What hath business donors wrought?
Literature and myth are replete with tales of characters who are destroyed by monsters of their own creation. Perhaps the US Chamber of Commerce, American Bankers Association and other business lobbying groups should have given Mary Shelley's Frankenstein a quick read before the 2012 elections.
Prior to those elections, such groups spent millions to boost Republican redistricting efforts, carving out seats so safe their representatives in Congress could be immune to threats from the left — or, as it turns out, from the very business interests who helped them get elected. The Chamber spent $32 million on the 2012 election, almost entirely on GOP candidates. The bankers group alone invested $2.6 million, 80% of it on Republicans, including $10,000 donated to New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce.
Besides his usual gaggle of big-energy donors, Pearce also got $10,000 apiece from such stalwarts of the business community as the National Association of Realtors, National Auto Dealers Association and American Crystal Sugar. The American Institute of CPAs — hardly a bunch of fire-breathing radicals — kicked in $8,500, while USAA Insurance and the National Beer Wholesalers Association donated $7,500 each.
What did these business leaders get for their money? A government shutdown, a threat to default on the national debt and a blocked immigration reform plan that most supported.
Frank Keating, a former GOP governor from Oklahoma who now heads the bankers association, warned the Senate banking committee that "ordinary Americans will bear the brunt of the damage if our leaders do not prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt for the first time in history." That threat, he neglected to point out, came entirely from the GOP majority in the House his group helped create.
On the local level, a study by Wallet Hub reported that New Mexico ranked seventh among all states in damage from the government shutdown. That is likely not the dividend that New Mexico donors such as Yates Petroleum, Hobbs Iron & Metal or Roswell Toyota had in mind when they sent Pearce back to Congress.
After waffling in the press about whether he would support a "clean" government-funding resolution — without, in effect, the failed 2012 GOP platform attached — Pearce voted 16 times against consideration of a Senate-passed continuing resolution that would reopen the government. He then voted against the bipartisan compromise that ultimately reopened the government and prevented default. It's unclear whether to count him among the most radical 40 or 90 GOP members in Congress, although keep in mind Pearce was among only a dozen in his party to vote against John Boehner as House speaker.
In a recent National Journal profile, Pearce claimed the anti-Boehner vote is "probably the most popular vote I've made, in this district." When he tells audiences he cast that vote, Pearce says he gets, "Always applause, sometimes standing applause."
It's not clear whether the applause comes from those backing a Tea Party agenda or those fed up with Boehner's lack of backbone in dealing with, well, members like Pearce.
The profile went on, "But there is a clear aim to his leadership bashing. Pearce is working to inoculate himself from anything those party leaders might do that won't play well in his district. In short, he is emphasizing that he is not part of Boehner's inner circle, and has little control over what Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and others might do."
What Pearce could have done last month, of course, was announce that he would join with moderate House Republicans — at least 20, according to NBC News — and Democrats to re-open the government. That is, if Boehner had agreed to allow such a vote.
Like the business interests that helped elect him, Pearce wants it both ways.
Those business interests, however, have had an eye-opening few weeks in seeing what their GOP creations really believe — and how much those House members are off the leash. The top lobbyist at the National Retail Federation told the New York Times, "We are looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past." Joe Echevarria, head of the Deloitte accounting and consulting firm, noted that while both parties have extreme elements, only in the GOP do the radicals exercise real power: "The extreme right has 90 seats in the House. Occupy Wall Street has no seats."
Like Victor Frankenstein playing with body parts, the monster created by business Republicans was bound to turn against its masters eventually. The GOP has been playing with fire ever since it turned its back on its long-standing commitment to civil rights and pursued a "Southern strategy" of thinly veiled racial appeals. After the party regained Congress in 1994, key strategists such as Karl Rove, Paul Weyrich and Grover Norquist set out to stay in power with an alliance between business and social conservatives. As long as Wall Street threw their allies occasional red meat — a Supreme Court appointment here, a platform plank there — they got the votes to protect corporate interests.
The Great Recession shook that alliance, however. Fox News, the Internet, the Club for Growth and billionaires like the Koch brothers — quasi-libertarians (who also gave $10,000 to Pearce's campaign) more extreme than traditional GOP backers — have fueled a right-wing populism that rejects traditional Republicanism as angrily as it does President Obama. According to a recent Pew survey, 65% of Republicans "disapprove of Republican leaders in Congress." As Chris Chucola of the Club for Growth puts this view: "I think the whole concept of compromise and bipartisanship is silly."
Some trace this "middle American radicalism" (as Donald Warren labeled it in a 1976 book, The Radical Center) to the right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-minority populism that found expression in the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan (with his "peasants with pitchforks"). Others — including prominent if carefully off-the-record business lobbyists — cite Richard Hofstadter's seminal essay on "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" and recall McCarthyism and the John Birch Society.
Whatever its roots, this anti-establishment wing of the GOP no longer obeys its longtime Wall Street puppet masters. Those trying to straddle this divide, like New Mexico's Steve Pearce, may find that an increasingly difficult balancing act. And while Democrats may exult in "the death throes of the Republican Party," as John B. Judis recently predicted in The New Republic, be careful what you wish for. The rise of what one former GOP staffer dubbed "suburban revolutionaries" and "people alienated from business, from everything" may have fearful consequences far beyond winning and losing elections, as we have seen this fall. It's not just the GOP: A new Gallup Poll found that 60% of those surveyed believe a third party is needed; only 26% say the two main parties are doing "an adequate job of representing the American people."
When a significant segment of the electorate decides the way forward is to emulate Howard Beale of the 1976 film Network, democracy might just run right off the rails. Beale, of course, is best remembered for his iconic line, "‘I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" But his rant leading up to that explosion sounds like it could have been written in the angry autumn of 2013:
"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad — worse than bad. They're crazy.… Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!"
The bigwigs of the Republican Party have been stoking that anger for half a century. When the villagers with torches start coming for them, too, we may all be consumed by the consequences.
Making a List
Let's draw the line at partisan shopping.
Democrats, of course, have their own bad ideas — notably one floated right here in New Mexico by state party chair Sam Bregman. In an email last month, Bregman announced a new online list of "Democratic owned and union supported businesses throughout New Mexico." He explained enthusiastically, "This is an opportunity to let fellow Democrats in your community and throughout the state have the opportunity to frequent and patronize Democratic businesses on an ongoing basis!"
Does anyone really want to go back to the days of "Democratic saloons" and "Republican (or, back then, Whig) saloons"? It's one thing to reward businesses with your patronage when they do good in a way you approve of — helping save whales, say, or eschewing plastic shopping bags. But seeking to further divide an already polarized society by identifying businesses with one party or the other leads down a road whose destination we may not like.
There is a difference, too, between supporting (or avoiding) businesses that have taken an overt political stance such as buying TV ad time for a cause, versus doing business based purely on labels. We confess to buying Bounty rather than Brawny paper towels because of the odious electioneering by the far-right Koch brothers, whose conglomerates produce the latter. (So far, withholding our vast paper-towel expenses has yet to make them see the light.) But let's not start worrying about whether that auto-repair shop is run by someone with whom we might disagree, or what label that barber might prefer on the ballot.
To their credit, the New Mexico GOP has no plans to follow the Democrats' divisive lead. In a statement, party chair John Billingsley urged fellow Republicans to patronize all local, small businesses without regard to political affiliation.
Besides, who knows? Given a conversation, we might actually agree with the car guy on some things, and the barber on others. Given a chance, we might realize that we are all Americans, and we are all in this together.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.
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