Inequality is one of those issues that tend to unite Democrats, alarm independents and divide Republicans; this is no doubt one of the reasons we are hearing so much about it in an election year from the liberal wing of the American media. If it were up to the GOP, the subject would never come up; having the conversation at all raises questions that many GOPers would prefer to avoid. Nevertheless, inequality is an important issue on the right, and the GOP divisions on inequality are both complicated and deep; some GOPers don’t think inequality is a problem at all, and those who do offer conflicting explanations for what is going on.
For some in the GOP, following a long line of classically liberal analysis that has centuries of history behind it, inequality not only may not be that bad: it could actually be good. And even if it is bad, efforts to fix it through government policy are likely to do more harm than good. Inequality is a natural result of the human condition, these people argue. Some people are smarter, harder working, more talented or just luckier than others, and in a free society in which people can use their talents to the fullest, some people are going to wind up richer than others.
But, argue the classical liberals, by giving free rein to the talents and ambitions of the strongest, we are setting in motion a process which over the long run will make everyone better off. The talented will invent new technologies, discover new drugs, make compelling art and otherwise enhance the general human storehouse through their own unfettered pursuit of happiness. Any heavy handed government efforts to keep the talented from becoming too successful will slow down the pace of innovation and change that historically has seen living standards for average people skyrocket over the last three hundred years. This idea isn’t going away anytime soon and the reality that three hundred years of capitalist development has in fact raised living standards to unprecedented levels in much of the world suggests that there may even be some truth in it.
Nevertheless, in its purest and most dogmatic form, out there where Ron Paul communes with the spirit of Ayn Rand on the open range, libertarian ideology isn’t going to dominate mainstream American politics for the foreseeable future. I’ve argued before that the United States is becoming more libertarian and individualistic over the long run, but there is no sign that Americans want to drink their libertarianism straight from the bottle—especially when that would mean abandoning government programs that benefit the middle class.
Those mixed feelings put classical liberal economic thought in an odd spot in the United States. On one level, these ideas are hard wired into the national consciousness and for many people serve as bedrock convictions. When millions of Americans think about questions like inequality, their views are heavily influenced by classical liberal ideas. Yet at the same time, when it comes to policy, voters tend to reject candidates whose proposals seek to bring the rigors of free market discipline to bear on difficult social issues. Republicans often find themselves whipsawed by the cross currents of public opinion: cheered wildly when they talk about the wonders of the invisible hand, the evils of redistribution and big government programs in the abstract; hung out to dry when they frame concrete proposals around the ideas that attract such fervent applause.
The modern Republican party feels this contradiction even more acutely than in the past. The white South, which switched parties en masse in the generation after the Civil Rights era, had a largely populist and redistribution minded wing back in the days of FDR. “If you aren’t getting something for nothing, you’re not getting your fair share,” Louisiana governor Huey Long is supposed to have told his constituents. They loved him.
The white South’s hunger for federal spending that supports ordinary Americans has deep roots. During the long and painful decline of the family farm from the 1880s through the 1930s, American populism centered on the concerns of farmers disadvantaged by the new manufacturing economy. “Parity,” the concept that farm incomes should be topped up so that farmers would earn as much as urban people, was an important rallying cry throughout the white South in these years and it presupposed a large and active government role. New Deal programs like rural electrification and the TVA were strongly supported by millions of people whose lives they permanently changed.
The white South’s switch to the GOP wasn’t just about race; the South switched parties in part because classical liberal economic ideas made more sense as the people of the region moved out of agriculture into urban and suburban life. A rapidly modernizing white South renewed its faith in free markets as those markets seemed to be working better in Dixie. Before World War Two the South was, economically speaking, a kind of colony, producing mostly raw materials for the manufacturing economy of what is now the Rustbelt. Its political pattern—racist, redistributionist and populist Democrats opposed to somewhat less racist, oligarchical “Bourbon” Democrats—still reflected the region’s 19th century division between populist Democrats and elite Whigs. Partly to keep African-American voters at bay, the post-Reconstruction South replaced the old two party system with a single party. The Democratic primary (which, under the laws of that time, could be closed to non-white voters) was where the real political competition between ex-populist Democrats and ex-Whigs took place and intra-party feuding could be bitter and sharp.
As the mass of white Democrats switched to the GOP, they brought their old divisions with them. Tea Party Republicans today have roots in Jacksonian populism, while establishment Republicans have more in common with Henry Clay. Those tensions were muted during good times. For the last generation, populists in the white South (with living standards rising faster than in most parts of the country) had largely forgotten their earlier sympathy for redistribution, price controls and government income support. For some, one regrets to report, this was at least partially because the Great Society welfare state extended benefits to more African Americans than the New Deal welfare state (which, to get critical support from Southern legislators, excluded categories like agricultural and domestic workers from many of its original provisions) had done.
But tensions between the former populists and the former Bourbons still seethed under the surface; the bitter rivalry between “establishment” and “Tea Party” Republicans in many southern states today reflects the bitter divisions within the white South that date back to the political battles between the low country plantation owners and the poor white farmers of old Dixie. A similar dynamic in the North brought disillusioned ‘Reagan Democrats’ into the GOP; there, too, a gap between establishment Republicans and populists reflected deep differences of economic interest and social position.
The slowdown in economic growth, the crisis of southern manufacturing and the stagnation of living standards for many white Southerners have reawakened the old divide in the white South and among Republicans nationally. Reaganite, free market ideology is still, as they say, hegemonic in white Southern political discourse, so the GOP faces a dilemma. The socio-economic tensions and class issues brought to the surface by the state of the economy fire a lot of passion among party members and create tensions between the establishment and populist wings of the party, but the issues can only be addressed within a Reaganite ideological context.
As a result, many people on the right today are working to develop a GOP counter-narrative on inequality that they hope will help them win support in intra-party battles and reach out beyond the party to link up with populists outside it. These include politicians like Paul Ryan, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio. So far, two main lines of explanation seem to be out there. One speaks more directly to economic conservatives and one addresses social conservative themes, but the two narratives appear to be gradually merging into a unified populist GOP approach to the inequality debate.
Like the left-liberal narrative, the conservative inequality narratives are cast in the form of jeremiads: America has departed from the ancient path of rectitude and has gone astray. We are suffering the grim consequences of our foolish and blind missteps and will continue to do so until we return to the right path. This is, as I noted in my essay on the left-liberal inequality debate, the oldest and most common form of political discourse in the United States. The jeremiad takes us right back to Puritan New England: God’s chosen people have gone astray, worshipped false idols and unless they turn back to the true path are going to be smitten and scourged.
But if the liberal narrative sees the ancient path of righteousness as the trail blazed by FDR and the New Deal, the conservative narratives look farther back: to the economic and social ideals of pre-New Deal America. As a nation we have apostatized from the faith of our grandfathers; as a result, we are suffering today and the rise of inequality and loss of general prosperity are part of the pain we endure. They can only be cured if we return to the correct path.
One version of the conservative inequality story is an economic jeremiad that points to the ancient truths of economic life as revealed by Adam Smith and the classical liberals. America once lived by the true faith, the economic conservatives argue, but we have turned aside. We have embraced the hell-spawned alliance of a large corporate establishment and a powerful central government. We have deserted the shrine of true liberal economics to worship the false idol of crony capitalism. Rent seekers have driven true entrepreneurs out of the temple; corrupt elites in politics and corporate life swap favors and powerful interests have captured the mechanisms of the regulatory state to buttress the power of the rich and well established.
Like the left-liberal narrative, this right-liberal narrative is grounded both in empirical truths and powerful beliefs that shape American consciousness. It captures themes that have been central to American protest movements for hundreds of years and restates them in ways that speak powerfully to the concerns of millions of Americans living today.
However, many American conservatives are more concerned about social and religious issues than the right-liberal narrative has room for, and a second conservative inequality story has taken shape. In this vision, our economic troubles and especially inequality result less from errors in economic policy making than from a national moral collapse. Social conservatives tend to see a series of threatening social changes that are eroding the institutions and beliefs that have made America work. A culture that looks on human sexuality as a recreational pursuit rather than an encounter with transcendence inseparable from monogamous marriage and childbearing has, for many social conservatives, lost touch with the values that any society needs to stay healthy and prosperous long term. The decline of the two parent family, the rise of a culture of instant gratification, the pornography explosion, the acceptance of homosexuality: for many Americans, these developments are the harbingers of the decline of our political and economic life. Unless Americans return to the spiritual and personal values that marked our society in earlier times, we face inexorable decline – our society will become less just, less free, less equal, less honest, less safe and less rich. We need, as Linda Ronstadt sings it, “a whole lot more of Jesus, and a lot less rock and roll.”
Once again, this is a narrative that can show substantial empirical evidence to back it up at least in part and it speaks to enduring American beliefs and concerns. It also speaks especially powerfully to Southern populist GOP conservatives, among many of whom the old time religion has deeper roots than the old time political economy.
Thanks to the concept of culture, the two conservative narratives can be blended into a kind of unified field theory of conservative populism. Traditionally, one can argue, the United States was guided by a culture that combined the love of small government, free markets, religious faith and strong family values. That culture is under assault today, and as it loses its power, we face an ever growing sea of troubles. Weak family values lead to children growing up without the ability to build strong families themselves or earn good livings. More and more children grow up in economically and socially insecure single parent households. This in turn creates a culture of dependency; people are willing to cede more power to the state in return for more handouts. The bloated state becomes increasingly dysfunctional, imposing higher taxes and regulatory costs on an increasingly sluggish economy. Greedy rent seekers flock to Washington, diverting ever larger masses of wealth into their own hands and further distorting economic processes. The Hollywood and Wall Street elites, amoral to the core, reap ever greater rewards as in their different ways they continue to undermine the foundations of American social stability and economic prosperity.
This is a powerful story, but it splits the Republican party along the old Bourbon-populist lines. There are lots of establishment Republicans (and Democrats) who are quite happy with a Washington culture of back scratching and favor-swapping. Many of the Tea Party versus establishment battles inside the Republican Party today are about the efforts of insurgents to dismantle a system that the career politicians consider a natural and necessary way of getting the nation’s business done. Similar issues used to divide Southern Democrats, with “moderate” establishment Bourbon Democrats like South Carolina’s Wade Hampton coming under fire from radical populists like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman.
The populist critiques of the establishment on both the left and the right do more than create intra-party civil wars. They speak to problems that are hard to solve. Establishment resistance against populist reforms is not simply a matter of personal greed, though a great many establishment politicians are lining their pockets as rapidly as they can. Populist demands to separate money and politics often work better as slogans and rallying cries than as practical programs for running the country. South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman, a vicious and violent racist who defended lynching but wanted the government to spend money to help the little people as long as they were white, introduced the first federal campaign finance law in American history as part of his populist program to redeem government from cozy establishment interests; the law passed but, like so many other campaign finance bills, had little effect on the realities of power in American life. It is not actually possible to build a Chinese wall between wealth and power on the one hand and the political system on the other; reformers may eliminate a symbol like earmarks from the legislative process, but the favor swapping and influence peddling that cannot be separated from representative democracy will simply take new forms. Populist aspirations make sense, and whether or not one takes either the left or the right inequality narratives to heart there is clearly something out of whack in American life today. But populism has always been better at articulating grievances than at solving problems, and there are signs that neither left nor right populism in American life today can fully break with this pattern.
It’s also clear that both left and right populism in America today are nostalgic; they seek to restore old orders rather than to imagine or build something new. This again is characteristic of eras like ours. The transition from late industrial society to an early stage information economy is hugely disruptive and painful. At the moment, it is easier and more natural for many people to worry about what is being lost than to look forward to the new possibilities that technological progress is creating for our future. Moreover, the concerns that both left and right populists express about the growing problems in society are rooted in real events. Tens of millions of Americans feel insecure and face uncertain economic futures even as a minority enjoys access to unprecedented riches. Family life is in a real crisis; rent seekers and lobbyists exert a genuinely troubling influence over political decision making even as the general interest seems neglected by a short-sighted political class.
But the politics of nostalgia and the rhetoric of jeremiad, however appealing and justified, won’t actually help. A left pining for the 1930s and a right pining for the 1890s can’t deliver the improvements they long for. And populism, which is more of an engine light indicator telling us that something is wrong than an instruction manual telling us how to fix things, will not alone guide us toward the vision or policies that can remedy the problems that have populists upset.
The road to dealing with inequality and the linked problems of our economic transition in the United States is likely to be a long and winding one, and many things will have to change before the country settles into a new social model. But we can’t sit with folded hands and counsel patience as the processes of social and technological change slowly work their way through the system; people live their lives in the here and now, and they need to see that the trajectory of change, at least, is positive. At the moment we don’t as a society even have a real vision of what a better, non-nostalgia drenched future might look like, much less a sense of what policies might help us get there faster.
This needs to change.