Over time, an increasingly extremist GOP has managed to induce a critical mass of voters to green-light its embodiment in law of two ideological tenets that are simple naked rationalizations of the narrowest interests of what we now call the 1%: 1) that tax increases always inhibit productive economic activity, and 2) that “free speech” entails prohibiting any restrictions on vested interests’ access to the airwaves for any purpose whatever.
And the epic destruction of American unions over the past few decades has meant there was really no one to fight back against this. The victory of the 1% may have been spearheaded by the Republican Party, but it was aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that had no choice except to embrace corporations and the rich as its base of support as the labor movement faded away.
Now, I know what the usual objection to this is: It’s too monocausal. There’s more to life than economic interests, and people vote their values as well. But no matter how many times I hear that, I really don’t buy it. There are plenty of people on the right and the left who care a lot about values and vote them pretty assiduously—me, for example—but in the vast middle ground values are more malleable. Views on abortion and gays and guns and religion tend to be less deeply held. For many of these folks in the middle, pocketbook issues would be decisive if they actually believed that one party was better for their pocketbook than the other. But increasingly they don’t. Partly this is because of the GOP’s messaging success and partly because the modern Democratic Party is, thanks to its reaction to the GOP’s success, only modestly better for them anyway.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it was the financial collapse of 2008 that really cemented me in this view that the 1 percent have simply crushed their opposition over the past three decades. In any normal universe, that collapse should have ushered in an era of populist politics and ruined the Republican Party for years. Not for a generation, mind you—2008 wasn’t 1929 and George W. Bush wasn’t Herbert Hoover—but certainly for a good long time. After all, how clear could things be? We followed the precise path that Wall Street and the Republican Party laid down for us and the result was the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression. That sort of thing should keep you out of power for at least a few election cycles, no? But in fact, it kept them out of power for only one election cycle. That was it. The last few years have been a period of time in which the economy was overwhelmingly the most important electoral issue, and vast swaths of the American public simply haven’t held the GOP or its policies responsible. They might tell pollsters they do, but in the voting booth, where it counts, they don’t.
Republican economic policy has always promoted the interests of corporations and the rich. Once upon a time, this wasn’t even an issue of contention. Everyone knew it and acted accordingly. The GOP’s great triumph over the past three decades has been to gull the American public into believing that it’s no longer the case. Their success has been nothing short of astonishing.