In the eighteenth century the West shifted from mercantilism to capitalism. Mercantilism was an economic system that gave governments wide-ranging regulatory powers over commerce, mostly to ensure a positive balance of trade. It also allowed for strong guild structures and protection for domestic industries. However, the Industrial Revolution ended mercantilism and brought to power a business class that wanted to be free to operate without government oversight.
As the capitalist worldview evolved, it made a fetish out of the “free market” and viewed government as, at best, a necessary evil. Any sort of regulation was seen as the equivalent of slavery, and the proper role of officialdom was reduced to maintaining internal order (police), defending the realm (military) and enforcing contracts (the courts). Any government involvement in social welfare was disapproved of because it allegedly promoted laziness among the poor, but this was just a convenient myth. The real reason for keeping government activity to an absolute minimum was the rising business class’s fear and loathing of taxes.
In Europe the rationalizations for capitalism remained primarily secular, looking to the maximization of efficiency for the sake of profit. In the United States, however, where little good happens that is not ascribed to an overseeing God, secular rationalizations were soon complemented with the notion of divine will. God wanted unregulated economic freedom and minimalist government to prevail.
This religious view continues to exist. Today’s struggle to return us all to minimalist government and maximum economic “freedom” is led by a collection of fundamentalist Christian right-wingers and Tea Party mad hatters. Chris Hedges lays out a worst-case scenario of the drive for power by the Christian right in his recent article “The Radical Christian Right and the War on the Government.” He tells us that “the public face” of this political force is “on display in the House of Representatives” and its main ideological aim is to “shut down the government.” Hedges also points to Texas Senator Ted Cruz as the archetypal fundamentalist politician leading the charge against big government. Hedges thinks this is just the first step toward the real goal of men like Cruz, which is to make the U.S. a Christian fundamentalist nation.
The Ensuing Struggle
In the struggle that has ensued, the radical conservatives’ enemy is the Democratic (or “big government”) Party in general and President Obama in particular. As an indication of just how isolating and distorting ideology can be, focus groups of conservative Republicans have revealed a deeply held conspiracy theory. According the researchers who conducted this study, “What drives the Republican base . . . [is] a genuine belief that Obama has a secret agenda to drive the country in a socialist direction.” They also believe that he is the head of a cabal. He seems to be a politician who “came from nowhere” and therefore is “propelled by some secret forces.” The focus groups revealed this belief to be held by “two out of every three self identified Republicans.”
In the 2010 election a combination of gerrymandering of voting districts to help elect Republicans and a high conservative turnout gave Republican Party control of the House of Representatives. It also brought a strong plurality of radical right-wing conservatives into the House. Both these radical politicians and many of their constituents shunned the sort of compromise that is, or should be, at the heart of democracy. For the radicals principle was more important than compromise. That attitude led to the recent political confrontation with its shutdown of the federal government and the near default on the public debt.
Within days of the shutdown, moderate Republicans began deserting the radical conservatives and expressed their willingness to end demands for such things as the defunding of federally subsidized health care, popularly known as “Obamacare,” the elimination of the government deficit, and a radical reduction in government programs and regulatory power. However, it was only when Republican majority leader John Boehner finally allowed a vote on the floor of the House that these moderate Republicans could join their Senate colleagues on a resolution which restored the flow of funds that reopened the government and saved the nation from default. In so doing the moderates split the Republican Party in two.
What the moderate Republicans did was deny the radical conservatives their victory. For that was what a shutdown of the federal government and a default on the debt represented to the conservatives. Ideologically the goal of these radicals is to reduce government’s role in society to a minimum. They hoped the ability to shut down the entire federal operation would position them for negotiating its eventual minimization. Second, the campaign to reduce federal taxes to a minimum through the creation of a bare- bones balanced budget was to be aided by their ability to push the Treasury Department to the brink of default. All the conservative Republicans had to do was sustain these two tactics long enough to make the Democrats concede. That was what they could not do, thanks in good part to the desertion of the moderate Republicans.
The battle is not over. The resolution supported by the moderate Republicans opens the federal government through December 2013 and allows sufficient funding of the debt through February 2014. So we may well face a second round of disruptive confrontation.
In the long run, however, things do not look good for the Republican Party. Many radical conservatives have come to see their moderate compatriots as worse than any liberal Democrat. They see them as traitors to principle – as politicians who ran scared in the face of the Obama’s “socialist” agenda. Under these circumstances most of the party’s energies might well be taken up with self-destructive infighting. The Republican Party now runs the risk of shrinking down to its radical base while its moderates are defeated in primaries, flee to the Democratic Party, or stake out positions as independents. Democratic voters may now be motivated by the recent spectacle of disruption to turn out in higher numbers to win back the House from the Republicans. If that happens, the Republican Party will be hard put to stay alive as a single entity.
Ideology is a form of debilitating shortsightedness. It replaces reality with an idealized version that usually has too little to do with the real world to be workable. The economic aspect of radical conservative ideology is fatally anachronistic. Earlier, in the nineteenth century, it led to devastating business cycles of boom and bust and left much of the population without basic services. The Great Depression should have been its death knell. As to the size of government and range of its activities, we must keep in mind that there are nearly 317 million people in the USA. Going back to a pre-Great Depression (much less an eighteenth- century) government structure would undermine social stability by withdrawing all the protections that keep destitution at bay and unleashing all the prejudices that present federal law discourages. Ignore these facts and eventually you will have real revolution on your hands. The radical conservatives are stubbornly blind to these problems because they call in doubt their “principles.”
All such shortsighted ideologies, be they of the right or the left, have proven unrealistic, and so have failed. Unfortunately, they have wreaked havoc in the meantime. We have only seen a shadow of the potential for damage of the present ideological challenge. Let’s hope we can avoid its full force.