With their astonishing vote to pass the American Health Care Act, Republican members of the House of Representatives have brought the GOP, and perhaps the United States itself, one step closer to vindicating Karl Marx.
It was Marx who suggested that history moves dialectically, especially at moments of dramatic change. At such times, tensions within institutions and ideologies rise, eventually building to an outright contradiction that becomes heightened or intensified. Eventually the contradiction snaps, tearing the institution or ideology apart and contributing to the formation of a new one that does a better job of resolving the original tension.
We don’t yet know how the AHCA will be changed as it makes its way through the Senate, or even if the narrow Republican majority in the upper house of Congress will manage to pass it in any form. But thanks to Thursday’s vote in the House, the general shape of the present moment’s central contradiction is now clear, and it doesn’t bode well for the future of the Republican Party or, frankly, the country.
This contradiction can be stated in the form of three indisputable facts.
Fact 1: Populism is on the rise across the globe, with growing numbers of voters angry at elite indifference to economic stagnation and the suffering of groups of people who feel ignored by an entrenched political establishment.
Fact 2: In the 2016 election, the GOP nominated and won with a candidate who put this populist message front and center, promising that he would be the voice of these neglected voters and act to make their lives better.
Fact 3: This same party just passed a bill that is guaranteed to significantly hurt millions of these very voters, depriving some of health insurance altogether, making it more expensive for others to acquire or hold onto insurance, and exposing many more to much greater risk of financial disaster should they get sick or suffer injury.
You don’t need to be communist revolutionary to recognize that this contradiction — one in which the GOP incubates, catalyzes, and unleashes growing waves of populist fury in the very act of pursuing fragrantly anti-populist policies — is unlikely to end well. On the contrary, it is likely to ensure that the anti-establishment passions of the present will only increase. If they become intense enough, there’s no telling how much of the political system they may end up tearing down.
Now, consider the role of populism in Europe. It’s somewhat different, but the contrast is instructive.
From London to Paris to Warsaw and beyond, the dynamic is similar: A cluster of parties (sometimes two of them; sometimes three or more) presides over the political center, managing the domestic economy and generous welfare programs, meeting with counterparts across the continent to decide how best to implement laws and regulations devised in Brussels. Regardless of whether the party in power leans to the center-left or center-right, the outcome is the same: politics as neoliberal, technocratic management.
It’s this pervasive consensus that has been challenged repeatedly in recent years by populists, usually from the anti-liberal right but sometimes from the anti-liberal left. When the challenge comes, it’s nearly always from a new or formerly marginal party that takes on the established, centrist parties, seeking to kick them out of power and grab some of it for themselves. The ongoing French election, which will be decided this Sunday, is an especially dramatic example because the two centrist parties (the Republicans and the Socialists) were knocked out in the first round, leaving a head-to-head battle between a pure centrist (Macron) and a pure populist (Le Pen). (In American terms, this would be something like a presidential contest pitting Michael Bloomberg against Donald Trump, with neither candidate running as a Democrat or Republican.)
In the U.S., the populist dynamic is very different. Whereas Democrats (at least since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992) have embraced neoliberalism’s characteristic synthesis of democratic socialism and free-market economics, the Republican Party has come to stand for something far more radical: anti-statist libertarianism, which leaves Americans far more exposed than their European counterparts to the creative destruction of markets and the rapaciousness of corporations aggressively seeking maximal profits for their shareholders.
And yet, for a complicated set of reasons, America’s populist energies managed to gain political power in 2016 not by challenging the country’s two-party establishment from the outside or by taking over the Democratic Party but rather by rising up through the institutional structure of the Republican Party. If this had been a genuine political coup, overthrowing the GOP’s libertarian convictions from the inside of the party and replacing them with a commitment to helping the voters who elected Donald Trump to the presidency, the result might have been a coherent populism. But what we got instead was a blatant, self-destructive contradiction: Populist anger propelled Republicans to victory at all levels of government, but once in office they immediately began enacting a libertarian agenda that is bound to stoke even greater anger, and provoke an even greater populist revolt in the not-too-distant future.
In the coming weeks we will learn if the Republican majority in the Senate is willing to follow the House GOP down this perilous path. In the end, it might not make much of a difference. From slashing taxes to deregulation of the financial sector to hacking away at executive branch departments and agencies, the Republican Party appears giddy to enact draconian anti-government policies that will only inflict greater pain and hardship on those Americans who already feel like they’re getting screwed.
It isn’t likely to end well. Not for those angry Americans. Not for the Republican Party. And not for the rest of us either.