Thursday, October 06, 2005

Apocalypse Now?

For the Republican party, that is. A Salon article, well worth sitting through an ad if you don't subscribe, suggests that the Republican party is dancing at the edge of a precipice. Why? Because of all the different fraud scandals that have cropped up at the same time. The writer of the article, Sidney Blumenthal, has a theory about the way the Republicans do politics:

For 30 years, beginning with the Nixon presidency, advanced under Reagan, stalled with the elder Bush, a new political economy struggled to be born. The idea was pure and simple: centralization of power in the hands of the Republican Party would ensure that it never lost it again. Under George W. Bush, this new system reached its apotheosis. It is a radically novel social, political and economic formation that deserves study alongside capitalism and socialism. Neither Adam Smith nor Vladimir Lenin captures its essence, though it has far more elements of Leninist democratic-centralism than Smithian free markets. Some have referred to this model as crony capitalism; others compare the waste, extravagance and greed to the Gilded Age. Call it 21st century Republicanism.

At its heart the system is plagued by corruption, an often unpleasant peripheral expense that greases its wheels. But now multiple scandals engulfing Republicans -- from suspended House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to White House political overlord Karl Rove -- threaten to upend the system. Because it is organized by politics it can be undone by politics. Politics has been the greatest strength of Republicanism, but it has become its greatest vulnerability.

The party runs the state. Politics drives economics. Important party officials are also economic operators. They thrive off their connections and rise in the party apparatus as a result of their self-enrichment. The past three chairmen of the Republican National Committee have all been Washington lobbyists.

An oligarchy atop the party allocates favors. Behind the ideological slogans about the "free market" and "liberty," the oligarchy creates oligopolies. Businesses must pay to play. They must kick back contributions to the party, hire its key people and support its program. Only if they give do they receive tax breaks, loosening of regulations and helpful treatment from government professionals.

Those professionals in the agencies and departments who insist on adhering to standards other than those imposed by the party are fired, demoted and blackballed. The oligarchy wars against these professionals to bend government purely into an instrument of oligopolies.

Corporations pay fixed costs in the form of legal graft to the party in order to suppress the market, drastically limiting competitive pressure. Then they collude to control prices, create cartels and reduce planning primarily to the political game. The larger consequences are of no concern whatsoever to the corporate players so long as they maintain access to the political players.

This smells true. Many confusing historical events are explained by applying Blumenthal's simple scenario. And clearly the money in politics comes largely from corporations which makes them more important than the vast faceless voter masses.

Consider these sums:

The sums every industry, from financial services to computers, spends on lobbying are staggering. Broadcast media firms spent $35.88 million in 2004 alone on lobbyists in Washington, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Telephone companies spent $71.97 million; cable and satellite TV corporations, $20.22 million. The drug industry during the same period shelled out $123 million to pay 1,291 lobbyists, 52 percent of them former government officials. The results have been direct: The Food and Drug Administration has been reduced to a hollow shell, and Medicare can't negotiate lower drug costs with pharmaceutical companies. In the 2004 election cycle, the drug industry paid out $87 million in campaign contributions for federal officials, 69 percent of them flowing to Republicans.

Whereas almost all lobbying before the Bush era was confined to Capitol Hill, now one in five lobbyists approaches the White House directly. Consider the success story of one Kirk Blalock, a former aide to Karl Rove as deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison, where he coordinated political links to the business community. Now, one year out of the White House, he's a senior partner in the lobbying firm of Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock, boasting 33 major clients, 22 for whom he lobbies his former colleagues in the White House. Indeed, the Bush White House boasts 12 former lobbyists in responsible positions, from chief of staff Andrew Card (American Automobile Association Manufacturers) on down.

"The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled since 2000 to more than 34,750," reports the Washington Post, "while the amount that lobbyists charge their new clients has increased by as much as 100 percent."

The lobbyists and the companies they represent might be our real masters. Hence the nomination of John Roberts to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Hence the nomination of Harriet Miers to the same court. But why would the current scandals damage the Republican system? Blumenthal suggests a reason:

The Republican system is fundamentally unstable. Bush has no economic policy other than Republicanism. As the economic currents run toward an indefinable reckoning, the ship of state drifts downstream.

In stable systems, individuals are replaceable parts. Republicanism as constructed under Bush is a juggernaut that cannot afford to scrape an iceberg.

The Republican scandals converge on operators who are the center of the oligarchy. Their own relationships are complicated and tangled. But the outcome of the scandals affecting these major actors will inevitably unravel the Republican project.

Maybe. Or this view could be an overly optimistic one. What do you think?