By the middle of the second month of the Republican Revolution, acute observers were beginning to see that the revolution might actually go somewhere if only the Republicans were not in charge of it. Aside from such irritating contretemps as the revelations of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s book deal, his instantaneous dumping of historian Christina Jeffrey when her criticisms of a curriculum on the Nazi persecution of European Jews came to light, and his irrepressible habit of unbosoming his every neurological reflex to a bewildered press and citizenry, the prospects of the revolution dimmed considerably when Mr. Gingrich and his counterpart in the Senate, Bob Dole, eagerly signed on to the bailout of a bankrupt Mexico and began to back away from some of their own revolution’s commitments.
Mr. Gingrich had second thoughts about ending welfare for immigrants, despite the obvious popular support for doing so, and second thoughts again about repealing the notorious “assault weapons” ban enacted with Republican help in the last months of the previous Congress, despite the obvious debt of the new Republican majority to the votes of outraged gun owners. On all these issues—the bailout, the immigrants, and guns—he was obliged by pressures from within his own party, especially freshmen Republicans considerably to the right of him and Mr. Dole, to reverse himself yet again and exude third thoughts. But since exuding thoughts is never difficult for the Speaker, his political ping-pong was not the problem.
On the more substantive commitments of the party to its “Contract with America” there was definite progress, though many rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives asked themselves exactly why the Contract’s sometimes arcane pledges were important at all. Several items in the Contract involving rather radical changes threatened to turn what remains of the Constitution into the kind of voluminous and indecipherable document more familiar to such governments as those of Bolivia and Botswana, and even with a Republican majority in the House, some parts of the Contract could not pass without suffering amputation of their more radical and meaningful provisions. Nor was there any language in the Contract that committed its signatories to eliminating whole departments and agencies of the federal leviathan, abolishing affirmative action, or reversing the ruin inflicted on the Republic by generations of judicial insanity, though individual Republicans did mutter about engaging these issues on their own.
Revolutions, however, exhaust themselves quickly, even when fed by passions considerably fiercer than those known to drive the souls of Republicans, and by locking the House and Senate on the immediate goal of enacting the Contract, the Republican leadership may have ensured that any further and more substantial radical proclivities in Republican breasts would be smothered before they had a chance to squeak. Indeed, even as the 104th Congress convened, it was advised by its self-appointed egghead, Bill Kristol, to eschew serious reforms from the right until the Republicans had also captured the presidency. The Republicans, it seems, were about as ready for their own revolution as a college freshman is to start studying for his final exams.
Yet the main problem with the Republican Revolution comes not from the questionable conduct or judgment of its leaders or from any lack of legislative skills. The main problem is simply that the Republican Party finds it almost impossible to conceive of public policy in anything but economic terms, that it remains wedded to the worldview associated with the myth of Economic Man. No matter how often Republicans dip their knees to “family values,” the religious right, and “cultural issues,” and no matter how much they exploit patriotic sentiment by contriving to nominate such military titans as Ulysses S. Grant or Colin Powell for President, it is only when dollars and cents are being talked about that the Republican eye begins to gleam and the Republican lip trembles with lachrymose enthusiasm.
The myth of Economic Man is today less a theory of human nature and history than an intellectual archaism from the bourgeois order of the 19th century, when the Republicans led the nation in crushing a region that did not embrace the myth and proceeded to construct around it what was essentially the “Second Republic” of American history between the Civil War and the New Deal. Perhaps the only wise sentence that John Maynard Keynes ever wrote was his wellknown insight that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” Leaving aside his skepticism about the power of vested interests (a skepticism rather implausible when the Mexican bailout is considered). Lord Keynes could (and may) have been describing the Republican Party of the 20th century. The myth of Economic Man holds that human beings are driven mainly by considerations of material gain and loss, and therefore that the key to understanding history is the calculation of which economic interests prevail and what those interests are. From that dubious generalization, its adherents elicit a moral imperative, that economic calculations should prevail, and that therefore the value of any course of action, especially public policies, should be judged in terms of whether and how much it enhances material gain. The myth and its derivatives are the foundation stones of both socialism (especially its Marxist version) and capitalism, and it is no accident that Karl Marx was as indebted to the classical economists who helped unleash the myth on the modern mind as he was enchanted by the American Civil War and the Second Republic it initiated as progressive forward steps of world-historical significance. The main practical difference between the socialist and capitalist versions of the myth is simply that each perceives different roads toward their shared goals of the full dinner pail. (It tells us something about both communists and Republicans that they think Utopia consists of eating out of a bucket.)
In the case of Republicans, almost all of the principal contents of the Contract with America have to do with explicitly economic issues—the balanced budget amendment, the line item veto, unfunded mandates, welfare reform, tax reform, and even the proposal to alter the accounting method by which the cost of American participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions is calculated. Popular discontent with immigration is conveniently dismissed as mere racial scapegoating provoked by economic dislocations, and immigration itself is seen as entirely the result of economic dysfunctions in Latin America. Change the economy, and both immigration and opposition to it will go away. The whole debate over immigration is conventionally conducted only in terms of whether it is good or bad for the American economy, not whether it will alter the basic shape of the national culture. The conventional explanations of urban crime and welfare dependency also are that they are the results of economic incentives foolishly created by urban policies that ignore the universal economic motors of human nature. Create the right incentives through enterprise zones and Project HOPE and we shall end crime, welfare, and poverty. The debates over NAFTA and CATT also were largely confined to their effects on the economy rather than their impact on national sovereignty, and indeed the myth of Economic Man implies that nations themselves are insignificant compared to the appetites for accumulation that drive human individuals.
Hence, it is not surprising that the prophecies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto about the disappearance of the nationstate closely resemble what Mr. Gingrich’s main guru, Alvin Toffler, predicts in his pop futurist best-seller. The Third Wave. “The workingmen have no country,” preached the fathers of communism. “National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.” Mr. Toffler agrees, writing, “It is questionable how effectively national borders can be sealed off—or for how long. For the shift toward a Third Wave industrial base requires the development of a highly ramified, sensitive, wide open ‘neural network’ or information system, and attempts by individual nations to dam up data flows may interfere with, rather than accelerate, their own economic development. . . . All such developments—the new economic problems, the new environmental problems, and the new communications technologies—are converging to undermine the position of the nation-state in the global scheme of things.”
Of course, in the global scheme of things, just the opposite has come true. Marx’s workingmen enthusiastically supported the belligerent nationalisms of World War I, and the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War have witnessed a nationalist renaissance on every continent. What is interesting about the false predictions, however, is that they were based on economic calculations, and the persistence of nationalist sentiments and energies simply did not fit into the equations of either prophet.
Whether consciously or not, the friends of Economic Man ignore and omit from their calculations, analyses, projections, prophecies, and policies whatever does not fit the mythological assumptions from which their schemes evolve, and therefore they are always shocked to witness mass movements that ignore economic interests and center around charismatic leaders, traditional but practically useless symbols and images, and imperatives that demand exertions that make no economic sense, the postponement of immediate gratification, the denial of sensual satisfactions, and the sacrifice of life itself. Nor can public policies based on this mythology encompass many of the realities around which human existence revolves.
Obviously, economic interests and issues are important, and they are important grounds for evaluating the success of a society or its government; but the coronation of Economic Man as the absolute monarch of modern political thought not only ignores and distorts human reality but also serves to destroy and erase human social and cultural realities the monarch does not much care for anyway. Relying on “the market” as the universal answer to every question of public discussion, the adherents of Economic Man merely accelerate the institutional destruction out of which the power of the mass state emerges as an alternative answer to the questions Economic Men skip over. While Republicans worship at the temple of Economic Man, two prominent social critics from the left have recently noted the social destructiveness the cult promotes.
Historian Eugene Genovese in The Southern Tradition remarks that “southern conservatives understand the contradictions that neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush nor even [!] William Buckley has faced squarely. Capitalism has historically been the greatest solvent of traditional social relations. . . . Ronald Reagan has had every right to celebrate capitalism as the greatest revolutionary force in world history.” Similarly, the late Christopher Lasch writes in his posthumous The Revolt of the Elites that “The market notoriously tends to universalize itself. It does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principles antithetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazines, charities, families. Sooner or later the market tends to absorb them all. It puts an almost irresistible pressure on ever}- activity to justify itself in the only terms it recognizes: to become a business proposition, to pay its own way, to show black ink on the bottom line. It turns news into entertainment, scholarship into professional careerism, social work into scientific management of poverty. Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image.”
Having enthroned policies informed by the mythologies of Economic Man, Republicans are always amazed to discover that the results are not at all what they predicted and that those who contributed their support to what was advertised as a revolution wanted something other than business as usual. Not only does the myth in which Republican minds are swaddled fail even to acknowledge the noneconomic forces that really drive the popular base of their revolution, but also the myth serves to create new dislocations that the champions of the mass state will exploit to their own advantage. It should not therefore be surprising that the revolution the Republicans have promised us will stall before it leaves the garage and that it will turn out to be no revolution at all. Whoever the academic scribblers from whom the Republican revolutionaries have distilled their frenzy might be, what they are really enthroning is not at all different from the forces to which we have been enslaved since the days of Karl Marx and the revolutionary destruction of the Old Republic.