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Republican Machiavellians: Scourge of Democrats -- For Tea Partiers, Not So Much

07/22/2010 09:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Andrew Levine Author of "Political Keywords" and "The American Ideology"

Niccolò Machiavelli was a wise and subtle political thinker, but for centuries his name has stood for unscrupulous scheming and duplicity. It has never been clear precisely when political machinations count as "Machiavellian." It is clear, though, that those mounted by Democrats seldom rise to that level. Bill Clinton was too blatantly opportunistic to be truly duplicitous -- and Barack Obama is too reasonable and, in the worst way, too nice.

Not so, today's Republicans. They don't care how idiotic they look to reasonable people or how repellent their policies are. What matters is just that nothing turns out well for Democrats. They believe that this is their only road back to power, and they'll do anything to make it happen. Their shenanigans therefore do often rise to a Machiavellian level, even if their simple-mindedness and hypocrisy is an embarrassment to more capable practitioners of the craft. Their party discipline is none too shabby either. But for the rare wavering of the Senators from Maine and the maverick wannabe Scott Brown, their record is nearly perfect.

Even so, events could turn against Republican Machiavellians inasmuch as their obduracy is the best thing Democrats have going for them now that Obamamania has all but disappeared. The danger for Republicans is that they will overplay their hand. If they do, they risk more than just losing "moderates" or energizing otherwise apathetic Democrats. They risk losing a large part of their own base as well.

There is a longstanding division in our political culture -- between those who would save capitalism from itself and from capitalists, and those who would let capitalism's logic unfold unimpeded while capitalists have their way. The difference is one of degree. Business leaders intent on expanding their freedom of action now paint Obama as an enemy. But he is plainly, indeed shamelessly, on their side. At the same time, even ardent free-marketeers understand that the untrammeled capitalism they cherish requires a strong state, one that works for them.

Republicans used to be all over this spectrum. Not anymore. The plutocrats who own the GOP have decided to set enlightened self-interest aside and go for all they can get here and now. This could be their undoing. If the Machiavellians who attend to their affairs succeed, the plutocrats should beware of getting what they want.

But will they succeed? Republican politicians are good at what they do, and with feckless Democrats as opponents, their prospects are good. The main obstacle in their way emanates from another quarter. Thanks to their success at dumbing down and deluding the hearts and minds of voters, the Republican base is slipping away.

When the Republicans' useful idiots were so-called "values voters," the Machiavellians could concede on the issues that mattered to their base -- abortion mainly -- and then see to it that their paymasters make off like bandits. But the values surge has gone dormant. The Christian Taliban are still out there, of course, and they can still do harm. But their moment in history seems to have passed. Theocracy, thank God, is not in our future.

Meanwhile, inexorably, the old idiocy has been giving way to a new one -- to a Tea Party organized around the idea that "government is the problem." This villainous Reaganite notion surfaces periodically throughout our history. The novelty with the latest version is that its exponents are fine with "standing armies" and "foreign entanglements." The Tea Partiers' predecessors were hardly deep thinkers. But at least they understood that the American state cannot be both imperialist and vanishingly small. This truism somehow eludes Tea Party understandings.

Tea Partiers rail against the visible hand of the state even as they celebrate the invisible hand of the market, not noticing the mailed fist of corporate power it conceals and the state power that is the condition for its possibility. But their animosity is ultimately at odds with the interests Republicans, and Democrats, serve. Not actually yet, but potentially, it threatens the prevailing consensus on ends.

The cultural contradiction that used to run through the Republican fold was tractable. Besotted with greed, Republican elites were more than willing to make common cause with the "little people" they disdain. The Tea Party is more problematic because its drift is incompatible with the interests of the social and economic elites whose Machiavellian functionaries helped bring this latest form of useful idiocy into being. This is potentially dangerous because the Tea Partiers are clueless about what they want. For that, they'd have to become what they have been miseducated most to fear: socialists. But in the short run, Tea Partiers could tip the balance from the greater to the much more inept but still lesser evil.

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