Both of our parties are acting crazy. The Republicans insist on economic policies that are not favored by the general public, nor even by their own voters. The Democrats insist on picking pointless and self-destructive cultural fights that alienate potential allies. Each of our two great political coalitions has been captured by well connected, affluent, and self-righteous factions that are empowering themselves at the expense of their ostensible allies and (what is more important) the country. Let us save the liberals for another day, and focus on the right.
From an electoral perspective, much of the congressional Republican agenda makes zero sense. It starts with a healthcare plan that is incomprehensible to most people (possibly including the president and most members of Congress), removes health insurance coverage from millions of Americans (though Republicans contend that it would be somewhat fewer millions than the Democrats claim—as if that were a winning argument), and has few visible benefits for most people. The result is that support in the polls for this approach is in the twenties.
This is especially bad considering that we are in a highly polarized political environment. People who identify as Republicans want to approve of anything labeled Republican (if only to spite the Democrats). Trump usually can get support in the thirties for even his most grotesque misbehavior. Republicans happened upon a healthcare plan that manages to alienate a large fraction of their supporters, and one suspects the ratings would be even worse in the absence of knee-jerk partisanship.
The story is even worse on what should be a winning issue: taxes. People might not be enthusiastic about tax policy, but it’s not like they mind personally getting tax cuts. The congressional Republicans have somehow managed to turn this issue into a loss. They focused on cutting taxes for high earners who have pass-through businesses (where profits are taken as personal income), rather than coupling more modest business tax cuts with popular policies, such as tax credits for working parents that can be applied to payroll taxes. Instead, Republicans offer a plan that raises taxes among some in the middle class and hits parents especially hard. Maybe they will fix some of these problems in the end—but their instincts are hideous.
This is political insanity. So why do it? In the age of diminishing social capital (especially among the wage-earning strata), the great repository of center-right organization structure is among business owners and professionals. These are the people who groom up-and-coming Republican politicians. They provide seed money for campaigns and networks of activists in every state. Ambitious Republican politicians adopt the worldviews of the right-leaning affluent, not necessarily out of careerism, but because these are the views of the people that Republican politicians most respect. The self-destructive behavior of congressional Republicans makes sense only when one recognizes that the Paul Ryans of the world absolutely believe in what they are doing.
What is worse, the center-right elites likewise absolutely believe in what the Paul Ryans of the world are doing. The business lobbies have heard for so long from Republican politicians that only businessmen matter, they have started to believe it. That is how you get columns like the Wall Street Journal’s infamous “lucky duckies” editorial, about the low-income losers who have only a payroll tax liability and were standing in the way of increased tax cuts on high-earners and investors.
In a recent column, Matthew Continetti quoted Irving Kristol on the decline of bourgeois citizenship. The quote is worth reproducing at length:
[Bourgeois citizenship] does refer to a social order and a way of life in which the adult population is presumed to be composed of rational, free, and responsible citizens—that very word is itself a kind of key, for the citizen is something different from the subject of a regime, or the member of a movement, or the adherent of a creed. And one gets the distinct impression, surveying the world around us, that citizens are, to an increasing degree, in short supply.
What we have among our elite right is a kind of post-citizenship, based not on creed or movement, but on class. Conservative elites are convinced that what is best for them is good (or at least right) for everyone else.
One sees this post-citizenship in the insistence of Republican elites that low-skill immigration should be increased, despite the overwhelming opposition of the general public, Republican voters, and even . . . American immigrants. One sees in in Bret Stephens’s insistence that anyone who doesn’t share his program (which is most people) should leave the country.
One sees it in an editorial published by the Wall Street Journal arguing that the child tax credit makes as much sense as a dog tax credit. That parents are investing in the next generation of taxpayers (and soldiers, and yes, even entrepreneurs), and that children are not a consumption good, is brushed aside in favor of the higher good of bringing down the tax rate for “childless superconsumers.” The writer is trying to be funny and he succeeds, to the extent that a political suicide note can be funny.
In the Claremont Review of Books, Christopher Caldwell writes that American businessmen who outsourced their industries saw in other countries “a workforce to whom they didn’t owe jack.” They seem to be taking the same attitude to American democratic politics. They see citizens to whom they don’t owe jack. It’s a shame that they can’t lay off the lucky duckies and other slackers from the job of being Americans.
The business lobbies are the smallest voting group within their coalition. As Henry Olsen has repeatedly pointed out, the small-government conservatives are fewer in number than evangelical social conservatives, somewhat-conservatives, and moderates. The tax-cuts-for-business faction is being carried by the less affluent (but also less organized) people who make up the vast majority of the center-right.
Instead of learning from their electoral weakness, the business lobbies and their media mouthpieces have become more insistent, self-righteous, radical, and delusional. For Mitt Romney, dismissing 47 percent of the population was a gaffe. For our Republican elites, it has become a way of life. If and when the backlash to Trump produces huge Democratic gains, the elite Republicans won’t blame their own, insanely unpopular legislative policies. They will argue that if Republicans had passed bigger high-earner tax cuts and compassionately expanded low-skill guest worker programs, a supercharged economy and an energized Republican base would have saved us all.
The business lobbies (and the people they represent) include many of the smartest, hardest-working, and most personally virtuous people in our country. They could contribute to a healthy and winning political coalition, but doing so will mean taking into account the interests and priorities of others. Cutting the top marginal tax rate isn’t the same kind of public priority today as when that rate was 70 percent. Increasing low-skill immigration when our lowest-skilled workers (and their families) are the most socially troubled is self-evidently crazy for all but those who profit from the policy. Swing voters and conservatives of all stripes can join with the business lobbies to work within a pro-business, limited government politics. But it will not work if the business lobbies continue to insist that they are bosses rather than partners and fellow citizens.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.