'The Wrong Side of History'

02/21/2014 06:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014

Conservatives love to argue against clean energy by saying that the government "shouldn't pick winners or losers." So why then, did conservative Tennessee politicians, like U.S. Senator Bob Corker, Governor Ted Haslam, and State Senator Bo Watson, threaten to give or withhold government incentives based on whether Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga approved or rejected joining the United Auto Workers? Not only did this trio make it clear that they are eager for Tennessee to pick winners and losers, they proclaimed that if VW workers exercised their legally guaranteed right to organize collectively, the State of Tennessee would make sure that VW and the workers were punished. This is bullying, plain and simple. It didn't matter to these politicians that Volkswagen, impressed by the role the UAW had played in reviving American auto companies, quietly favored the organizing drive -- a partnership between a company and a union seems to have been particularly threatening to the Republicans.

It's not clear how many of the workers' votes were swayed by the attempted intimidation - and they had every right not to choose the union for their own reasons. It will be up to the National Labor Relations Board to decide if the Republican tactics created an unfair election or not. But either way, apart from the outcome, the VW organizing drive revealed precisely how hollow conservative objections to government taking sides are -- it's all about what side government takes. Subsidies for oil and nuclear power great, subsidies for wind and solar terrible.Tax breaks for unionized companies bad; tax breaks for anti-union companies, definitely good.

Overall, it's been a good month for exposing Tea Party hypocrisy. Before the VW vote, there was the Republican House decision to override California state water policy to direct an out-sized share of the state's water to particular farmers who happen to be in swing districts currently represented by marginal Republicans. And there was also the insistence by House Republicans that the federal government couldn't afford food stamps for the hungry, but definitely could afford to create new and fatter subsidy programs for rice and peanut growers. Even think tanks like the Heritage Foundation found it hard to swallow that caper in the name of conservatism. And The Economist dubbed it "a trillion in the trough"and pointed out that the subsidies in the greatly expanded crop-insurance program largely don't even go to farmers -- for every dollar a farmer gets, the private insurance companies get to keep $1.44!

But really we shouldn't be surprised to discover that conservative politicians have particular interests and industries they cotton too -- that's been true of politicians of all stripes since the beginning of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson favored a weak national government because he believed that would encourage an economy of yeoman farmers, not urban workers. Alexander Hamilton wanted more industry -- and thought having a centralized national bank and high tariffs would help. The political splits that led to the Civil War were obviously about whether to protect slave-owners or slaves. Picking winners and losers is one of the essential tasks of politics -- which is why the British refer to one branch of economics as "Political Economy."

What is distressing (in addition to the hypocrisy) is the consistent slant of the economic bets today's Republican Party is making. The Tea Party wing of the GOP has become the party of yesterday's economy, favoring its least competitive sectors -- the low value-added, most subsidized farmers would get the water in California, coal and oil are to be fattened with subsidies at the expense of clean energy, big banks are coddled in finance, plus of course gun manufacturers, and monopolies in general. Many of yesterday's industries also have their handmaidens among the Democrats -- they are too politically shrewd to depend on one party alone.

But the Democrats spread their support around more evenly. Many of them have provided real leadership for investments in tomorrow's economy -- reviving our decaying infrastructure, modernizing the auto industry, encouraging industries like information processing and clean energy. One of the most consistent determinants of how Red or Blue a state's voters are is the degree to which its economy depends on high skilled, innovative industries. (Indeed, a recent story on the Republican effort to catch up with the Democrats in the use of big data in election campaigns argued that the Republicans biggest problem is that so few tech engineers will work for the GOP at all.) This is a major reason why red-states typically require more financial support from federal programs than blue ones.

As the VW struggle shows, when a very technologically capable company breaks new (for the U.S.) ground and decides that it would rather collaborate with its workers by letting them organize, than continue the patriarchal, management-dominated model that choked 20th century with industrial conflict, today's conservatives find that threat just too newfangled to swallow.

The Tea Party, oriented by its Koch Brothers funding, is locking the Republicans on the wrong side of history. Reactionary is the word that comes to mind. It's not good for the Republicans -- and it's not good for America.


A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."