After Serving Corporations For Decades, GOP Pivots To Fake Populism
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.
For many years its liberal and Democratic critics depicted the Republican Party as the party of ‘big business.’ These critics claimed that the GOP’s principal role at both the national and state levels of partisan political activity was to advance the material interests of the country’s large corporate sector.
GOP spokespeople often sought to obscure this reality by appealing to voters based on a defense of American ‘individualism’ (i.e. do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it), by extolling patriotism, especially the country’s military prowess, and by condemning Democratic rivals as ‘soft on communism’ and enemies of traditional American values. Such electoral appeals were successful for much of the last century and well into the present.
For many liberal critics, the linkage between the Republican Party and business, especially large-scale enterprise, was presumptively based on a patron/client relationship. Business leaders were patrons who called the shots, and GOP politicians were clients, ready to do the bidding of captains of business and commerce, with some quibbling now and then, in exchange for a steady stream of financial support.
The relationship between these two key forces in American public life may not be broken, but certainly seems to have become attenuated. Earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), issued a threat: If America’s business leaders don’t stop publicly opposing the Party’s new Georgia election law (restricting access to the polls by the state’s sizeable Black population), they will have to face the consequences.
McConnell and other congressional Republicans went on to criticize ‘big business’ for supporting environmental protection policies and the Democrats’ social agenda, including women’s rights.
McConnell later tried to clarify his remarks but Republican Governor Ron DeSantis doubled down on this sentiment and appeared to issue another threat.
Ron DeSantis on MLB moving the All Star Game out of Georgia: “If you’re gonna stick your beak into issues that don’t directly concern you, then I think elected officials are then gonna stick their beak into issues that may not concern them.” pic.twitter.com/MGxSKuZLWY
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 18, 2021
What’s going on? And why at this time?
First, consider the socio-political situation of the GOP. One long-time base of voter support appears to be eroding. Not all that long ago, the GOP tended to attract better-educated segments of the population, including so-called ‘country club’ Republicans. Outside the South, this is no longer so, or much less so than it once was. College-educated young voters (18 to 34 year-olds), women especially, are far more liberal on a host of issues (e.g. gay marriage, environmental protection) than older, more judgmental age cohorts.
Linked to this shift in the outlook of better-educated voters is a profound change in the organization of the American economy. During the century that followed the end of the Civil War (1865), the strongest and most influential sectors of the economy were either extractive (coal mining, oil refining) or industrial (steel-making, automobile manufacture). Today the economy tends to be dominated by high tech firms (Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon) and by business firms whose corporate headquarters are located outside the United States (Toyota, Volkswagen, Sony) and whose executives have a more cosmopolitan outlook than their American-based predecessors.
To a significant extent, the world in which the linkage between ‘big business’ and the Republican Party developed no longer exists. That linkage belongs to an earlier age and so does the rhetoric of its long-standing liberal critics.
Second, the GOP’s electoral base seems to have shifted and aged. Thanks in part to former President Trump’s ability to win the support of ‘low information’ voters–individuals with less than a college education who are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories– the Republican Party is now shaped by politicians able to give voice to the biases and grievances of this substantial constituency.
This electoral ‘base’ is strongly skewed towards aging white males, particularly those living in small towns and rural areas, whose social values and economic circumstances appear frozen in time. From the point of view of GOP decision-makers, the concern is that over time this ‘base’ will continue to shrink in size, making it progressively more difficult for the Party to win national elections. How then can the GOP appeal to a wider spectrum of voters without alienating its current core constituency? The GOP seeks to resolve this dilemma via voter suppression, using state laws to discourage young university students and people of color away from the polls.
This tactic, apparently triggered by the Party’s 2020 fiasco in Georgia, may bring temporary success, assuming the legislation is upheld by the courts. But it also represents a declaration of independence from the Party’s traditional support within the country’s business and social elite.
We are witnessing the vulgarization of the GOP, achieved at the cost of weakening the Party’s long-standing patron/client relationship with the country’s corporate leadership. As a substitute, the GOP has developed sophisticated ways of raising money from small contributors via the internet, stoking fears of impending doom if money is not forthcoming. At the same time, the Party continues to strengthen its links with idiosyncratic billionaires, e.g. the Koch Brothers, and the Mellon and DeVos families, families with strong ideological commitments to shrinking government (except for the military) and the public sector in general.
Under these changing conditions, it should not come as a complete surprise to note the appearance of “Biden Republicans”– traditional Republican supporters, alienated by Trump and his base who have chosen to switch their commitments. The fact that Bill and Melinda Gates have become favorite targets of right-wing attacks and conspiratorial inventions should tell us something about the GOP’s direction.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.