the national interest

The Republicans’ Long War to Roll Back the New Deal Is Finally Over

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The Democratic Party is on the verge of passing an economic-rescue bill twice the size of the one they enacted under Barack Obama. And yet the Republican opposition, which could block any bill by turning just one senator, has invested shockingly little energy in its opposition. While no Republicans seem likely to vote in favor, they have responded with resignation, rather than the paroxysms of outrage they mustered against previous Democratic administrations (and over far more limited measures).

Biden’s relief bill is extremely popular, yes — but this is a result of the GOP’s muted opposition as much as it is a cause. Meanwhile, Republican leaders are assenting to a restoration of earmarks, a budgetary practice they had once flamboyantly banned as a symbol of big government excess.

Many observers in both parties anticipated that the switch to a Democratic president would drive the GOP back to the libertarian purity that it has habitually clung to in opposition. But more than a month in, barely a sign of it can be found. The absence of a renewed anti-government impulse suggests a profound historic change may be afoot: The Republican Party is finally abandoning its crusade to roll back the New Deal.

If you delve into any history written by an American conservative, you will find some version of a story of innocence lost. The country was once prosperous and free — its halcyon days in the 1920s, or perhaps the Gilded Age — until the shackles of Big Government were forged by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt and clamped by the hated FDR.

Rolling back the New Deal was the conservative movement’s raison d’être. It bitterly opposed Dwight Eisenhower for failing to roll back the welfare state. (Barry Goldwater accused him of running a “Dime Store New Deal.”) Conservatives understand that gaining control of the Republican Party was merely a first step in a long struggle to uproot the changes Roosevelt had imposed; it would take time to wean Americans from their dependence on Washington and reteach them the habits of individual responsibility that had once defined their character. “Of course, the mistakes of the past cannot be corrected overnight,” conceded Goldwater while campaigning in 1964. “Much as we may wish it were otherwise, we shall only gradually be able to alter many policies of the central government.”

Conservatives displayed patience and creativity in pursuing their objective. Ronald Reagan did not tear down government wholesale, but he slashed spending for the poor, and implemented mass deficits his supporters hoped would eventually “starve the beast,” forcing a fiscal retrenchment. When Republicans won the 1994 midterms, they described their victory as a “Republican Revolution,” and declared a mandate to “finish the revolution Ronald Reagan began,” as Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner proclaimed.

George W. Bush narrowed his strategy, pursuing a plan to privatize Social Security, calculating he could eventually build a constituency to phase out the fixed-benefit pension by giving all Americans an interest in a (presumably ever-rising) stock market. When Bush launched his privatization campaign, National Review’s cover featured Roosevelt’s smiling visage beside the cover line, WIPE THAT GRIN OFF YOUR FACE. During the Obama administration, Republicans embraced perhaps their purest anti–New Deal fundamentalism. Conservative members of Congress insisted Roosevelt’s policies had lengthened the Depression, and insisted only immediate spending cuts would restore the economy to health — returning directly to the neoclassical dogma that Herbert Hoover had defended and which dominated economic thought until the 1930s.

Of course mainstream Republicans have never been so foolhardy as to straightforwardly lay out a plan to return the federal government to its 1932 condition. But, since the conservative movement took control of the party, the goal of returning to its prelapsarian state has always lurked in the background.

Why has the dream that animated generations of Ayn Rand–toting Buckleyites to join the cause been quietly forgotten? One easy answer is that Donald Trump’s big spending binge made it too hypocritical for them to pivot immediately to austerity. And yet feelings of shame haven’t stopped Republicans from piously insisting that mean tweets are disqualifying for public service. (They have probably devoted more messaging energy over the last two weeks to the sanctity of social-media politesse than to fiscal conservatism.) Republicans appear perfectly capable of pretending Trump never happened when it suits them to do so.

To give them somewhat more credit, Trump has genuinely changed Republican elites’ thinking about what their voters care about. “One of the things we discovered to our dismay in 2016 is that the electorate — the base of the Republican Party — was really not conservative in any meaningful way,” explains Mona Charen. Charen comes from the party’s anti-Trump wing, but pro-Trump Republicans have been saying similar things throughout, lambasting their party’s former leaders as heartless plutocrats rightly cast aside by the proletarian base.

To liberals, it was perfectly obvious all along that the Republican program was a bait-and-switch operation that would lure in voters with cultural resentment or nationalist symbolism so they could supply the votes for corporate tax cuts and business self-regulation. Republican elites seem to have been substantially in denial over this, until Trump spent five years practically throwing it in their faces.

One irony of this change is that conservative movement control is what set the party onto its long march toward authoritarianism. I wrote about this in more detail in 2016, but the right’s fear that big government would be a mechanism to allow the majority to redistribute itself property from the wealthy minority has always made it suspicious of democracy. That anti-democratic impulse expressed itself over the last several decades through an ever deeper commitment to vote suppression and a refusal to accept the legitimacy of Democratic Party–led government. Government shutdowns under Gingrich led to debt-default threats under John Boehner and finally to insurrection under Trump.

The original impulse that created this political style is a terror of a political majority voting itself a raise. The residue remains in place even as the objective has receded. Republican voters are more determined than ever to hold power, but less and less sure what they wish to do with it.

The Republican War to Roll Back the New Deal Is Finally Over