“The purpose of the Democratic Party,” the political consultant Robert Shrum once advised, “is to take care of ordinary Americans.” Fair enough, as far as his statement goes. But if that’s the purpose of the Democratic Party, what serves as the mission of its counterpart on the right?
Throughout much of its modern history, it made sense to think that the purpose of the Republican Party was to take care of the interests of business—in the dual sense of an activity and a class of individuals. This statement also seems sound as far as it goes, and is not perforce elitist in nature. “After all,” the Republican sage Calvin Coolidge said, “the chief business of the American people is business.”
However, there is a whole other level of definition for our two major parties that involves political philosophy and values. John Stuart Mill held that every nation needs two political parties, a party of the past and a party of the future—or, in the terminology we still employ today, a conservative party and a liberal one. The conservative party would be composed, in the words of Mill scholar Bruce L. Kinzer, of “those who had a vested interest in their nation’s established institutions” and were committed to “permanence, order, and stability.” The liberal party, on the other hand, would be the party of “reform, progress, movement” and, in Mill’s own words, “would seek the emancipation of dependent classes.” This arrangement, Mill thought, would produce a fruitful political antagonism.
It cannot reasonably be argued that the current Republican Party is committed to the preservation of the nation’s established institutions, or to the maintenance of order and stability. The Nazi political philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt contended that liberal democracy could not work in the long run because politics is a zero-sum game in which one side or the other must ultimately prevail completely. The process of the Republican Party’s unwitting conversion to this philosophy began in 1994 with Newt Gingrich and the Republican takeover of Congress, and reached an apotheosis in the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Along the way, the party abandoned the Enlightenment principles of rational thought and argument, of negotiation and compromise, on which the nation was founded, while increasingly utilizing anti-democratic means to remain in power. It also turned against the standard of human equality articulated in the Declaration of Independence, while abandoning the Constitution’s goal of a more perfect Union. In the wake of this anti-institutional revolt on the right have come chaos, division, and, finally, violence.
The bottom line is that the nation does not have, at present, a serious conservative party with which the existing liberal party (in Mill’s formulation) could profitably do combat. At the same time, the ersatz version, because of a few quirks in the Constitution (the Electoral College, the selection of U.S. senators by state rather than population, and its tolerance of gerrymandering), has been in a position to stymie and obstruct a liberal agenda oriented to reform and progress. Yale history professor Timothy Snyder sees the current Republican Party as split into two factions, the “gamers” and the “breakers.” The gamers seek to game the American political system by exploiting precisely those features of the constitutional order that enable them to win office with the support of a minority of voters. They see no reason to bring down a governing apparatus that so benefits them and their clients in the business world. The breakers, in contrast, believe both they and the business community would be better off without the constraints of democratic rule. Snyder calls Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell the “gamer in chief,” while citing McConnell’s colleagues Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz as the current leaders of the breaker faction.
The Republican Party candidate in 2024, whether a gamer or a breaker, will likely try to win election, at least in part, through heightened campaigns of voter suppression and other unsavory means—measures already underway in Republican-controlled states like Georgia and Arizona. But a breaker candidate who lost in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, Snyder surmises, will have a Plan B to take control of the government by violence, as former President Donald Trump would have liked to do this time around. To accomplish that, the losing candidate would require the backing of an angry force such as the one that stormed the Capitol on January 6 of this year, but one that operates in a disciplined, nationwide fashion. If the presidential election last November had been an extremely tight one—offering Trump better opportunities to obfuscate the results, and his followers more time to get organized—the D.C. version of this Plan B might well have won the day.
What role will the business community play in American politics over the next four years as these trends take shape in the political party that is supposed to represent its interests? During Trump’s chaotic and destructive presidency, its major leaders oscillated between warm acceptance of his role as president and shocked rejection of his most outrageous actions. In the beginning, many leaders of commerce agreed enthusiastically to join his business advisory councils, then withdrew in horror when he spoke kindly of the racist and antisemitic marchers in Charlottesville. Not too long afterward, however, when his $2 trillion tax-cut bill passed Congress, he was back in their good graces. The major feature of this bill was an outsize reduction in the corporate tax rate (though it also reduced rates on upper-income individuals), which corporate leaders naturally considered to be very much in their interests.
But was it really? Numerous studies have documented the startling decline in income equality in America since about 1970, and some commentators have ascribed Trump’s populist appeal to this factor. It cannot conceivably be in the interests of American business to have the social order on which they depend for sustenance disintegrating beneath them. They need, rather, the order and stability that a genuine conservative party would seek to provide.