Today's 'Gingrichomics' Echoes GOP Eras of Old
Same conservatism-capitalism in 1876, 1912, and 1980s
CONGRESSIONAL Republicans' 1995 budget and tax-cut pledge has all too many precedents. "Gingrichomics" is not simply an extreme version of 1980s Reaganomics; it is also the heir of 1920s Coolidge-Mellon-Hoover economics and late-19th century economic Darwinism.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Moreover, as wealth and income concentration regains the levels of the Gilded Age and subsequent Roaring Twenties, the continuity of unfair economic outcomes and familiar perpetrators stands to be a central issue of the 1996 election.
Current polarization does not stem entirely from international competitiveness, domestic wage problems, or other economic causes. Perhaps one-third of the explanation also lies in the political-economic values of the United States and the rest of the West over the last decade and a half.
I say this as a Republican and author of two relevant books. The first, "The Emerging Republican Majority," published in 1969 after use in the 1968 GOP campaign, argued a new political coalition was about to give Republicans control of the presidency for a generation. The other, published in 1990, said the GOP was again favoring the rich and practicing the speculative bubble economics that was its undoing in the late 19th century and big-business era that died with the great crash of 1929.
The wealth and inequality predicament emerged virtually as the 1990 recession began. In 1992, President Bush became a sitting duck for the populism of Pat Buchanan in the New Hampshire primary, for Ross Perot as a populist independent, and for Clinton as a new Democrat who could spell m-i-d-d-l-e c-l-a-s-s.
This allowed the Reagan and Gingrich conservatives to make Bush a scapegoat. What happened in 1992 was his fault; it had nothing to do with Reaganomics. Their cocky follow-up was the Contract With America and its litany of national salvation through deregulation, rollbacks of Medicare and education, and tax cuts for business, investors, and large families. Clinton's unpopularity further played to GOP self-deception. Party strategists could insist that anti-Clinton votes were actually cast for the new Republican economic Darwinism. Only now, chastened by the recent collapse of public support for Gingrich and the new GOP policies, are party leaders getting nervous.
A recurrent rhythm
When I published "The Politics of Rich and Poor" in 1990, most of the ensuing ruckus involved a debate over wealth concentration. Too little attention went to the book's underlying thesis of a recurrent GOP policy instinct. But after each national party watershed election, there has been a recurrent rhythm. In each first stage, in 1855-60, 1896, and 1968-72, the party established its upcoming generational White House control around broad national and ordinary-citizen themes - winning a civil war and keeping the nation together in the 1860s, overcoming the national agrarian and evangelical homilies of William Jennings Bryan, and keeping America en route to its industrial destiny in 1896. The task in 1968-72 involved keeping the country from being torn apart by the Vietnam War and by cultural and racial tensions.
Yet after winning these critical elections with middle-class nationalism and economic themes, the GOP invariably redirected itself toward tax cuts, laissez-faire, and ennoblement of entrepreneurs, speculators, and financial markets. Concentration of wealth and incomes surged. By 1876, 1912, and the mid-1980s, this new bias had raised real problems for the Republican presidential coalition. And more was to come.
My book laid out 10 parallels shared by all three of the conservative go-go eras. These shared characteristics unfold as follows: (1) mostly Republican presidents and conservative philosophy; (2) desire for less and smaller government; (3) more enthusiasm for business and entrepreneurialism; (4) less regard and hard times for labor; (5) mergermania, consolidation, and reorganization of corporations and investment firms; (6) tax-rate cuts; (7) disinflation and a boom in financial assets and markets; (8) a two-tier economy favoring services and finance; (9) greater concentration of incomes and wealth; (10) increased leverage, debt, speculation, and a speculative financial implosion.