More about the GOP

January 12, 2012

The latest turn in the GOP primary contest, in which Newt Gingrich and others who had all along been attacking Gov. Romney from the political right are now criticizing him for his profit-seeking activities in the private sector, has come to many as a surprise.

To me it is a reminder that the alliance we have come to take for granted between religious conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Less than a century ago William Jennings Bryan, who in Vachel Lindsay’s words “scourged the elephant plutocrats” throughout his career, and most famously at the Democratic convention of 1896 where he proclaimed the following –

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

– ended his days in Tennessee prosecuting a certain John Thomas Scopes.

William McKinley (with whom Karl Rove liked to compare George W. Bush, himself taking the role of sidekick Mark Hanna)  beat Bryan twice for the Presidency precisely by letting him have the Bible thumpers and xenophobes who had until then tended to vote Republican, appealing instead to the urban and largely immigrant masses in the Northeast and Midwest who, however severe their own issues with the plutocracy, saw no place for themselves in Bryan’s rural Evangelical  vision of America.

So what changed? Several things, I think.

First the New Deal of the 1930’s. It addressed the grievances of all who suffered most from the Depression, and at first it drew their support whatever their regional or demographic background; but after a while the buildup of Federal bureaucracy which it required left Bryan’s old Western constituencies feeling that Washington had become at least as hostile to their vision as Wall Street had been.

Then the Cold War: with Stalin’s Communism as a universally acknowledged enemy, which threatened capitalism and religion both, people came to feel that both were somehow on the same side, both part of the America that needed to be defended.

The articulation of a rigorous but “Big Tent”-ish conservative ideology in the 1950’s, most eloquently by William F. Buckley; Barry Goldwater’s luring  Southern whites away from populism by linking it with Civil Rights; finally the great parental freakout of the late Sixties – all these things combined to produce the constellation of political forces that seems to us so natural.

So I am not at all surprised by occasional signs that like all composite things, it is prone to decay…


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