The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Republicans' WPA

A thought-provoking July 2003 piece from Nicholas Confessore comes belatedly to hand describing the development, from 1994, of a Republican machine, using the infiltration of Washington lobbying firms [1] with trusted GOP operatives, and the development of complex relationships with business designed for the purpose of entrenching the Republicans in power in the Federal government for ever and ever, Amen.

Although Confessore seems not to recognise the point, the Republican MO has striking similarities with that employed by Franklin Roosevelt in developing his nationwide machine.

Very broadly, FDR's plan [2] incorporated the city and state machines of the likes of Pendergast, Crump and Hague; but added the organisational strength of the CIO in non-machine states and, critically, the weight of the Federal budget in the form of the various job creation schemes, notably the Work Progress Administration or WPA.

Crudely, WPA money would be funnelled to city and state pols who could and would get out the vote for FDR; the pols would use the money to hire in a pattern mostly likely to secure said vote [3].

The GOP aim, Confessore says, is to gradually to privatise such areas of Federal responsibility as Medicare and social security; part of the benefits accruing to private business would be kicked back in the form of campaign contributions; and thus the virtuous circle would turn.

(These privatisations are a world away from the relatively clear-cut private-to-public-ness of the sales of nationalised industries by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.)

On medical insurance, for instance,
Over time, private insurers would grow to resemble the defense sector: closely entwined with government, a revolving door for Republican officials, and vastly supportive, politically and financially, of the GOP.

Now, of course, at the margin, it may matter little to an industry whether it is receiving public money (as the defence industry does) or private money subject to government regulation. The essence is not the form of the mutual dependence but its extent and intensity.

Call it a machine, or a protection racket, it's pretty neat.

I mentioned on May 15 the point that Bush doesn't appear interested in reducing the size of the Federal government. What - it seems - he's trying to do is restructure it, so that the cash flows which are now public become private, but remain subject to government control.

Because the difference between public and private cash is that, in certain circumstances, private cash can legally be diverted to pay political contributions.

At the end of his piece, Confessore gives a bizarrely counterfactual account of the end of dirty Republican rule with the advent of Saint Franklin: 1932 came the landslide election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the founding of the very structure of governance today's Republicans hope to dismantle.

Roosevelt's crooked machine - having served its purpose and given him a life presidency! - more or less died with him [4]. I suspect the canny old power junkie might have had a sneaking admiration for the GOP efforts, as a variation on his successful theme.

Do I believe Confessore's treatment? The lack of footnotes and detailed examples is a problem - analysis like this lives and dies by its circumstantial detail, and my impression, on a first read, is disappointment on that score.

I take it as an interesting hypothesis, awaiting falsification!

  1. The lobbying industry known as K Street much as the national newspaper industry in Britain was once known as Fleet Street - in London, natch. The papers have all moved away now.

  2. Lyle Dorsett's excellent book I've mentioned several times before.

  3. A WPA job would secure the gratitude of the man's entire family: better that family had as many voters as possible!

  4. I'm woefully short on facts to make generalisations here. But, for instance, John L Lewis of the UMWA had already jumped ship to support Wendell Willkie in 1940; the WPA was replaced by war work; the city machines had started to wither.

MORE (May 22)

A piece in TomPaine (May 21) on privatisation and the US military - with special reference to Halliburton and Iraq - provides another example of the tendency to blur the line between public and private - and its noxious consequences. Such as, apparently, catering contractors declining to provide food to troops on account of it being too dangerous!

(Though, to be fair, hollowing out the military in search of the peace dividend was started well before the current neocon conspiracy of dunces took over.)

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