Much has been made in recent days of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon's threat to organize a group of conservative challengers to take on establishment Republicans associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Bannon is as bad a player as McConnell, so there are no heroes in this scenario.
But the point Bannon is making is credible. Republicans like McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, are not really conservatives in any traditional sense of the word. They are crony-capitalist fixers who use their positions of power to deliver benefits to the billionaire campaign donors and corporate interests that fund the campaigns that keep them in power.
Bannon is right that McConnell, Ryan and most of the members of the caucuses they lead are part of an "establishment globalist clique on Capitol Hill" that has "total contempt for the forgotten man."
Unfortunately, Bannon is part of a racist and xenophobic clique that has total contempt for the tens of millions of Americans who have been forgotten by the political elites but who — because of their race, ethnicity, gender or immigration status — have been targeted for abuse by Bannon's associates and allies.
But there really are genuine conservatives in the United States, men and women who believe in small government and fiscal caution. They aren't the sort of grifters who gather around Donald Trump. They all have deeply held values. They are ready and willing to put principles above partisanship. It is entirely possible to disagree with them on the issues while respecting their sincerity.
These conservatives have in recent years found common ground with progressives on a number of issues: opposition to unnecessary wars, rejection of Wall Street bailouts and crooked trade policies, support for reforming dysfunctional drug policies and ending mass incarceration, and mounting anger over the budgetary chicanery that Democratic and Republican leaders have used to reward their political benefactors.
There are many honest conservatives who decry "crony capitalism," the arrangement by which corporations survive and thrive not on the basis of their ingenuity or quality but because they use campaign money and lobbying power to buy favorable tax policies and regulations from malleable politicians of both parties. It is crony capitalism that puts Goldman Sachs executives at the center of Democratic and Republican administrations, and it is crony capitalism that allows too-big-to-fail banks to continue to exist.
In a thoughtful recent article for The Hill newspaper in Washington, David D’Amato, an adjunct law professor at DePaul University who serves as a policy adviser at the Heartland Institute, decried "today’s gamed and rigged, government-dominated economic system, wrongly represented as and believed to be a true free-market economic system (by friends and foes alike, it must be noted)."
D'Amato reviewed concerns about the way in which government tends to sustain and advance corporate monopolies and explained that "it does seem to be the case that the U.S. economic power is increasingly gathered in the hands of a savvy few, adept in using government power to attain private advantage."
Crony capitalism is certainly a problem in Washington. But in many senses it is an even bigger problem in the states, where politicians use so-called "economic development" strategies to have taxpayers take the risks — and make the investments — that benefit multinational corporations.
That is certainly the case in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker for the better part of a decade claimed that state government was too impoverished to provide adequate aid for schools, public services and transportation. Walker's austerity agenda always ended when it came to funding corporate projects through his scandal-plagued Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
But the governor still claimed that the treasury just did not contain the resources that were needed to make real and lasting investments in rural communities and inner cities, to keep small businesses up and running, and to keep farmers on the land.
Then came Foxconn, the Taiwanese corporation with a reputation for mistreating workers and the environment, and with a history of making big promises to create jobs in U.S. states and then failing to follow through. Foxconn proposed to build a big new manufacturing facility in the United States and Walker, who was looking for good news to boost his 2018 re-election run, rushed to lure the conglomerate to Wisconsin.
The governor succeeded by promising Foxconn a $3 billion economic incentive package, an approach to workplace rules and environmental protection so relaxed that state Rep. Dana Wachs observed: "So maybe we give them $3 billion to come to Wisconsin. What is going to be the cost to clean up their mess when they leave?”
Wachs is one of a number of Democrats who have announced plans to take on Walker in 2018. These Democrats come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives on the issues, but it is fair to say that they are all coming at Walker from the left.
The question is whether a principled conservative will tackle the governor from the right.
Walker has certainly set himself up for a Republican primary challenge. The Foxconn deal has been criticized by conservative business analysts and even by right-wing groups that usually cover for the governor. For instance, a statement from the head of Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin argued that "as free market activists who staunchly oppose government tax incentives, we cannot support the expensive refundable tax credits in this package, which are not available to every other business in our state."
The final point is well taken. While Walker rushed to craft a special deal for a Taiwanese multinational, he has failed to come through for the historic manufacturing concerns, small businesses and farms that underpin Wisconsin's real economy. The governor's crony-capitalist scheming is transparent. It will be an issue in November of 2018. But if there are any sincere conservatives in Wisconsin, it will also be an issue in the Republican primary next August.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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