Before the bombs and bullets of World War One reshaped life as we know it, for ‘the vast majority of Americans, from east to west, north to south, the principal, if not sole, link with the national government was the postal system,’ Robert Nisbet wrote.
It’s hard to imagine life without the megastate now. Frustration with it will occasionally spark the call for a return to limited government, but there is no going back. The vast majority of Americans are dependent on it to some extent or another, from the loans they use to purchase homes, farm subsidies, and the regulations with which they try to tame corporations and protect small businesses. Working-age whites without a college degree — the beating heart of the GOP’s base — are the primary beneficiaries of federal anti-poverty programs.
But the GOP still hasn’t received this message — and it doesn’t seem like they care to take the call from Middle America anyway. Republicans made that clear in South Carolina senator Tim Scott’s response to President Biden’s Wednesday night congressional address.
Biden’s policies will almost certainly redound above all to the power and profit of the industrial-bureaucratic class. They also come loaded with contradictions. The mass immigration his administration has embraced, for example, conflicts with Biden’s supposedly pro-labor policies. But the attractiveness of his vision and its rhetorical effectiveness is undeniable. His proposals carry names that resonate with Americans. ‘The American Jobs Plan’, ‘The American Family Plan’, ‘The American Rescue Plan’.
In the court of public opinion, Biden is prosecuting a victory.
Scott’s response to Biden was remarkable in that it displayed the GOP’s death march to irrelevancy. It is true that some congressional Republicans, like Missouri senator Josh Hawley, are putting forth policy items that violate the economic orthodoxy that puts the GOP out of touch with most Americans and not a few of its voters. But Scott spoke as a representative of the Republican establishment, presenting and explaining its view of the country and the vision of the future it holds.
That vision was largely uninspiring and, at times, its social philosophy resembled the Democratic party’s own portrait of belief, albeit with less conviction and radicalism.
Scott recycled old GOP lines about ‘big-government waste’, railed against Biden’s proposed corporate tax increases, spoke banally of ‘opportunities’ in that bloodless way unique to Republicans and complained about spending.
The problem with Republican deficit-hawking, as Gerard Baker wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ‘is that the GOP puts itself in the position of seeming to worry about deficits only when the federal government is giving money to hard-hit Americans, and not when it involves draining the Treasury’s coffers to pay for tax cuts for multinational corporations.’ Americans viewed Trump’s ill-fated $1 trillion infrastructure plan as his most important campaign promise going into 2017.
Scott may have appealed to fiscally conservative Republican voters, but his themes did not have the kind of gravitational pull as Biden’s body of proposals on moderates and independents. Scott preached to the choir; Biden spoke to the country.
Scott also had little to say about immigration — one short, passing sentence, to be exact — which may not have been a coincidence. Congressional Republicans are reportedly in talks with Democrats about securing an amnesty deal as former President George W. Bush returns to the scene to call for the same from the party. Political correctness pervaded Scott’s rebuttal.
He connected America’s past to the concept of ‘original sin’, painting a picture of redemption in terms of the material redress of racial grievances. In this way, the GOP will always shadow the Democratic party along the arc of history toward progress, which explains why Scott, like much of the GOP, praised police and criminal justice reform. As Michael Malice quipped, conservatism is progressivism driving the speed limit; conservatives hit the gas the hardest when it is time to remind us that Democrats are the real racists for the umpteenth time.
The central story of the night for the conservative chattering class was that ‘Uncle Tim’ trended on Twitter thanks to Scott’s left-wing detractors. Is it a surprise that most Republican voters say the GOP and, by extension, the conservative movement is out of touch? People cannot live on outrage porn.
Even if Republicans were serious about limited government — their spending habits show they aren’t — taming and trimming the megastate would require a form of governance the GOP finds abhorrent. Scott’s speech, then, betrays not only the hypocrisy but the poverty of vision and will among Republicans.
Advancing into the future will require leaving behind platitudes and pandering. It will require using the state to improve and protect the material security of Americans, as much as using the power of the state against itself — the swamp does not drain when asked nicely.
For now, Biden and the Democratic party are winning. But only because the right has not begun to fight.