A Republican Comeback?
Kimberly Phillips-Fein is an American historian. Her primary areas of research concern the role of business in the development of the modern conservative movement in the second half of the 20th century and the role of economic ideas in the rise of conservatism. She has written for publications including the Nation, London Review of Books, New Labor Forum, Baffler, and In These Times, to which she has contributed articles and reviews. Her first book, "Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan," was published in 2009 by W. W. Norton.
Question: What’s next for the Republican Party?
Kim Phillips-Fein: Right. Well, this is a great question: will the Republican Party come back in the midterm elections? Will it come back in 2012? I -- I think that it -- as a historian, it's so dangerous to predict the future, and one is very reluctant to really play fortuneteller. I don't know whether it'll come back in the midterm elections or in 2012. It certainly seems like it's in a lot of internal chaos right now -- no good leaders emerging. It seems to be playing an almost entirely kind of negative role in terms of attacking Obama, but not able to really formulate a coherent response.
At the same time, I think that the underlying dynamics that gave it strength in the past are still there. I mean, it continues to have cadres of grassroots activists who are very committed to it, as we've seen in the disruptions of the health care town halls over the summer and the tax day protests and the like. And it also continues to have, I think, the support of a large number of business people and a kind of intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and political organizations devoted to -- not the Republican Party necessarily at all times, but certainly to an anti-government set of positions. And I think that if Obama did try to take things farther to the left that we would see a stronger reaction against it from those groups and from those people. And unless there's another kind of political movement that comes into existence around something like health care that can really counter it, I think that they -- you know, the underlying ingredients for conservative success are still there; they haven't really changed. So I don't know whether it will happen in the midterm elections or 2012, but I definitely think that I wouldn't write the Republican Party or that kind of movement conservatism off as dead by a long shot.
Question: What divides the Republican Party?
Kim Phillips-Fein: Well, I think that today there is -- the Republican Party seems like it's really divided into these different single-issue groups, and -- although there are certain -- I mean, I think it's not -- I think there's been a lot of discussion of the centrality of social issues in the conservative movement today and the sense that -- and different conservative commentators themselves, like George Will, have criticized the rest of the movement for becoming too committed to these social issues, to anti-abortion politics, anti-gay marriage, and letting go kind of the real issues of the market and lower taxes and so on and so forth. And so there's this sense that the social conservatives are really running the show.
You know, I think that it is complicated -- I mean, I would both say that there's this question of what's happened to the mainstream. But I think even in the Republican Party there are still a lot of people who are very committed to this low-tax, anti-regulation program. The problem is that -- and I think the two sides -- people have always been able to kind of hold both positions, and even though it seems like there ought to be a conflict, in actual practice there isn't. And we can talk more about how these positions hold together, but I think they do for people. And so it's not experienced as a contradiction exactly. I think the real issue for the real anti-government, the hardcore anti-government people in the Republican Party is that the recession and the financial crisis has really called their ideology into question in a way that it hadn't been challenged for some time, and so just this sort of pure American ideology now seems irresponsible, like it led to this huge panic. And so I think it's harder to advance it in the same kind of confident, directed way that we've seen in the past.
So I think -- it's funny; you see other people in the Republican Party, maybe in response to the total failure of their ideas with the recent economic events, trying to advance other ways out. The problem is that they're not -- the problem for them is that they're really not committed to it, and so I just think it creates real problems. There's just something too contradictory about saying the state can be used in this way but not that way. I don't know. I think it's internally incoherent for them.
Question: Will the libertarian movement strengthen?
Kim Phillips-Fein: I think it's just hard to be a libertarian today or to win new supporters to libertarian causes, in the wake of the recession and fiscal, financial crisis. At the same time, I think there's a lot of criticism of the bailout and of the actions of the state with regard to the auto industry, and a sense that Obama represents business interests in some ways, or has been willing to work with business people and hasn't taken them on directly. And I think this actually does fuel a certain libertarianism. I see it among my students, actually, a sense that there's this relationship between business and government, and neither is really standing for the market, and that the market is the way to success and prosperity for everybody. So I feel like that idea actually is given a lot of strength by things like the bailout and by Obama's relationship with the financial sector and banking industry. And so I think that kind of thing -- I mean, that actually would speak to the more rapid resurgence of conservatism, I suppose, this sense that there's this cozy nexus and a feeling of being outsiders and wanting a kind of economic life that isn't in this relationship with the state.
Recorded October 22, 2009
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