Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush famously described his competitor Ronald Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics.” Well, Pete Spiliakos makes a case that the chronic Reaganomics of the GOP amounts to zombie economics, because even though dead, the ideology keeps staggering on.
He calls it “Kempism” after the late Jack Kemp, who advocated tax cuts on the rich to spur investment and growth, immigration, and free trade. Kemp represented a New York state Congressional district during the 1980s. He couldn’t hope to get elected there today with the same policies. Excerpts:
What happened? For one thing, a great deal has changed since 1980. Back in 1980, Kemp’s across-the-board tax cuts offered relief to many wage-earners. Today, such tax cuts would primarily go to high-earners. Recent evidence indicates that free trade has done lasting harm to some regions of the US. The relatively high unemployment rate and low labor force participation rate among the lowest-skilled fraction of America’s labor force would seem to put the lie to the idea that we need more low-skill workers from abroad.
And yet, we still find people clamoring for a 2016 reenactment of this earlier Kempism. You will find people arguing that we need “pro-growth” tax cuts on the wealthy to spur the economy. You will find politicians inserting expansions of low-skill guest worker programs into end-of-the-year legislation in the hopes that the public will not notice.
What has changed is the social basis for these policies. Kempism started as an opening to the working-class. Kempism argued—somewhat persuasively under the circumstances of the late-1970s—that the needs of entrepreneurs and wage-earners overlapped. Today, Kempism has degenerated into a rationalization for the interests and priorities of the affluent.
What do you suppose the turning point will be? What will bring down the zombies and cause the GOP to think creatively and responsively to changed conditions? The Trump phenomenon should do it, at least in theory. No matter who gets the nomination, the fact that Trump has very nearly destroyed the Republican Party from within by more or less running against Kempism is the clearest possible sign that the GOP needs radical change.
But will it happen? Three weeks ago, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote that the Republican Party can recover from Trump faster than people think. Part of it has to do with how President Hillary Clinton will unify the tribe. But the bigger part of it is how Trump may be a phenomenon, but he’s built nothing enduring. Excerpt:
The party has been unable to co-opt Trump, unable to endorse him, unable to oppose him effectively. But Trump is not going to bequeath to Republicans a squadron of Trumpistas in Congress. He is not going to build the kind of institutions that ideologues use to pressure a major political party. He’s just going to make a spectacle of himself. Barring a black swan event, he will fade away.
The GOP will still have all the problems that pre-dated Trump and that only he exposed. A plurality of its voters will still be unsatisfied with the party’s agenda, especially on the economy. It will still have problems with young voters, and still have a long-term demographic problem. Its philosophy will still be outdated.
But by 2018, all the talk of bloodbaths and schisms and fracturing will go away. The party will have powers to exercise, sinecures to offer, and orthodoxies to protect again. The party will get out of its hospital ward and move on. It will shock you how much it never happened.