American business can’t afford not to stand up to the Tea Party
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It is pretty obvious that Big Money, in this case from business not labour, pulled its finger out last week in persuading enough Republicans to back off their threat to send the US into default and prolong the federal government shutdown.
It is probable Big Money will do the same again early in the new year if political matters come to the same pretty pass when the can kicked down the road last week comes up for renewal. Business does not like anything that screws up the economy. Its members and supporters are far more comfortable with establishment Republicans, to the extent they exist, and even moderate Democrats than it is with Tea Party radicals intent on bringing the whole congressional house of cards crashing down.
The important longer-term question is more difficult to answer, which is whether the business establishment will go further in next year’s midterm elections in bringing the Republican party, to which it has long been allied, back from the brink of what might be called Cruzomania, after the unrepentant freshman senator from Texas.
That will partly depend on external circumstances, not least whether the Affordable Care Act, blighted by its inauspicious technological rollout, settles down and is seen to work, more or less. It remains amazing that the country of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg – not to mention a Barack Obama political machine of such techno-brilliance that it won two elections it could well have lost – cannot even get a website to work properly.
But, just as important, is the undeniable fact that business itself is far from monolithic. On the one hand there exist the powers-that-have-long-been – the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and just about every other establishment lobby around – all essentially pragmatic so long as their own interests are protected.
On the other stand the deep-pocketed ideologues now freed by the US Supreme Court, in the appalling Citizens United judgment, to give as much as they want to whatever cause they fancy, without any particular accountability. Among them are the notorious oil refinery brothers Charles and David Koch and the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who dropped gazillions of dollars last year in a bizarre and futile attempt to get Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives, elected president.
It is the Kochs and their ilk who have fuelled the Tea Party engine. They have, for example, transformed the Heritage Foundation, a staid and rather boring think-tank which nonetheless had a reputation for solid conservative research, into the fountainhead of rightwing radicalism. They persuaded Jim DeMint from South Carolina, from whom nobody in Congress stood to starboard, to abandon his safe Senate seat to give Heritage its current political edge. Other radical Washington institutions with mellifluous and innocent-sounding names – FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and the National Taxpayers Union – have thrived under their largesse.
That said, they are also businessmen, conscious of what they do for a successful living – and an economic debacle would not be good for oil refining. They do not talk much in public but there were signs before last week’s denouement that even the Kochs had qualms about how far Ted Cruz and his band of brothers were prepared to push things.
They may switch their attention away from Washington to the red states where reactionary policies still thrive. From Arizona and Kansas to Alabama there are moves afoot to make it harder for the underclasses to register to vote, even to vote itself. Relatively moderate North Carolina’s social services are being savaged by a Republican governor egged on by Art Pope, the local retail magnate who can make the Kochs seem almost benign.
To that end, they are likely to continue to underwrite insurgent Republican challengers to the party establishment, as against Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, in Kentucky, and elsewhere. This is where the business establishment enters the picture if it decides to pour money into maintaining the party’s parlous status quo. Karl Rove, guru to former president George W Bush, is already leading the effort to keep statewide unelectables from winning Republican primaries.
As it stands, the party’s own internal divisions now cast doubt on Republican ambitions to retake the Senate next year. Even its majority in the House looks less secure than it did before the government shutdown, so sharp has been public antipathy to the effort. But a year is an eternity in politics.
For once, it is the business community, both parts of it, who may determine what happens. The Tea Party may feel alienated from modern society but business cannot afford to if it wants to make money.