Democrats have won three of the last four election cycles by successfully branding the Republican platform as one giant tax break for the rich. And we have every reason to expect the same campaign strategy in 2014.
As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, the Left's “overarching argument” this election season will be the same as it was in 2012: “Democrats support policies to bolster the middle class, while the Republican economic agenda would benefit the wealthy.”
Like it or not, these are the terms of the debate and they will remain so — at Republicans’ peril — until the GOP gets serious about dismantling the intricate, bipartisan web of special interest privilege that has woven its way into our government.
Too many in Washington have convinced themselves that special-interest privilege is wrong only when the other side does it. But not surprisingly, they have not convinced the public. Americans intuitively understand that crony capitalism is not a form of private enterprise; it’s a form of public corruption.
During his famous journey in 19th century America, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the “hatred of privilege” that animated American society and compelled “all men, whatever their stature might be, to pass through the same filter … of little preliminary exercises.”
In America’s free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society, success depended on service. The only way to get ahead was to help your neighbors do the same. The core of American exceptionalism has always been that here, success could be earned by anyone, and had to be.
That is why Americans of all stripes are demanding a course correction from politicians who champion free enterprise, equality of opportunity, and the moral superiority of earned success, yet at the same time support the proliferation of laws, regulations and policies that prop up, bail out, and subsidize elite special interests at the expense of everyone else.
But this demand must be strongest from the right, because crony privileges directly violate conservatives' stated principles. Indeed, the disdain for unearned success that defined the America Tocqueville visited was a driving factor behind the creation of the Republican Party.
Abraham Lincoln, the party's first president, embodied this Republican spirit and argued tirelessly for a platform of social mobility through hard work. During his presidential campaign Lincoln defended the moral and material superiority of a society that leaves “each man free to acquire property as fast as he can” while ensuring even “the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.”
In such a society, “Some will get wealthy,” but more importantly, “When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life … he knows he can better his condition.”
Cronyism flips all this on its head.
In a crony capitalist economy, success depends on the quality of your political connections, rather than the value added to the lives of your customers, employers, and community. Government redistributes money from people who work hard and play by the rules to special interests who don’t. The dynamism and mobility of a free enterprise society degenerate into sclerosis and stagnation, creating a vicious cycle in which the path to prosperity increasingly runs through Washington, but only the wealthiest can afford access to the capital’s kingmakers.
For too long, Republicans in Congress have been complicit in the proliferation of policies that unfairly exclude favored businesses and special interests from having to earn their success on a level playing field. But this pathology of privilege dishonors our history and corrupts our principles. As difficult as it may be to take on the deep-pocketed allies of every law or regulation that rigs the rules to benefit Washington insiders, this fight is essential for the GOP to regain the trust of the American people.
In an election year, with the nation tuned in, this fight against crony capitalism can be a unifying theme for conservatives and a catalyst for the Republican Party to reclaim its heritage as the party that champions the principle of equal opportunity and the dignity of honest work.Mike Lee has represented Utah in the U.S. Senate since 2011. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.