As I noted on Tuesday, most of the leadership of the Republican Party has openly aligned itself with the rich and powerful in America via a campaign to demonize the victims of the ongoing recession. In this, they differ from the Democratic leadership primarily in how they frame populist arguments. Whereas Democratic politicians tend to pair the blustery rhetoric of underdog populism with stealth support for corporatist policies, the GOP redefines the very lexicon of populism, presenting the corporate elite as the oppressed underdog, thereby portraying corporatism as a populist crusade unto itself.
That said, two top Republicans made stunning moves this week to appropriate a part of the Democratic formula. Importantly, the moves came at a time where we’re seeing particularly heated spasms of Occupy Wall Street protests and subsequent backlash. That timing shows that at least some in the GOP correctly appreciate the transpartisan appeal of the Occupy movement and the underdog populism it truly embodies.
The first bit of news came from ultra-conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who not only used his special power as senior Republican on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to issue a report condemning millionaire tax breaks, but also couched the report in the kind of no-holds-barred rhetoric that defines the Occupy protests. As the Hill newspaper reported (emphasis mine):
The report found millionaires enjoy about $30 billion worth of “tax giveaways” and federal grants every year — almost twice NASA’s budget, the report notes.
“From tax write-offs for gambling losses, vacation homes and luxury yachts to subsidies for their ranches and estates, the government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Multimillionaires are even receiving government checks for not working,” Coburn said in a statement Monday…
“This welfare for the well-off — costing billions of dollars a year — is being paid for with the taxes of the less fortunate, many who are working two jobs just to make ends meet, and IOUs to be paid off by future generations. We should never demonize those who are successful. Nor should we pamper them with unnecessary welfare to create an appearance everyone is benefiting from federal programs,” Coburn said.
This was followed up by none other than Rush Limbaugh, who, in the midst of an otherwise absurd and hyper-partisan screed about the Clinton family, stumbled into a spot-on analysis of the divide between the 99 percent and the 1 percent and the larger unfairness of the bipartisan power structure in modern American life. Discussing the recent announcement that Chelsea Clinton — who has no journalistic experience whatsoever — will now be a top correspondent for NBC News, Limbaugh echoed some of the points made (far more cogently) by my Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald. He said (emphasis mine):
All of a sudden she’s at the top of the media. She’s at the top of the ladder. She’s paid no dues. Not born on third base. Born at home plate after the home run. She has not worked anywhere in journalism. She’s never had a job.
Now, that gets to the other point of this. Let’s go down to Occupy Wall Street or wherever else that there’s an Occupy, or go wherever there is a collection of liberals. What are they mad about? They’re mad about the 1 percent, and what are they mad about about the 1 percent? The 1 percent’s got it all. The 1 percent has everything and they’re not sharing it with anybody, and they didn’t work for it. There aren’t any jobs for anybody else because the 1 percent are making sure they’ve got all the jobs and they’ve got all the money.
So here we come with Mr. Democrat Party, the highest ranking, biggest star, most respected member of the Democrat Party, and with pure nepotism and nothing else his daughter, who is unqualified for this job, gets pushed ahead of everybody that works at NBC and gets this job. This is the quintessential thing the 99 percent are fed up with, that they don’t have a chance, that the game’s rules are rigged, that everything’s stacked against them…
And with apparently just a phone call, all Bill Clinton had to do, pick up the phone and call Steve Capus at NBC or Jeff Immelt or whoever, we don’t know, and say, “Hey, I have this person interested in working for you.” “Who, Mr. President?” “Well, you may have heard, name’s Chelsea.” “Oh, say no more.” Because NBC doesn’t want to consider the alternative of saying “no.”
So here you have a very prominent member of the 1 percent who flaunts that membership of the 1 percent greasing the skids for a child who’s unqualified and inexperienced. What does that say to all these people with all of these thousands of dollars in student loans, desperately trying, they think, to get jobs to pay off their student loans? They think the game is stacked against them. They think that the rules are rigged, that people like them are shut out, don’t have a chance.
In considering these two stories, it’s important to remember that Coburn and Limbaugh represent different parts of the political right. The former, while extremely conservative, is a far more principled ideologue than the latter, who is wholly driven by Republican partisanship, ideology be damned. That is to say, Coburn has been known to occasionally form left-right alliances on issues with progressives and challenge his own party when he believes it is veering from his principles — while Limbaugh seems happy to defend the Republican Party almost irrespective of what that party is actually doing.
But their positions in two separate camps of the GOP coalition only underscore why these developments are significant.
With Coburn, there seems to be the very real possibility that at least some principled conservatives are looking for common ground with the Occupy sentiment to the point that those conservatives may be willing to go to war with the factions of the Republican Party who are most committed to defending the super-rich (as evidence, the Hill notes that this could become a big “clash between Coburn and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform”). Sure, the Oklahoma senator will still probably end up more on the side of the 1 percent than the 99 percent when the final debt deal is negotiated and passed, but his initiative this week is a major acknowledgement of the changing politics of economic inequality.
Limbaugh likewise validates the real agency of the Occupy movement. Indeed, when the most unscrupulous, principle-free opportunists in the GOP are suddenly airing Occupy-themed grievances about huge student debt, “the game’s rules (being) rigged” and the establishment’s open disregard for meritocracy, it proves that even a few hardcore Republican partisans see the shifting tectonics in American politics, and are therefore trying to both get ahead of the earthquake and get themselves to safer political terrain.
To be sure, of the two, it’s much harder to take Limbaugh seriously, if only because he has a much longer record of making purposely outlandish (and offensive) statements. Additionally, his diatribe on Tuesday was weakened by the obvious fact that it was motivated by a severe case of Clinton Derangement Syndrome (thus, all the unsubstantiated speculation about supposed phone calls and conversations between the former president and NBC executives).
That said, setting Limbaugh’s personal motivation aside (which, I’ll admit, is hard to do, considering how much I and many progressives dislike his politics), the parts of his statement about privilege and nepotism are perhaps the most momentous of all.
The sad truth is, you almost never hear a Republican Party leader — or even a Democratic Party leader — whispering such things, much less bellowing about them on the largest talk radio show in America. In fact, that’s one of the big reasons why the Occupy movement arose in the first place — to force those very taboo issues to the forefront in a culture that has refused to even discuss them.
So when that discussion actually starts happening — and on the biggest conservative radio show in the nation — it is definitive proof that while the GOP will probably oppose the Occupy movement’s ultimate demands, and while most Republican political leaders will continue a more brazen campaign to discredit that movement, the protesters are now winning their battle to change the terms of America’s political discourse for the long haul.