Ever since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the fundamental aim of the Republican Party has been to make the rich richer. Virtually every GOP president from Reagan onward cut taxes for the wealthy while spending lavishly on corporate welfare regardless of consequences. As a result, modern Republican administrations run up huge budget deficits and endanger programs that benefit non-plutocrats. George H.W. Bush raised taxes—a sensible move which would eventually help balance the federal budget by 2000—but boy, did he pay for it.
Since the stinking rich are too small a constituency to decide elections and government programs like Social Security are widely popular, the GOP cloaks its actual agenda (socialism for the rich) behind social wedge issues, or by pretending to be fiscally disciplined free-market purists or by flat-out lying—or an artisanal blend of all three.
After 40 years, however, that game is just about up. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Americans will get the leadership they want. In fact, we could all end up with something much worse.
But let’s go back to the Gipper. When Reagan was elected, America was wracked with high unemployment, high crime rates and high interest rates as tens of thousands were losing well-paying factory jobs. Meanwhile, the nation’s governing class, on the left and right, largely still adhered to principles laid out during the New Deal of the 1930s (even Reagan voted for FDR). A turn towards conservative, free-market ideas at least seemed plausible as an alternative.
By the end of Reagan’s presidency, however, not so much. Household debt and income inequality exploded on Reagan’s watch as his administration became one of the most corrupt in U.S. history. Greenmail financial gambits turned a deregulated Wall Street into a casino that nearly dragged the nation into a second Great Depression in 1987, a mere foretaste of what we were in for when the bottom again fell out at the tail end of the laissez-faire George W. Bush presidency in 2008.
You could argue that the Democrats haven’t been all that much better, except for how they actually have been better. Deficits tend to come down and social welfare programs like the Affordable Care Act tend to become law when this country’s version of the left has been in power.
But while their economic stewardship and the integrity of their approach to public service were proved imperfect, the GOP still had those useful wedge issues like gay marriage. Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove got nominally conservative asses off couches and into the polling places in 2004 by sticking defense-of-marriage amendments on ballots in Arizona and elsewhere. Fast forward 15 years, and now a majority of people over the age of 65, the most consistently right-leaning demographic accepts same-sex couples.
But perhaps nothing better embodies the impending demise of the Republicans’ traditional culture war strategy as abortion. The small fraction of the public who are pro-life absolutists are giddy at the prospect of a Supreme Court that may finally overturn Roe v. Wade. But then what? Few voters are enthusiastically support of abortion, but only a minority want it banned outright, and there would likely be a huge anti-GOP backlash in the wake of such a ban.
And therein lies the rub. If Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court does pass on the chance to overturn Roe V. Wade then the motivation for millions of single-issue evangelical Republican voters vanishes.
The Republicans, in short, are cornered. Even their base now realizes that the old free-market pieties spouted by Wall Street Journal op-ed writers were just articulate sophistry in defense of pig-greedy hedge fund managers raiding worker pension funds. It’s a party so ideologically bankrupt that its leader, Donald Trump, won the presidency while openly and crudely mocking GOP stalwarts who failed to greet his every brain-fart of a “policy idea” with extravagant praise.
Cornered doesn’t mean done for, however. In fact, we may be approaching a real hinge in our nation’s history, one that sees a hard-right minority engineer a turn away from core American democratic principles.
Republican state legislatures openly thwart the will of the people. Conservatives have used gerrymandering and now, perhaps, the census to help ensure that the Fox News demographic gets to decide who holds the balance of power in Congress.
For now, the courts have checked at least some of the Republicans’ more shameless authoritarian power plays, but for how much longer is an open question. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell scouring the countryside for right-wing judicial nominees in their 40s who would shape U.S. jurisprudence until the middle of the century and beyond. Before too long, the majority of Americans may find themselves with a government they can’t stand but can no longer change.