Could the GOP become the anti-corporate party?

John Carney touches briefly on an idea that’s been gnawing at me the last few weeks: the brewing anti-corporate sentiment on the right. For a long time now, the Republican party has been the party of business, but I’m not sure that’s bound to last forever. In fact, I wonder if the right won’t revive itself to some significant extent on a tide of anti-corporate sentiment. Sounds nuts, right? Permit me to try to sketch out this (admittedly half-baked) idea.

Right now, the GOP coalition is, at the minimum, very fragile (for some astute discussion on this, see this BHtv discussion between Matt Welch and Ramesh Ponnuru). And, in general, the right has been less than forthcoming with new policy ideas or wholly new messaging, especially on domestic policy, a handful of exceptions like Ramesh, Ross, and Reihan notwithstanding. I think it’s entirely possible we’ll see some sort of implosion on the right following this year’s election. If this happens, some restructuring will be in order. Where does the party, and the conservative coalition to which it’s long been attached, go from there?

Well, one possibility is that the right uses social issues and national defense not as wedge issues but as ways of gaining the trust of the middle class, and then learns how to govern on the domestic front in a way that’s roughly acceptable to the middle and lower-middle class. Libertarians won’t like this much, and those on the far left will of course be frustrated, but there’s at least a potential for a coalition there.

On the other hand, what if the GOP fumbles around for a while, fails to develop a coherent message, continues to shout “Reagan!” in place of proposing policy, fails to find fresh political talent, and loses a series of elections, to the point where many begin to predict permanent minority status? Meanwhile, the Democrats spend the next decade or so getting used to power in Washington. A lot of their agenda involves finding new ways to regulate various industries. As this happens, industry, looking for influence, naturally begins to fund Democrats and Democratic lobbyists more heavily (corporate donations are already shifting away from the GOP), and rent-seeking becomes even more prevalent on the Hill. It won’t be long before Democrats, regulators, and the lobbying world have a very cozy relationship.

This opens up the opportunity for the right to exploit the anti-corporate outrage in middle America — outrage we can already see boiling up in the crusades against earmarks (handouts to donors and corporate interests), against CEO pay, against hedge fund tax rates and oil company profits. But instead of running the traditional anti-corporate campaigns, which mainly focus on taxing and regulating big-business, the right runs against the way liberal politicians have gotten into bed with corporations. It’s against the Washington favor-racket, against back-room politics, against collusion between business and government. This pleases libertarians somewhat and, if done properly, keeps low-taxers in the fold.

Of course, some will turn the message into a purely anti-corporate one, but if done with a bit of skill, it uses anger at the way corporations influence the government to fuel a separation of the two rather than additional layers of easily gamed regulation. Maybe you even end up with corporations trying to distinguish themselves as good citizens by publicly refusing to have lobbyists or to take subsidies, regulatory favors, etc — starting, obviously, with Whole Foods, run by the self-proclaimed libertarian, John Mackey.

The result is that you end up with a weird sort of libertarian populism, and maybe, just maybe, you trace it back to the (presumably failed) McCain campaign, arguing that McCain’s honor economics — for low taxes but also deeply set against corporate influence and sleazy government deal-making — is what got it all started. The time is obviously not right for this. But five years down the road, or ten, if the GOP is still struggling and business has largely left them anyway, why wouldn’t they abandon their corporate wing and try something crazy? The sentiment is there for anyone who can figure out how to tap into it.