We seem to be going from one extreme to another. In 2012, Republicans sounded as if they believed that the high-earning business owners who “built that” were the only people whose priorities really mattered. It seemed like everyone else was either inert but would passively benefit from the lower taxes on business owners, or else they were part of the dreaded parasitical 47 percent.
After Romney lost, the Republican National Committee followed through on the logic of the 2012 Republican rhetoric and produced a plan to move policy even more in the direction favored by the business lobbies. The RNC came out in favor of deemphasizing social issues and “comprehensive immigration reform” (currently a euphemism for up-front amnesty, delayed or nonexistent enforcement, and increased low-skill guest worker programs). Now, after the David Brat victory revealed the grassroots-conservative alienation from the business-lobby agenda, conservative activists are condemning the business lobbies as unprincipled corporatists who are trying to use their Washington influence to put one over on the country. It took two years for the organized business lobbies to go from the people who really mattered to the enemies of the people.
We need to start by being realistic about the business lobbies. They are heterogeneous and, even when they might reach a rough consensus that conservatives find appealing, the business lobbies will sometimes have their own distinct and self-serving priorities. That is because they are as human as the rest of us.
The point is not to demonize the business lobbies. The point is to incorporate them into a wider coalition that often serves their legitimate interests while being able to politely and unapologetically tell them no on occasion. No, you can’t have your guest-worker programs. Those we invite to live in the U.S. should come here as future citizens and full participants in our society and not as helots. Your desire for maximum leverage over your employees is not compelling. No, you can’t have an increase in the labor supply in that sector of the labor market where unemployment is high and wages are stagnant. If you want to hire, you will have to do it from our current population of low-skill workers (both native and foreign-born).
Republicans can be the business-friendly party of relatively lower spending, lower taxation, and lower regulation that can also apply conservative policy solutions to the priorities of non-business-owners. Republicans can be the party of working parents around the median income whose payroll taxes are a bigger burden than income taxes. They can be the party that offers market-oriented health insurance to workers who fear that they will be left in the cold if they lose their full-time jobs and have to patch together a series of part-time jobs that do not offer health benefits. The challenge is to make the Republican party the natural home of the majority of business owners without making Republicans the stooges of the business interests.