John Buell

Political Monsters, Inner Demons

The recent crisis over the federal government shutdown and impending default on the US government’s debt obligations provides some unexpected lessons. They have inadvertently taught us that economic self-interest, at least as usually defined, does not explain everything. An unlikely coalition of zealots produced some surprising events and even the most powerful directors cannot always control the script.

Much conventional discourse assumes that economic actors, especially big business executives, are trying to maximize their compensation packages. Yet as Paul Krugman pointed out in a recent blog post, the push for austerity in recent years has not only been bad for working class Americans, it has also depressed GDP and corporate profits. But what is bad for business and even for most midlevel executives has been good for the top 0.1%. Krugman adds “when you make as much money as the 0.1% does, it’s no longer about what you can buy — it’s about prestige, about receiving deference, about what Tom Wolfe… called “seeing ’em jump.” As long as CEOs receive the largest share of the pie it does not matter if the pie isn’t growing very fast. Krugman adds that there is more deference to the wealthy under Republicans and that tycoons don’t “suffer the agony of having to deal with people they can’t fire.”

Even tycoons, however, don’t always get what they want. It is one thing to close down the federal government in the interest of forcing ever deeper cuts in popular domestic programs like Social Security and Medicare and more deference to elites. It is quite another to threaten default in the bond market. One of the great ironies of the recent crisis is that the Tea Party groups, funded and encouraged by the Koch brothers and by such political operatives as Karl Rove, took the bond market to the brink of default. Disrupting that market might well, as Doug Henwood points out, have not only economic but political consequences as well. This market is an instrument of ruling class power as big investors through their purchases and sales can push interest rates on municipal bonds up or down, thereby signaling their approval or disapproval of government policies. Once that market can no longer be relied on as a safe haven and the US dollar is no longer the world’s reserve currency, ordinary working class Americans might all be better off. Nonetheless such a scenario is far from certain and the turmoil in the interim might entail dire economic and political consequences for elites as well. In any case the loss of the bond market as a disciplinary tool is surely something economic elites would strive mightily to avoid.

The Tea Party and the Kochs are not the only partially discordant and not fully predictable coalitions that have shaped our politics. Big business and the religious right have been a mighty force in US politics, and the latter has played an important supporting role in this drama although it has received less attention.

Though many on the left are accustomed to thinking of the religious right and big business as kissing cousins, these two groups have partially discrepant doctrines and policy proposals. A generation ago hardly anyone would have predicted they would form an alliance of any sort. Yet how have they managed not only to collaborate but also even to increase their influence? If identity plays such a key role, it is also multifaceted and a bit slippery around the edges. William Connolly, author of Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, argues that identity is expressed not only in formal doctrines but also in underlying sensibility or gut sense about the world:

“One possibility is that amidst the creedal linkages and differences the parties also share a spiritual disposition to existence. Their ruthlessness, ideological extremism, readiness to defend a market ideology in the face of significant evidence, and compulsion to create or condone scandals against any party who opposes their vision of the world, express a fundamental disposition toward being in the world. …The element of identity most significant to this movement … is the insistence by its members that they are being persecuted unless they are thoroughly in power, and the compensatory sense of special entitlement that accompanies the rise to power of a constituency that so construes itself.”

This spiritual disposition in turn is nourished by and intensifies deeper existential anxiety, in particular resentment of the “obdurate fact of mortality and a world in which one cannot will the past again.” There are no mulligans in life. Such fears and anxieties are seldom expressed directly and not always consciously acknowledged. To do so would undermine the tactical and psychological efficacy of the compensatory moves. Nonetheless the anxieties are not without effect. They are expressed in moods, facial expressions, tone of voice, as well as substantively in demands for black and white standards, demonization of one’s opponent and advocacy of harsh punishment of those who deviate from these standards.

Intensities across lines of partial creedal differences can resonate with each other. The positive feedback loops can fashion movements that spiral well beyond the expectations of early supporters or advocates. Thus the problems not only for progressives but also for such luminaries as Karl Rove. Krugman recently pointed out: “[T]he elite has lost control of the Frankenstein-like monster it created. So now we get to witness the hilarious spectacle of Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal, pleading with Republicans to recognize the reality that Obamacare can’t be defunded. Why hilarious? Because Mr. Rove and his colleagues have spent decades trying to ensure that the Republican base lives in an alternate reality defined by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Can we say “hoist with their own petard?””

The contention that shared sensibility across lines of partial policy disagreements influences our politics today receives support from Stanley Greenberg’s Democracy Corps report on focus-group meetings with Republicans. Greenberg comments: “The greatest source of hope [of evangelicals] is the Tea Party because they are standing up and pushing back. They may not agree with the Tea Party on some issues, but they share a special solidarity given how isolated they are. When asked about out country’s greatest strengths and what gives them hope, the Tea Party is universally mentioned. They say that people are finally “standing up” and “fighting back.”

Progressives do need to acknowledge that destructive sensibilities can infect any doctrine or cause. Anger regarding the economic exploitation, investment banker’s fraudulent practices, and planetary despoiling is strong and well justified. Nonetheless, reformers must strive to keep such anger from boiling over into demonization and exclusion of one’s opponent even as one fights for a cause. Such a balancing act is a tough challenge.

One evangelical woman comments: “Well, I would say, the rise of the Tea Party, that people are getting involved, and they’re standing up ... People are saying hey, this isn’t what’s in our Constitution, and it’s not what’s in our schools. And I think people are taking a stand now, and we need to before it’s too late.”

Bridges to the Tea Party or the Evangelicals may be difficult now, but there are rays of hope. Greenberg’s study does indicate great concern among many Republicans regarding government spying. In addition some evangelicals are concerned about the future of the planet. Beyond this progressive voices in our churches must counter the image of a vengeful God with that of a Jesus who castigated the rich and evinced care and concern for the poor and oppressed.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2013

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