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Taking the Long View: Thoughts on Post-Election Strategy

by Fred Block
Fred Block puts the election results in perspective and suggests a strategy that will help progressives to make further advances in shifting the nation’s agenda.

Progressives have waited a long time for an election night as satisfying as November 7, 2006. This was a stunning defeat for George W. Bush and his right wing allies. But we should have no illusions about how much work remains to be done. The right in the United States still enjoys huge structural advantages in politics because of its formidable grassroots base, its almost limitless financial resources, its media echo machine, and the advantage of having gerrymandered most congressional districts.

Even if more Democratic victories come in 2008, conservatives will still have the power to block significant initiatives by a Democratic President and Congress. Keep in mind that in 1992, Bill Clinton was elected to “Put people first,” but the right was able to defeat his health care initiative and force him to admit that “The era of big government is over.” And each time that they successfully stalemate a Democratic Administration, they reclaim the Presidency and drag the country even more sharply to the right.

Consider our recent history. Ronald Reagan’s policies made people nostalgic for Richard Nixon, who, by comparison, began to look like a “big government” centrist. In the new century, George W. Bush has made both Reagan and his own father seem like moderate figures who exercised great restraint in foreign policy. If this dynamic continues, we can expect future Republican candidates will make George W. Bush look like a devoted supporter of constitutional checks and balances.

This dynamic is the great mystery of American politics. It is critical to understand why the Republican coalition has moved continuously rightward over the past thirty years. There has been no comparable trajectory for conservative parties in other wealthy, industrialized democracies. In England, for example, the new leader of the Conservatives is trying to outmaneuver New Labour by offering greener policies in response to global environmental threats. By contrast, Bush and his administration seem wedded to late nineteenth century economic policies.

The rightward turn in the U.S. is the consequence of the peculiar political alliance and strange ideology that has dominated the Republican Party since the 1970's. The political alliance brings together two groups who have historically had few connections. One is the business right made up of the people who run the 1,000 largest U.S. based corporations and financial institutions. The other is the religious right that encompasses, hundreds of thousands of grass roots activists, clergy who exercise influence over millions of evangelical congregants, and a highly developed organizational infrastructure. The first group has provided the money and the second has supplied the ground troops for the Republican Party’s electoral dominance.

The ideological glue that has held this power complex together is Market Fundamentalism—the vastly exaggerated belief in the power of self-regulating markets to solve economic and social problems. Market Fundamentalism has been the justification for tax cuts, reductions in government regulation of business, and the shrinking of social programs.

This political alliance and its commitment to Market Fundamentalism are relatively recent developments. In the decades immediately after World War II, business leaders were tightly allied with centrist politicians in both of the major parties, and they supported government efforts to solve social problems. This changed, however, in the decade of the 1970's when business leaders decided to shift their political alignment after they were placed on the political defensive by the rise of environmental and consumer consciousness in the 1960's.

Business leaders were also influenced by the dramatic failures of both the Johnson and the Nixon Administrations in the decade from 1964 to 1974. Johnson and Nixon were the most skillful and experienced politicians of their respective parties. But when neither of them could find a way to govern effectively and solve the economy’s problems, business leaders decided that the center of American politics would not and could not hold together. They decided that something very different was called for.

The “something different” was a rightward turn that allied the business community with a newly invigorated right wing movement energized by grassroots mobilizations against the changes of the 1960's. Social conservatives were gaining new support in the 1970's with right-to-life mobilization against the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, racial backlash against desegregation in the South, anti-school busing efforts in both the North and the South, and organized resistance to the demands of the gay movement.

Over time, this new right took on an increasingly religious flavor as many historically apolitical evangelicals became active in initiatives to restore “traditional” values. This traditional values movement draws most of its energies from grassroots activists motivated by intense religious beliefs whether they identify as Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, traditionalist Jews, or some other faith.

These grassroots activists have gained control of the Republican Party apparatus in most states of the union. In Texas, the party platform echoes the views of the religious right, calling for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. These global organizations are seen as the cutting edge of secular efforts to subordinate U.S. sovereignty to international law rather than the divine law preferred by Christian conservatives. When the Antichrist appears in the popular “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic novels, his official position is Secretary General of the United Nations.

The Changing Dynamics of the Alliance

As this new conservative power complex came together in the 1970's, big business was the dominant partner in the coalition. When the coalition scored its first success with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the spoils went disproportionately to big business. They gained substantial tax cuts, a dramatic reduction in Federal regulatory efforts, increases in spending that benefited business directly, and a political and legal environment that put organized labor at a very significant disadvantage. The religious right, in contrast, got periodic pronouncements by the President of his pro-life views, a number of appointments at the sub-cabinet level, and not much else. While Reagan appointed many conservatives to the Federal judiciary, only one out of three of his Supreme Court appointments proved to be a reliable and consistent judicial opponent of abortion.

Much the same can be said about the Administration of George H.W. Bush. However, during the years between 1980 and 1992, Democrats still controlled one or both Houses of Congress. They used their power to block the political agenda of the religious right. Without Democratic opposition, for example, it is probable that both Reagan and Bush I’s Supreme Court nominees would have been far more conservative.

The Republican victory in the 1994 midterm elections decisively changed the religious right’s influence in the power complex. That’s when the Republicans gained control of both Houses of Congress under the leadership of Newt Gingrich. Two incidents from 1998 reveal the seismic shift that took place in 1994.

The first was a decision by Tom DeLay, then the Republican Whip in the House, to take the Digital Millennium Copyright Act off the House agenda. His action was part of the Republican leadership’s “K Street Project”. K Street is the home of the large army of business lobbyists who are mobilized in Washington to advance the interests of their corporate clients. The Project’s goal was to turn these lobbyists into a reliable and durable part of the conservative coalition. This meant reserving the most lucrative lobbying positions for movement conservatives, assuring that donations by both lobbyists and their clients became more consistently partisan and ideological, and forcing the lobbyists to subordinate their particular group’s immediate interests to the larger conservative cause.

In 1998, the Electronics Industries Alliance (EIA), the key lobbying groups for Silicon Valley, defied DeLay by appointing Dave McCurdy, a former Democratic congressperson, as their top executive. In retaliation, DeLay temporarily blocked a high priority piece of pro-business legislation designed to protect property rights in the internet era. In the end, McCurdy kept his new job, but the EIA had to hire prominent conservatives and it was forced to declare its fealty to DeLay’s power. Other lobbyists got the message.

The second incident was the decision by the leadership in the House of Representatives to pursue the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying about sex. This had nothing to do with the interests of business leaders who almost always favors stability and predictability and had few complaints about Clinton’s policies in his second term. Yet despite the lack of public and business support, the House Republicans forged ahead to appease their own religious base that had been whipped into a frenzy of outrage at the President’s sexual transgressions.

But it took the election of George W. Bush in 2000 to reveal how dramatically the balance of power between big business and the religious right had shifted. Business constituencies could still rely on lower taxes, generous subsidies, diminished regulation, and policies that disadvantaged labor unions. But several key parts of business’ historic agenda were tossed aside by the new Administration. Balancing the Federal budget was ignored as systematic tax cuts and increased military spending ballooned government deficits. And the Administration’s heavily unilateral foreign policy broke with more than sixty years of bipartisan foreign policy.

This militarized foreign policy with its deliberate disregard for international law is deeply appealing to the religious right that savors the idea of “Crusades” against evildoers. But other signs of the religious right’s enhanced influence abound. The President’s faith based initiative started a flow of government funding directly into the religious right’s institutional infrastructure in an effort to consolidate a new, religiously based set of welfare institutions. Administration policies on stem cells, sex education, abortion, birth control, and homosexuality are in line with the right and in some cases work to strengthen the right’s institutional position. Finally, some of the President’s appointments to the judiciary are jurists who are determined to roll back the entire New Deal regulatory apparatus, even though that apparatus has become a reliable instrument to protect big business interests.

Even so, there are still few visible signs of business dissatisfaction with its weaker position within the conservative power complex. One rare instance of open disagreement is a battle in Missouri over state support for stem cell research that has divided business Republicans from the religious right.

Nevertheless, tensions within the conservative alliance are bound to increase as the religious right moves in an increasingly radical direction. In her valuable book, Kingdom Coming, Michelle Goldberg identifies a core group of activists as “Christian Nationalists” who have taken over key leadership positions within the religious right. Following a familiar logic of radicalization, people who started with goals such as banning abortion, forcing gay men and lesbians back into the closet, and restoring school prayer, come to realize that even deeper, structural changes in U.S. society are necessary.

Some of these activists have come to believe that the United States must be transformed into a Christian Nation where the Ten Commandments trump the decisions of legislators. This returns them to the teachings of some previously obscure theologians who have argued that Christians must exercise “dominion” over the whole society and that the United States must be restored to its original founding as a Christian Nation. Convinced of their beliefs, they conclude that the illegitimate wall of separation between Church and State should be demolished and the entire Federal judiciary must be transformed.

These extreme views are now embraced by only a minority of right wing evangelical voters, but the organizational infrastructure and the mobilization strategies of the religious right may assist the growing political power of Christian Nationalism. Grassroots evangelicals have been repeatedly mobilized through coordinated campaigns that cultivate their fears and cultural resentments.

Such campaigns insist that people of deep Christian faith are being persecuted in their own nation. While many of us tend to make light of the annual Holiday announcements on Fox News that the “War Against Christmas” has intensified, these propaganda efforts are carefully designed to solidify feelings of vulnerability and marginality among the evangelical faithful. Those who have benefited the most from mobilizing the votes of evangelicals and other religious people are continually upping the ante in the rhetoric of resentment and persecution. This process of escalation puts the movement on a collision course with constitutional governance. One bill that already passed the Republican controlled House of Representative, the Constitution Restoration Act, would strip the Federal Courts of the authority to hear cases involving any state or local government’s “acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.”

Strategic Implications

But any impending collision between the religious right and the business right would likely be put on hold if the Democrats are able to regain the Presidency in 2008. If that happens, the full force of the unified right would again be mobilized to weaken a Democratic Administration. Just as Bill and Hillary Clinton’s health care plan was declared “Dead on Arrival” by the right, we can expect a similar scorched earth policy of manufactured scandals and unrelenting opposition to weaken any newly elected Democratic Administration.

Moreover, such stonewalling efforts are likely to be even more formidable than in the 1990's. Over the last dozen years, Market Fundamentalism has become even more deeply entrenched as the dominant way of thinking. While there is fierce debate over the Bush foreign policy and over the Right’s social and religious agenda, Market Fundamentalism is rarely challenged. But when ideas are not challenged, they start to be taken as a given. Bush’s refrain in support of tax cuts: “It is your money and you will certainly spend it more wisely than the government” has been repeated so many times that people accept it as a self-evident truth. But such beliefs will make it extremely difficult for a new President to raise the revenues necessary to address our society’s many urgent problems. Similarly, voters have come to believe that the “Look ma, no hands” approach to managing the economy is the only viable choice. This will make it extraordinarily difficult to expand the availability of affordable health care, increase access to higher education, and accelerate efforts to reduce our economy’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, many of us imagined that the scale of the disaster would shake public faith in Market Fundamentalism and generate a broad demand for strong governmental action. But the right was successful in framing the disaster as yet one more reason why people must become self-reliant and cease waiting for government to solve their problems. When ideas become as firmly entrenched as Market Fundamentalism, it takes more than wind and floods to drive them out.

As a result, it is imperative that progressives wage a battle against Market Fundamentalism. Without a systematic and concerted challenge to Market Fundamentalism, the room for any elected progressives to maneuver will be extremely limited. They will be doomed, like Groundhog Day, to constantly relive a cycle of blocked Democratic Presidents followed by even more unbelievably reactionary Republican ones.

We also need to target Market Fundamentalism because it serves as the ideological glue that holds together the contradictory wings of the conservative power complex. The focus on individual self-reliance, low taxes, and the “invisible hand” of the market has worked for years to maintain conservative cohesion. Just as the right used issues such as welfare and crime in the 1970’s and 1980’s to wedge apart the Democratic coalition, so we need to purse a wedging strategy that will break apart the conservative alliance.

Wedging is a real possibility because neither side of the conservative coalition really believes in Market Fundamentalism. While the ideology has provided enormous political benefits, both big business and the religious right have embraced it cynically, with their fingers crossed behind their backs and a wink to their supporters. This cynicism is a source of vulnerability that progressives can and should exploit.

Big businesses don’t actually believe in Market Fundamentalism because they are dependent on continued subsidies and support from the Federal Government. They also recognize that certain markets simply cannot work without regulatory efforts that produce stability and predictability. The armies of K Street lobbyists that big business employs testify to their lack of faith. They could save a lot of this money by just having a handful of people saying over and over: “Just leave us alone”. But those lobbyists earn their (very expensive) salaries by directing government to intervene in the economy in the ways that enhances of the profits of specific companies and corporations.

Pharmaceutical companies, for example, use lobbyists to maintain the flow of Federal spending for biomedical research and to keep in place the system in which the government grants firms monopolies to block market competition for medicines that were often discovered through publicly funded research. For agribusiness firms, the subsidies are direct payments to farmers that keep the prices of agricultural raw materials at historically low levels. For the computer and software industries, subsidies take the form of direct and indirect outlays to educate more computer scientists and to maintain the flow of innovations in government funded laboratories.

Nevertheless, big business still finds Market Fundamentalism to be a wonderfully useful tool. By pretending that they can and do operate completely independently of government support and subsidies, they are able to pretend that they owe the public nothing. Market Fundamentalism means never having to say: “You scratched my back, now I will scratch yours”. With the religious right, the story is simpler. Their religious beliefs do not allow them to pursue market ideology to its most individualistic conclusions. For them, it is not permissible for people to choose things that are prohibited by divine law. And unlike the most ardent defenders of the market, those on the religious right cannot condone the tactics of people like Jeff Skilling and Bernard Ebbers who lie, cheat, and steal to enrich themselves.

Efforts to exploit the divisions between these two groups have already had some successes. Living Wage campaigns and initiatives to increase the minimum wage at the state level have gained the support of many ordinarily reliable conservative voters. Similarly, state campaigns to provide financing of embryonic stem cell research have drawn support from business people who understand the centrality of government research spending for economic development.

The Frontal Assault

But the urgent priority now is to find ways to mount wedging campaigns that also directly challenge Market Fundamentalism. Just as progressives have been successful in demonizing Wal-Mart for its retrograde labor practices and its destructive impact on communities, we need comparable efforts to persuade people that Market Fundamentalist ideas are retrograde, cynical, destructive, and fundamentally inconsistent with our deepest values of equality and fairness.

This is not a pipedream. Market Fundamentalism is actually more vulnerable than ever. As the dominant viewpoint for more than twenty-five years, it has a proven record of failure. Despite years of increasing reliance on markets, poverty and inequality are worsening, the health care system is in crisis, corporate crime and corruption are widespread, and we have fiddled as the crisis of global climate change has intensified.

Moreover, Market Fundamentalism also conflicts with widely held values. Jared Bernstein in his book, All Together Now, has distilled the essence of Market Fundamentalism with the slogan YOYO for “You are On Your Own”. This is what Market Fundamentalism continually preaches; individuals must rely on their own efforts and not be dependent on government for welfare, health care, or even old age assistance. He calls the opposing set of values WITT – “We’re In This Together.” The huge outpourings of charity and volunteerism after disasters, such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, demonstrate that WITT values are also very deeply rooted in our culture.

But these vulnerabilities haven’t been tested because activists are understandably afraid that if they take on Market Fundamentalism, it will be harder to win any particular campaign. Here we need to learn from the right. Conservatives have been willing to wage losing campaigns for big principles to shift public opinion in their favor. In spite of strong support for public schools and the Social Security system, they periodically mobilize campaigns for school vouchers and for Social Security privatization. They do so to chip away gradually at the idea that there are certain basic entitlements that all citizens should receive.

Progressives have to invest resources in campaigns that chip away at the dominance of Market Fundamentalism. These could be giant campaigns such as a battle for universal health insurance or something far more limited such as an effort to eliminate those annoying television ads for prescription drugs that mostly serve to drive drug prices ever higher. But in either case, a central goal of the campaign would be to explain to the public that the market model does not work for health care and that the reason we do not have reliable and decent health care for all of our people is our excessive reliance on market principles. We might lose such campaigns in the short term, but they would produce tangible benefits.

First, there would be real spillovers to other fights. Whether the issue is access to health care, controlling greenhouse gases, anti-poverty programs, corporate corruption, or labor rights, conservatives consistently defend their position by invoking Market Fundamentalism and the wisdom of the market. If a campaign on health care weakens people’s belief in these ideas, it will help in the next battle for tighter environmental regulations or for improved labor rights.

The second benefit is that campaigns that attack Market Fundamentalism can help us peel away some voters who are currently aligned with the religious right, but who are susceptible to arguments for building our economy on moral foundations. It could also help break up the business community’s almost monolithic alliance with the Right, since many businesses would obviously benefit by bringing health care costs under control.

The final benefit is that weakening Market Fundamentalism could ultimately open the way for solutions to some of our chronic economic and social problems, and such solutions could realign our politics for the long term. That way, we might finally break the Groundhog Day curse that alternates stalemated Democratic Presidents with increasingly reactionary Republicans.

Following the logic of this piece, Longview will soon launch a “Market Fundamentalism” resource page that will provide a range of tools for those who are interested in challenging the dominance of these ideas.

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