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Wingnuts vs. Factions

The two theories of American government—one fantasy, one reality

Michael Lind
May 23, 2022
Michael Lind
Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.
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If the Republicans retake Congress in the midterm elections of 2022, as many expect, a lament will be heard in 2023 and 2024 from the right wing of the GOP: “Once again, we have been betrayed!” It will echo the ululating threnody that emanates from the left wing of the Democratic Party today, now that the Democrats control both houses of Congress and the presidency: “They have failed to do any of the things they promised us they would do when they ran for office!”

In advance of that, here’s a helpful tip: If your movement spends much of its time complaining that the party it seeks to influence has betrayed or ignored it, maybe you should rethink your theory of politics.

Many Americans believe in a fantasy that might be called the wingnut theory of politics. On left and right, the wingnut theory holds that making public policy is a three-step process: First, you and your ideological allies take over a wing of one of America’s two major parties and draft a comprehensive platform with positions on all issues, foreign and domestic. Second, your wing of the party takes over the party as a whole. Third, your triumphant one-wing party defeats the other party, takes over the entire government, and imposes its comprehensive platform on America in a burst of supermajority legislation. Utopia ensues.

The wingnut theory comes in a presidential as well as a congressional version. The only minor difference is that a caesarist president in the supposed mold of Washington, Lincoln, or FDR brings about the nation-transforming policy revolution in a flurry of executive orders in the first 100 days of the administration. Never mind that nothing like this ever actually happened under Washington, Lincoln, or FDR. This has not stopped many members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party from prematurely anointing Barack Obama or Joe Biden as the new FDR and their programs the new New Deal. 

In reality, and not for the first time in American history, the disjuncture between electoral politics and actual governance is almost complete. Both Obama and Biden ran by promising the environmentalists they would promote the end of fossil fuels, but once in power they approved expansions of oil and gas drilling. Donald Trump ran as a populist but presided over an administration filled with Bush retreads and Goldman Sachs executives. Beginning with Bill Clinton in 1992, every president has promised nation-building at home and more restrained foreign policy. And yet, before Trump broke the pattern—even assuming that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was a justified result of the Taliban’s support for Osama bin Laden—Clinton, Bush, and Obama each launched major new wars of choice: Serbia, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. 

The anguished sense of disillusionment felt by the Democratic left wing and the Republican right wing is perpetually recurring, because in reality, policy in the United States is not made by wings but by elite faction. In the sense in which I’m using the term, an elite faction is not a nefarious, hidden conspiracy of Bilderbergers, Illuminati, Reptilians, Freemasons, or Jews. It is a small group of technocratic insiders composed of career government servants, appointees to the executive branch, and their allies, including journalists, academics, think tank staffers, deep-pocketed donors, and—I almost forgot!—certain elected officials who, whatever their other differences may be, share a certain public policy agenda. Whether we look at American foreign policy or domestic policy, we see that the preferences of the majority of citizens have little influence on government, compared to the programs of elite factions of insiders.

In the wingnut theory of politics, the mass public tells the ruling circles what to do. In the faction theory of politics, the ruling circles decide what they want to do, and then, via their allies among journalists and elected officials, they tell the mass public what to think. Formulating national policy comes first; manufacturing consent is an afterthought.

Formulating national policy comes first; manufacturing consent is an afterthought.

The most effective elite factions under governments of both parties in the past generation have been the neoconservatives (defined broadly to include progressive “humanitarian hawks” or “liberal internationalists” in the Democratic Party) and the neoliberals (defined broadly to include free-market conservatives and libertarians in the Republican Party). Indeed, successful factions in American government tend to be bipartisan or transpartisan. Neoconservatism and neoliberalism have always included members of both parties, and their operatives have been willing to work with either party to achieve their goals.

There is nothing secret about the agendas of the neocons or the neoliberals. The neocons want the United States to establish permanent U.S. global military hegemony, to be achieved by wars of regime change as well as peaceful “color revolutions” supported by the CIA and other intelligence agencies and their NGO allies like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The neoliberals seek to replace the mixed economy of the New Deal era—characterized by extensive public provision, regulation, unionization, and universal social insurance—with a moderate libertarian system characterized by privatization, deregulation, de-unionization, and a cheaper, means-tested safety net for the “losers” in the game of unfettered capitalism. Both have succeeded in pushing their policies, even if they have often failed in achieving their goals

In promoting their goals, neoconservatives and neoliberals have been guided by the adage “personnel is policy.” Instead of trying to build grassroots movements by bringing their message to the voters via social media, podcasts, TV, and radio, neocons and neoliberals have concentrated on making sure that their members secure key positions in key government agencies, like the Defense and Treasury Departments and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The road to power in Washington runs through the Plum Book. Officially known as “United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions” and published alternately after each presidential election by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the Plum Book lists the thousands of positions an incoming administration fills by appointment in the executive branch and independent agencies and commissions. To paraphrase Carl Schmitt: Sovereign is he who decides on appointments.

In the real world of American government, one effective United States trade representative is worth a thousand progressive or conservative trade activists, one competent leader of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is worth 10,000 grassroots organizers, and one national security adviser with the ear of the president is worth a million podcasters, Substackers, radio shock jocks, and TV talking heads.

The judiciary, like the executive branch, is also run by elite factions, not party wings. The Democrats on the Supreme Court tend to be more libertarian and pro-business than the left wing of the Democratic Party, while the Republicans tend to be more socially liberal than most Republicans. If a majority of the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, this will be less a victory for the religious right than for the Federalist Society, an economic-libertarian faction in the legal profession that opportunistically invokes strict construction and original intent now and then.

The role of donors in the success of factions is critical. Elite donors of both parties in the United States tend to be socially liberal neoliberal free marketeers in economics and more in favor of foreign military intervention than the multiracial working-class majority. Neoconservatives and neoliberals have been able to count on almost unlimited financial resources for their think tanks and advocacy front groups, as well as sinecures for their operatives in business and finance and well-funded think tanks between stints as appointees in government. The absence of similar elite institutional networks on the socialist left and the populist and social conservative right reflects the near-total absence of socialists, populists, and social conservatives among American billionaires and corporate and bank executives.

Another characteristic of effective factions is that they focus on a few priority policy areas. In the 1970s, the Washington branch of the libertarian movement decided to downplay their controversial views on cultural issues like decriminalizing drugs and focus on deregulation and privatization as allies of Republican conservatives, New Democrats, and business lobbies. In the 1990s, the neoconservatives—earlier part of a broad-based intellectual movement with its own distinctive positions on the welfare state, labor, and social issues—dropped most public policy issues and specialized in promoting U.S. global military hegemony from inside the government and the establishment. In the case of each elite faction, choosing to act more or less like a single-issue movement rather than competing to draft the next Democratic or Republican platform paid off, in terms of influence on policy.

For the most part, technocratic policy factions are quite open about their goals, and they engage in debates and discussions in public. But those debates and discussions are aimed at insider audiences, rather than the broad public, in a country in which even the third of the citizenry that is college-educated does not follow public policy closely and takes its cue from partisan leaders. Small-circulation quarterlies, think tank policy briefs, and highbrow books in the old days, and Listservs and zines today, have been the preferred genres of policy factions. Only a few thousand people read the public letters of the neocon Project for the New American Century (PNAC) advocating regime change in Iraq before 2003, but they were the right few thousand people. The neocons did not want—or, more importantly, need—Rush Limbaugh’s mass radio audience.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the nearly unanimous bipartisan elite support for the massive escalation of aid to Ukraine following Russia’s brutal invasion. The strategy of open-ended support for Ukraine—with the evident purpose of weakening Russia in a prolonged proxy war rather than minimizing Ukrainian casualties by promoting a negotiated settlement—at a time of shortages in baby formula and other consumer goods in the United States, is a policy that could be debated. Or could have been debated, but decidedly was not. The establishments of both parties along with the compliant mainstream media have sought to prevent any public debate by whipping up war hysteria and by vilifying skeptics and critics on the left, right, and center as traitors, Russian fifth columnists, enemies of democracy and freedom, and so on.

Elite factions do not always get their way. Since the Clinton years, there has been a widely shared elite consensus in the Democratic and Republican parties that entitlement spending must be cut, but under Bush and Obama genuine grassroots public anger thwarted tentative moves in that direction. For the most part, though, for decades the left wing of the Democrats and the right wing of the Republicans have made much noise with little effect on government policy. 

From their government buildings and office towers, the well-connected insiders can confidently expect the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party and Stop the Steal crowds to disperse. Both parties have been adroit in adopting culture-war issues that do not threaten their economic or foreign policies. The cultural radicalism of the New Left has been coopted and diluted by government and woke corporations, but democratic socialism old and new has been roadkill. It seems likely that today’s MAGA right will have no more effect on policy, as distinct from rhetoric and imagery, than its predecessors, the Buchanan brigades of the 1990s and the mad-as-hell New Right of the 1970s. In the years to come, conventional Republicans may hire Trumpists and “national conservatives” as get-out-the-vote agitators and speechwriters, and then, once elected, defer to neoliberals in economics and neoconservatives in foreign policy. 

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news to anti-neoliberals and anti-neocons of left, right, and center, but I don’t make the rules. If you believe that the United States is run by a powerful and cohesive managerial oligarchy, and your strategy is to overthrow it by means of a spontaneous grassroots rebellion that will create a new wing of the Democrats or the Republicans and then sweep the next FDR or the next Reagan into the White House, you need to reconsider your strategy.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.