Book World: Explaining the GOP’s mix of plutocrats and populists

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Let Them Eat Tweets

By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

Liveright. 266 pp. $26.95

‘Let Them Eat Tweets” is not, according to authors Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, about President Trump. As the titular play on Marie Antoinette’s famous quote suggests, the authors believe that American society is moving toward control by a selfish oligarchy, but they consider the tweeter in chief more consequence than cause.

They see the real threat to democracy as the Republican Party’s subservience to corporate and financial interests and a handful of the wealthiest Americans. In their view, the GOP’s dedication to the cause of plutocracy explains nearly every pernicious development in American public life: galloping economic inequality, declining state capacity, growing right-wing populism and white ethno-nationalism, and weakening democratic norms and majoritarian rule.

Hacker and Pierson – professors of political science at Yale and the University of California at Berkeley, respectively – make clear that they’re not claiming our politics are orchestrated by all-powerful plutocrats, like “Bond villains in a hidden lair inside a volcano.” But they offer a strong case that the Republican Party’s dependence on its top donors explains much of its trajectory in recent decades, culminating in the rise of Trump.

The authors have a knack for synthesizing complicated academic studies and explaining them concisely for popular audiences. They make particularly good use of political scientist Daniel Ziblatt’s work on the historical role played by European conservative parties in nascent democracies. Hacker and Pierson posit that the Republican Party, like elite-aligned parties in other times and places, faces a “Conservative Dilemma”: how to persuade ordinary citizens to vote for the party that represents the interests of society’s richest and most powerful members?

The conservative party may choose to offer material benefits to the nonelite classes, but that risks angering their plutocratic backers, and in any case left-wing parties inevitably will offer more. So conservative parties tend to play up social and cultural divisions instead. Sometimes, as in the case of Britain’s Conservative Party, this takes the form of a relatively benign appeal to working-class traditionalism. Unfortunately, the Republican Party has leaned more toward the pattern of the German conservative parties of the 1920s and early ’30s that inadvertently paved the way for uncontrollable radicalism. If a similar outcome in America is still unlikely, the extent to which our income inequality has become far worse than in other developed countries finds a parallel in the Republican Party becoming far more right-wing than conservative parties in the rest of the world.

In Hacker and Pierson’s telling, the plutocratic program – tax cuts for the richest, benefit cuts for the most vulnerable, and a free hand for corporate and financial interests – has never been popular. As the Republican Party, starting in the 1970s, embraced this unpopular agenda, it reduced the range of issues on which it could compete and thus the voters it could attract. Party elites soon realized that the only way to win majorities was by attracting white, working-class voters who resented rising minorities. The GOP thus was forced to outsource voter mobilization to populist entities skilled at ginning up racially based outrage among this target audience. These principally included the National Rifle Association, Christian right organizations such as Moral Majority, and conservative media firebrands such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

This “plutocratic populism” that came to dominate the Republican Party delivered far more to the plutocrats than to the populists, although stacking the courts with socially and economically conservative justices served the interests of both. But as the party delegated the task of voter persuasion to “outrage groups” that had only disdain for swing voters and practical compromises, “the GOP increasingly lost the capacity to shape its own agenda and fight elections on its own terms.” It also set itself up for takeover by Trump, “a true master of outrage.”

The Republican Party also lost the ability to govern. Nearly its only legislative accomplishment during 2017-18, when it controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House, was a massively regressive, deficit-busting tax cut. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 ranks as one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation of the past quarter-century, second only to the GOP’s proposed Obamacare repeal. Hacker and Pierson observe that it’s practically an iron law of political science that politicians in a democracy aren’t supposed to go all in for reckless initiatives that even most of their supporters detest, yet “Republicans conjured up two unicorns in less than a year.”

Republican devotion to the cause of plutocracy seems a persuasive explanation for the party’s otherwise baffling behavior, but it isn’t the only conceivable one. Hacker and Pierson rarely consider the possibility that conservatives genuinely believe in the ideas they advance, rather than merely repeating the lines their plutocratic paymasters feed them, or that their ideas might have some basis in reality. Undoubtedly the Republicans’ top donors prospered mightily under Trump, but so too did regular Americans who benefited from record-low unemployment rates – at least until those gains were wiped out by the incompetent government response to the novel coronavirus.

Nor have Republicans or their top donors been as unified as the plutocratic paradigm suggests. The authors’ analysis doesn’t adequately account for phenomena such as compassionate conservatism, intraparty fights over issues such as reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank or policy proposals such as a border adjustment tax that pitted large corporate interests against one another.

Nonetheless, Hacker and Pierson accurately describe an overarching pattern of the super-rich using the Republican Party to tilt the American economy and political life in their favor. Their historical explanation of how the GOP became radicalized raises legitimate concerns that the party, its judicial appointees and its donor class will carry on “fomenting tribalism, distorting elections, and subverting democratic institutions, procedures, and norms” regardless of the electoral outcome in November. Those who would resist this development should carefully consider the analysis that Hacker and Pierson lay out in such convincing and depressing detail.

Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center and the author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.”

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