthy-supported think takes, to billionaire-supported Astro Turf demagogic movements, to Super PACs –over the last decades is shocking, saddening, and, I think, a real threat to the quality of our democracy. I hope others join me in fighting this trend, and there are some ways to do so; FreeSpeechforPeople.org and other such organizations—and hopefully more soon—represent some ways to get involved and help preserve American democracy from the undue influence of huge aggregates of wealth.