How Unique is the Dishonesty of the Republicans
Paul Krugman wants help from historians: has it always been this bad? Has there ever been a political party so dedicated to saying one thing and doing another, as he claims the modern Republicans are with financial reform.
I’m not sure. Historians tend to pay the most attention to sources that seem revealing. So, for instance, there are thousands of lame pro-Democratic speeches from the 1850s, but we’re fascinated by the “Mud-Sill” speech- in which slave owner James Henry Hammond declared his contempt for the Northern working class- because it seems to reveal the actual sociological beliefs of the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. (Scholars now believe that Southern planters were moving towards an affirmation of “Slavery in the Abstract.”)
Thus its a hard question to answer because we tend to ignore the cheap hacks of the past- the 19th century versions of Mitch McConnell- who were most likely to be pushing clearly false narratives. Maybe this is a mistake.
And certainly there have been major political parties dedicated to positions as despicable as the modern Republicans- the Know Nothings, the Civil War-era Democrats, the Gilded Age Republicans, etc…
But were they so dishonest about it? My gut sense is no. The Democratic Party of the 1850s and 1860s, for instance, was remarkably honest about their racism and hostility to abolition. The current Republican strategy of claiming to be opposed to bank bailouts, all while openly doing the political bidding of the Rentier class, is only possible in our post-modern political moment. It is politics as spectacle, made possible by a truly remarkable contempt for your own base, and a press that views all political debates as two-sided shouting matches.
In some ways it is the perfect politics for our illusory economy- where branding and P.R. has taken the place of material production- and all that is solid has long ago melted into air. We all know that Coke sells because of its advertising campaigns, and not because of the actual physical product. Similarly, the Republican’s political rhetoric is completely detached from their political program and hardly anyone is surprised.
Certainly there were always individual dishonest politicians. And there have always been cases where parties either are not honest, or are not aware themselves, of the true interests they serve. So a Republican in the Gilded Age, may have truly believed that Civil Service Reform or Tariff legislation was important, and been unaware that they were crudely acting as the political arm of the Railroad interests. So, in a deep sense, most politicians are dishonest.
But Mitch McConnell has no illusions that he is actually standing up to the banks. But it is politically expedient to pretend that he is, so that is the stance he adopts.