James Poulos dissects Mitt Romney’s now-infamous excuse to big donors for why he lost the 2012 election. Patronage — or “gifts,” as Romney put it — was a factor, to be sure. But more than that, Poulos writes, “Obama won this election not by speaking the language of patronage to his base (though speak it he has), but by selling a significant slice of the middle class on who could best enable them to pursue the American dream.”
The second component, detailed in Tim Carney’s book Obamanomics, show how big, intimate public-private partnerships are foundational to the president’s approach. There’s some patronage woven in there, to be sure, but the superstructure most resembles the corrupt Gilded Age system (ahem, Republicans) that gave rise to the trust-busting movement. After the Civil War, Republicans were no strangers to patronage. But their affinity for nation-building, which required that big business and big government collaborate on sea-to-sea projects, reaches back past European immigration and the Republican party itself to the Whig and Federalist imperative to transform the American hodgepodge into a union in fact — complete with a fully integrated continental economy, national education, and so on. Obama is in danger of wresting that tradition away from Republicans, and mainline establishmentarian conservatives who grasp this are right to tremble.
This is a topic near and dear to my own blogging. Poulos is referring here to what I’ve called the “warfare-welfare-merchant” state. Contra Poulos, public-private partnerships are not unique to the Gilded Age or the Obama Age. Strong national government and federal supremacy have been with us since the Lincoln administration, but you can see its root system in the Adams administration. Michael Lind has been an essential source for the “developmental economic” history of the Unites States. If I can sum his work in one sentence, I would put it like this: The story of America, from Hamilton to Lincoln to the New Deal to World II, has been one of state-promoted — not state-run — industrial capitalism and American Dream-ism. The “neoliberal” adjustments of the 1970s and the Reagan-Clinton era did not replace this system, but rather enmeshed it in the lean-and-mean world of global finance and multinational corporations.
Obama’s mission, as he sees it (or as I think he sees it), is to try to revive the high middle-class living standards of the mid-20th-century in this neoliberal world. “Advanced manufacturing,” new infrastructure, high-tech energy, and higher education are the key components of Obama’s vision of re-industrialization. Republicans have reacted to Obamanomics as if 1) it is akin to socialism or European social democracy; and 2) they do not practice a similar brand of state-promoted capitalism themselves (military-industrial complex, anyone?).
I find the “free-market populism” of Tim Carney and Sen. Rand Paul an essential corrective to this system. Indeed, I’d call it a lodestar of this magazine. But conservatives need to be realistic about ordinary Americans’ expectations of what kind of country they’re living and working in. They know they’re living in a modern, “fully integrated continental economy,” not some undisturbed Jeffersonian free-market idyll. If they fail, or refuse, to reckon with this reality, Republicans will continue to lose out to the promise of Obamanomics.