Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Republican Coalition and Perpetual War

I have been thinking about the strange alliance between big business and the Christian right forged by the Republican Party. On the surface, it seems as if it is weird soup. Capitalism has no stake in the goals of the Christian right since capitalism is a force of instrumental values rather than ultimate values. Capitalism uses science and deploys technology, two things the Christian right is deeply suspicious of. Capitalism does not care about religious or cultural norms in and of themselves, particularly when it can make a profit by stepping outside those norms.

Related to this, I found interesting this article by Fred Block, who weighs in on The Domestic Side of the Iraq War at Longview Institute. The whole article is worth reading.

Frances Fox Piven published an important book in 2003, The War at Home. After reviewing the standard explanations for the war, she asked:

"Why the turn to preemptive war and relatedly, the cavalier treatment of the painstakingly constructed multilateral arrangements of the past half century? I don‚’t think the question can be fully answered if the war in Iraq is regarded solely as a foreign policy strategy. The war is also a domestic strategy, rooted not only in calculations of America’s global power, but in calculations geared to shoring up the Bush regime’s domestic power and its ability to pursue its domestic policy agenda."

[. . .]

The point is not that the Bush Administration launched a war simply to reap domestic electoral advantages. Rather, the way the war was fought, with the highly problematic emphasis on being feared rather than loved, was rooted in domestic political considerations. Furthermore, some of the key figures in the Administration believed that war would help them realize several of their most important domestic objectives: staying in office, building a durable Republican electoral coalition, and centralizing power in the Executive Branch.

To understand this one has to go back to the extended battle in 2000 over the results of the Presidential election. While the Supreme Court decision to halt the Florida recount left liberals and progressives deeply traumatized, the effects on the incoming Bush Administration of the electoral tie were almost as severe. Their view was that George Bush had run a brilliant campaign by successfully camouflaging himself as a moderate and ‚“compassionate conservative.‚” They also reaped huge advantages from the Republican money machine’s capacity to outspend Gore and by their ability to capitalize on Gore‚’s personal awkwardness that was off-putting to many voters. Yet even so, more voters had chosen Gore, indicating that public opinion was trending against the Republicans.

They recognized this as a potential break with recent electoral history. The Republicans had won the Presidency in 1980, 1984, and 1988 with clear majorities of all the votes cast. To be sure, Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and 1996, but in both cases, he won only a plurality in a three way contest that included Ross Perot. One Republican commentator wrote in The National Review: “Al Gore and Ralph Nader got 51 percent of the vote between them, the best showing for left-of-center candidates since 1964.” (April 16, 2001)

In a similar vein, Fred Barnes, the conservative commentator, wrote immediately after the election in The Weekly Standard:

"But it’s now clear the end of the Republican lock on the White House was not a function of Bill Clinton‚’s strength. Rather, the GOP lock was a product of the Cold War and the conservative backlash against the 1960s. Absent those factors, it‚’s gone." (Dec.4, 2000)

Concerns about the end of the Republican lock were intensified by dangerous rumblings within the Republican coalition. Since the mid-1970's, the Republican ascendancy had been organized on the basis of an unusual alliance that joined business conservatives with religious and social conservatives. Business conservatives, including most of the Fortune 500 corporate elite, contributed vast amounts of cash and received unconditional support for their agenda of lower taxes and less regulation of business. Religious and social conservatives provided the shock troops for the Republican Party and in exchange, the Party adopted their anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-big-government agenda.

From the start, there were always strains in this coalition. Big business is unrelentingly internationalist, committed to the process of turning the whole world into a single marketplace, while religious and social conservatives are deeply parochial and highly suspicious of global institutions. The platform of the Texas Republican Party still calls on the United States to withdraw from the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. Business is also committed to continuing scientific and technological advances, while many religious conservatives prefer creationism to Darwinism and are highly suspicious of technological change. But, the Republican leadership has been extremely successful in papering over these tensions and focusing both sides on their shared distrust of the liberal and progressive agenda.

The coalition reached its high point with the “Contract for America‚” that allowed the Republicans to take control of Congress in 1994. It was then that Tom DeLay organized the K Street Project to take advantage of business’ dependence on government action to extract even larger sums of money from business lobbyists to fund the entire infrastructure of the Republican Right.

With this Congressional victory in 1994, the balance of power in the coalition shifted towards the social and religious conservatives who were increasingly militant in pressing their agenda. While they had been bought off in the Reagan and Bush I Administrations by some lower level appointments in cabinet agencies and by periodic presidential declarations of complete support for the right-to-life cause, they resolved that when the Republicans recaptured the Presidency, their views had to be represented at the highest levels of the government‚—shaping both its foreign policy and all of its judicial appointments.

In sum, the Bush Administration recognized that they faced a situation not unlike the one that Lyndon Johnson confronted between 1964 and 1968. At that time, the New Deal Democratic coalition was growing old and rickety and Johnson‚’s challenge was to prevent open warfare between two key pillars of his political base. As it happened, the conflict between African-Americans and more conservative white Democrats ultimately broke apart the New Deal Democratic coalition. For the George W. Bush Administration, the parallel threat they faced was that open conflict between big business and the religious right would coincide with the declining electoral power of their coalition.

The most likely arena for such a conflict to play out was in foreign policy. The Administration faced the awesome task of balancing the needs of big business with those of its increasingly assertive right wing base. The former needs the U.S. to project its power internationally and support economic globalization. The latter have grave doubts about ‚“free trade” and are deeply hostile to U.S. participation in the international organizations that are necessary to manage an increasingly interdependent global economy.

Block points out that a perpetual war on terror cements the alliance between big business and social conservatives because big business is too timid to critique the Bush Administration given their penchant for unrestricted Executive power and reprisals against those who leave the fold. Big business needs big government to survive. The business that bucks the system will lose big goverenment support.

In light of the need for a permanent state of war to keep the party faithful in line, Mr. Bush's announcement this weekend that the Lebanon crisis was part of the broader global war on terror was entirely predictable. The Fall election strategy by the Republican Party is to show why they are needed now more than ever to keep the war going. As Block points out, it has worked twice in the past.

We also see that seeking to solve the root causes of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict does not serve the Republican Party's interests in keeping their base together. We will see an escalation in violence in the Middle East by all parties. That suits the Republican Party leadership just fine.


At 2:21 PM, Blogger curtis said...

There has been an increase in criticism from much of the evangelical community toward materialistic, capitalistic ideals, many of which are entreanched in the Republican party. Right now, its pretty timid, but I'd imagine that the Republican party is going to have a hard time holding on to their staunch religious base if they continue to be so wrapped up in money scandals.

Its one of those cases where I appreciate the viewpoints of more leftist Christians, such as the emergent church community, who have been on the ball as far as critiquing materialism and such.

Good post.

At 12:59 AM, Blogger Lynn said...


Thanks. You make some interesting points and observations. It will be interesting how this plays out..


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