David Coates

Resisting Republican Excess

Very dark political forces stalk the land, and we do ourselves, and those who will come after us, no favors by pretending otherwise.

Contemporary Republican legislators – those in Washington and in a string of red states like mine, North Carolina – are not like previous ones. North Carolinian Republicans like to boast these days that their party controls the political agenda in Raleigh for the first time in a century, forgetting that a century ago the Republicans then in control in Raleigh were from the party of Lincoln. Republicans members of Congress now like to boast of the things they block, the things they filibuster and the things they promise to repeal, forgetting that earlier generations of Republican legislators prided themselves on effective bipartisanship. Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, even Ronald Reagan, were they somehow miraculously to return, would be hard pushed to walk politically alongside the Rand Paul’s and Ted Cruz’s of the contemporary Republican leadership. Jesse Helms, by contrast, would no doubt take that same walk with considerable ease.

If North Carolina is any guide to our political future, that future is very bleak indeed. In the brief period of legislative activity which has now just ended in Raleigh, the Republicans used their unprecedented control of both the legislature and the governorship to, among other things: reject Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act; remove unemployment benefits from 170,000 long-term unemployed North Carolinians; end the state earned-income tax credit for low-income families; cut funding for public schooling while easing access to charter schools;  put in jeopardy 16 of the 17 clinics offering legal abortions in the state; repeal the Racial Justice Act; and pass legislation curbing early voting and creating new and restrictive voter-ID requirements.[1] All that legislative activism, horrendous as it is, would just be our local problem if North Carolinian Republicans were outliers in the modern Republican pantheon, but all the evidence suggests that they are not. Recent polling within the Republican Party shows growing enthusiasm among party activists for Tea Party-inspired programs of the North Carolinian kind,[2] and Republican legislators in Washington are even more Tea-Party minded in this Congress than they were in the last.[3] A new kind of radical conservatism is on the march in America, and not just in the American South.

            All this, therefore, requires stopping. The question, of course, is how.[4]


      The only way in which to effectively push back this ever more carefully orchestrated Tea Party tide is to challenge Republican assertions and policies with the same degree of self-confidence and directness with which their advocates present them. Those of us who do not share ultra-conservative views and goals need to meet fire with fire: for we are all engaged, whether we like it or not, in more than simply old-style party politics. We are engaged in serious ideological struggle, triggered by the Radical Right. Radical conservative political planners like the Koch brothers and North Carolina’s Art Pope know full well that the successful dissemination of their ideas is vital to their long-term political success – just think of the number of media outlets and think-tanks that they fund for that very purpose – and because they do, it is time that more moderate voices followed suit. Ultimately, conservative ideas have to be countered by progressive ones; and power will shift back towards more moderate legislators in both Raleigh and in Congress only if we develop effective counter-arguments to those currently legitimating radical Republican programs. 

·         So it is now vital to make very clear just how narrow and self-serving is the libertarian vision of freedom underpinning the current Republican resistance to federal programs. In their resistance to such things as tighter gun controls, libertarians focus overwhelmingly on the importance of constitutionally-guaranteed political freedoms, and it is true that the defense of political rights is a vital first step to individual freedom. This is why Republican moves to restrict voting rights makes their rhetoric about advancing freedom sound so hollow. But as every major twentieth-century political constitution – from Mexico in the 1910s through Germany in 1950 to South Africa in 1994 – have all recognized, to be fully enjoyed political rights need to be paired with equivalent social and economic rights. Democratic Presidents have long recognized this too. Remember FDR’s “four freedoms” from World War II; or Lyndon Johnson’s quite proper insistence, from his war on poverty, that “the man who is hungry, who cannot find work or educate his children, who is bowed by want, is not fully free.” Genuinely free people need to be free from political oppression and free to fully participate in economic and social life. Freedoms, to be fully effective, need to be both political and social in kind.

·         But the current Republican programs do not offer both kinds of freedom. On the contrary, modern day libertarians in Congress take every opportunity they can to block the capacity of low-paid Americans to participate fully in economic and social life. They always oppose raising the minimum wage. They regularly advocate right-to-work legislation that blocks trade unions. They recently cut the food stamp budget in the new farm bill. Lately, they have even proposed a constitutional ban on the use of the commerce clause to protect working conditions.[5] And modern day social conservatives, though they wax lyrical about the rights of the unborn child, are normally disturbingly silent on the inequality of rights enjoyed by those children once born. The children of the rich and the children of the poor are not equally empowered in today’s America; and because they are not, the extension of even a minimum set of genuine rights between the generations now requires the creation of a more level playing field on which all American children can then play and prosper. The only institution capable of moving us towards that more even surface is a democratically-elected government pursuing progressive social ends. So freedom is not enhanced in this country by cutting government programs. It is enhanced by extending them.

·         Progressive public policy is a vital prerequisite for the extension of individual freedom in part because private institutions and private processes cannot level the playing field within and between generations in a country as unequal as ours has now become. Private charity certainly cannot, no matter how often conservatives canvass it as an answer to welfare dependency. Private charity is not an answer to that dependency because, paradoxically, private giving leaves the American poor fully dependent on the willingness of private givers to extend their charity to them, a willingness whose permanence and universality can never be guaranteed.[6] On the contrary, and as we have seen since 2008, economic difficulties that add to the number of those needing help also often reduce the flow of private resources needed to fund that help. Private charity, that is, is invariably least effective when it is needed most: which is why it can never be an adequate substitute for (but only a supplement to) a properly funded and universally provided welfare net. There is, in truth, no way of avoiding the contradiction between private affluence and public squalor here. If people genuinely believe that helping those less fortunate than themselves is a prime responsibility of a civilized society, then a fully-funded publicly-provided welfare net is an unavoidable necessity – as are the taxes necessary to pay for it.

·         And quite contrary to contemporary Republican claims, private market forces, if left unmanaged by public policy, cannot be expected to fully fill the void left by inadequate private charity and curtailed public programs. Unregulated markets are not the panacea the Right would have us believe them to be: markets are only perfect allocators of resources if everyone operating inside them has equal purchasing power – and that is certainly not how markets currently operate in unequal America.[7] Not that this inequality should necessarily surprise us, for unregulated markets are great engines of both social inequality and economic instability. Market competition produces losers as well as winners – so inevitably generating ever wider inequalities over time – even as it inexorably falls victim to its own contradictions. The biggest of these is the tension in unregulated markets between the simultaneous imperatives of cheap labor and prosperous consumers. By seeking to restrain costs (especially labor costs) to win greater market share, each firm inevitably erodes the level of aggregate demand vital to keep levels of employment high and rising. Unregulated markets always settle at  an equilibrium point – the neoclassical economics so favored by Republicans is right about that – but unregulated markets contain no way of ensuring that such an equilibrium will bring with it full employment. If full employment is the goal, governments have to act. A strong public welfare net and an economically-active government are not, therefore, barriers to rising and reliable prosperity for all, as Tea Party Republicans so often paint them to be. They are, on the contrary, essential prerequisites to that prosperity.


So as the political season opens up again in the fall, those of us who are uncomfortable with the extremism of today’s Republican legislators face a vital and fundamental choice. We can sit idly by and, wring our hands in despair as the American social crisis deepens, and as the possibility of the American Dream recedes for more and more of our fellow-citizens. Or we can say, loud and long to all who will listen, that America is and can be better than the desiccated creation now on offer from Tea Party Republicans: better morally, better economically, and better socially. We can say that what this better America needs is not less business regulation, more gun rights and the closure of more abortion clinics. What this better America needs is generous welfare provision, well-funded public education, stronger labor laws, public programs to regenerate the economy’s infrastructure, and – most of all – a new social contract across the whole of the United States: one truly built on equality, fairness and justice.

      Ultimately in the world of democratic politics, the forces of darkness can only be defeated by the forces of light. There is a lot of darkness around right now, which is why it is time for men and women of goodwill to reassert their political presence. Now is the time for those of us who still believe in the possibility of the American Dream to put some light back into the current political discourse, by moving this economy and society away from a Republican trajectory anchored in selfishness, inequality and social division towards a Democratic one based on shared prosperity and a mutual respect for all.

[1] see Chris Fitzsimon, “The 2013 General Assembly’s shameful numbers,” posted  in Fitzsimon File, July 29, 2013: available at http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2013/07/29/the-2013-general-assemblys-shameful-numbers/

[2] see Sean Sullivan, “Republicans want their party to change – just not the way you think,” The Washington Post, August 1, 2013: available at http://opiniontoday.com/2013/08/01/republicans-want-their-party-to-change-just-not-the-way-you-think/

[3], see Aaron Blake, ‘GOP freshmen: Even more tea party than 2010?” The Washington Post, January 4, 2013: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/01/04/gop-freshmen-even-more-tea-party-than-2010/

[4] see RJ Eskow, Fighting the GOP’s Hateful Agenda – Without Hate, posted on The Huffington Post, August 4, 2013: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rj-eskow/fighting-the-gops-hateful_b_3704780.html

[5] see Ian Millhister, 36 Senators Introduce Bill Prohibiting Virtually Any New Law Helping Workers, posted August 2, 2013: available at http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/08/02/2404301/36-senators-introduce-bill-prohibiting-virtually-any-new-federal-law-helping-workers/

[6] see David Coates, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments. New York: Continuum Books, 2011, available at http://www.amazon.com/Answering-Back-Responses-Conservative-Arguments/dp/1441126937

[7] see chapter 2 of David Coates, Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger American Economy. New York: Continuum Books, 2012, available at http://www.amazon.com/Making-Progressive-Case-Towards-Stronger/dp/1441186506

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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