While Kevin McCarthy’s struggle to become Speaker of the House of Representatives appears to be about personality and struggles within the House Republican caucus, it’s really about something much larger: the fate and future of American “big government” and the middle class it created.
Ever since the Reagan Revolution, the phrase “big government” has been on the lips of Republican politicians. They utter it like a curse at every opportunity.
It seems paradoxical: Republicans complain about “big government,” but then go on to support more and more government money for expanding prisons and a bloated Pentagon budget. Once you understand their worldview, however, it all makes perfect sense.
First, some background.
From the founding of our republic through the early 1930s the American middle class was relatively small. It was almost entirely made up of the professional and mercantile class: doctors, lawyers, shop-owners and the like. Only a tiny percentage of Americans were what we would today call middle class.
Factory workers, farmers, carpenters, plumbers, and pretty much all manner of “unskilled laborers” were the working poor rather than the middle class. Most neighborhoods across America had a quality of life even lower than what today we would call “ghettos.”
As recently as 1900, for example, women couldn’t vote, senators were appointed by the wealthiest power brokers in the states, and poverty stalked America.
There was no minimum wage; when workers tried to organize unions, police would help employers beat or even murder their ringleaders; and social safety net programs like unemployment insurance, Social Security, public schools, Medicare, food and housing supports, and Medicaid didn’t exist.
There was no income tax to pay for such programs, and federal receipts were a mere 3 percent of GDP (today its around 20 percent). As the President’s Council of Economic Advisors noted in their 2000 Annual Report:
“To appreciate how far we have come, it is instructive to look back on what American life was like in 1900. At the turn of the century, fewer than 10 percent of homes had electricity, and fewer than 2 percent of people had telephones. An automobile was a luxury that only the very wealthy could afford.
“Many women still sewed their own clothes and gave birth at home. Because chlorination had not yet been introduced and water filtration was rare, typhoid fever, spread by contaminated water, was a common affliction. One in 10 children died in infancy. Average life expectancy in the United States was a mere 47 years.
“Fewer than 14 percent of Americans graduated from high school. … Widowhood was far more common than divorce. The average household had close to five members, and a fifth of all households had seven or more. …
“Average income per capita, in 1999 dollars, was about $4,200. … The typical workweek in manufacturing was about 50 hours, 20 percent longer than the average today.”
The Republican Great Depression of the 1930s, though, was a huge wake-up call for American voters, answered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
His New Deal programs brought us, for the first time, “big government” and the people loved it. They elected him President of the United States four times!
FDR created Social Security, unemployment insurance, guaranteed the right to unionize, outlawed child labor, regulated big business by creating the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other agencies, and funded infrastructure across the country from roads to bridges to dams and power stations.
He raised taxes on the morbidly rich all the way up to 90% and used that money to build schools and hospitals across the nation. He brought electricity to rural parts of the country, and put literally millions to work in various “big government” programs.
“Big government,” in other words, created the modern American middle-class.
By the 1950s a strong middle class representing almost half of Americans had emerged for the first time in American history.
By the late 1970s it was around 65 percent of us.
And that’s when the billionaires (then merely multimillionaires) decided enough was enough and got to work.
In 1980, David Koch ran for vice president with the Libertarian Party, an organization created by the real estate lobby to give an air of legitimacy to their efforts to outlaw rent control and end government regulation of their industry.
His platform included a whole series of positions that were specifically designed to roll back and gut FDR’s “big government” programs (along with those added on by both Nixon and LBJ’s Great Society) that had created and then sustained America’s 20th century middle class:
— “We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.
— “We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.
— “We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services, including those which finance abortion services.
— “We also favor the deregulation of the medical insurance industry.
— “We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system. Pending that repeal, participation in Social Security should be made voluntary.
— “We propose the abolition of the governmental Postal Service.
— “We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.
— “We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.
— “As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.
— “We support repeal of all law which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws.
— “We advocate the complete separation of education and State. Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.
— “We condemn compulsory education laws … and we call for the immediate repeal of such laws.
— “We support the repeal of all taxes on the income or property of private schools, whether profit or non-profit.
— “We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
— “We support abolition of the Department of Energy.
— “We call for the dissolution of all government agencies concerned with transportation, including the Department of Transportation.
— “We demand the return of America’s railroad system to private ownership. We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system.
— “We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called ‘self-protection’ equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.
— “We advocate the abolition of the Federal Aviation Administration.
— “We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration.
— “We support an end to all subsidies for child-bearing built into our present laws, including all welfare plans and the provision of tax-supported services for children.
— “We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor’ programs. All these government programs are privacy-invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.
— “We call for the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households.
— “We call for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
— “We call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
— “We support the repeal of all state usury laws.”
Today’s challenges to Kevin McCarthy are mostly coming from members of the Republican House Freedom Caucus, pretty much a reinvention of the Tea Party Caucus, funded in substantial part by rightwing billionaires and CEOs who share the late David Koch’s worldview.
The world is made up of “makers” and “takers,” they’ll tell you. The billionaire “job creators” shouldn’t be taxed to support the “moochers” who demand everything from union rights to a living wage to free college.
Why, these Freedom Caucus members ask, should their billionaire patrons be forced — at the barrel of an IRS agent’s gun! — to pay taxes to support the ungrateful masses through “big government” programs? Isn’t it up to each of us to make our own fortunes? Wasn’t Darwin right?
These Republicans believe our government should really only have a few simple mandates: maintain a strong military, tough cops, and a court system to protect their economic empires.
That’s why they’ll support massive prison expansions and nosebleed levels of pentagon spending but (metaphorically) fight to the death to prevent an expansion of Social Security or food stamps.
And that’s why they hate Kevin McCarthy.
In the past, McCarthy has shown a willingness to compromise and negotiate with Democrats. Most recently, as Congressman Chip Roy pointed out on the House floor yesterday when nominating Byron Donalds to replace McCarthy, he failed to block the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill through Congress that was loaded with what rightwing billionaires consider “freebies” for “taker” and “moocher” Americans.
All or nearly all of the Freedom Caucus members, dancing to the tune first played by David Koch, don’t believe in our current form of American government. They want us to go back to the pre-1930s America, before FDR’s New Deal.
Those were the halcyon days when workers cowered before their employers, women and minorities knew their places, and government didn’t interfere with the business of dynasty-building even when it meant poisoning entire communities and crushing small businesses.
They appear to agree with the majority of the Supreme Court Republicans who recently began dismantling the “big government” administrative state by ending the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gasses.
They’ve already succeeded, over the past 40 years of the Reagan Revolution, at whittling the middle class down from 65 percent of us to around 45 percent of us: NPR commemorated it in 2015 with the headline: “The Tipping Point: Most Americans No Longer Are Middle Class.”
Now they want even more poverty for workers and more riches for their morbidly rich funders, and don’t believe that “moderate” Republicans will get them there. As Ginni Thomas and a pantheon of “conservative” luminaries wrote yesterday in an open letter opposing McCarthy’s speakership:
“[H]e has failed to answer for, or commit to halting, his coordinated efforts in the 2022 elections to promote moderate Republican candidates over conservatives.”
The “conservative” Republicans have already announced that once they get their act together in Congress with a new speaker, their first order of business is going to be to cut more taxes on billionaires.
While the battle for House Speaker appears to be about personality, it’s really about ideology and policy. It’s about the future of “big government” and whether or not we will continue to have an American middle class.
And as long as Libertarian-leaning billionaires continue pouring cash into the campaigns and lifestyles of Republican members of Congress, this battle that’s been going on for over 40 years to tear apart the American middle-class is not going to end or go away any day soon.