One of Ronald Reagan’s first acts on his first full day in office, January 21, 1981, was to completely shut down the alternate/renewable energy program that Jimmy Carter established in the late 1970s. At that time, a few scientists were already predicting global warming. However, there was little data and most of the science that was going on was in the realm of hypothesis. What was known for sure at that time was that however much more oil and other fossil fuels were eventually discovered, they would eventually run out. There is only a finite supply of the stuff in the Earth. The only variable is that we don’t know just how much there is or how much it would cost to extract every last ounce of it. At some time, if civilization were to be preserved, other sources of energy would have to be developed. Furthermore, at that time it was know for sure that if all of the petro-chemicals were burned up, much of the stuff of modern life, from plastics to pharmaceuticals, would disappear as well.
So Carter was more likely to be thinking about “peak oil” than he was about global warming when he set up the alternative energy research program and when he had solar panels, pretty primitive ones in those days, installed on the roof of the White House. Of course, those panels went pretty quickly too. But that was of little interest to the powers that put Reagan in office.
After a lifetime as a “B” movie actor, a hawker of cigarettes, and a shill for the AMA when in the mid-1960s it was going after Medicare as meaning the death of American medicine and the imminent arrival of socialism on these shores, Ronald Reagan was given his biggest roles. The first was as the acting (not Acting, unfortunately) Governor of California. Then came the acting (again not Acting) President. (I cannot take credit for the appellation “acting President.” It is the title of a book by Bob Schieffer and Gary Paul Gates that does not treat Reagan too kindly. Yes, indeed that is that Bob Schieffer, who in his old age has morphed into the political equivalent of Casper Milquetoast. My contemporaries will know who that was.) He was given that role by those elements of the U.S. power elite that have dominated the GOP since his election.
On Nov. 8, 1956, after his re-election, President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said: “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” Unfortunately, Eisenhower was wrong.
Global warming, produced primarily by the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels, especially petroleum, may eventually do our species in. Perhaps along with us, many of the rest of the Earth’s species will go too. Eisenhower will thus have been proved to have been dead wrong. (If you want to be truly terrified about what we may well face, see Scientists: Pace of Climate Change Exceeds Estimates, Sunday, 15 February 2009, by Kary Lydersen in The Washington Post, not some wild left-wing outlier.) The Big Oil-lead group first coalesced around Goldwater, but he wasn’t much of a candidate. Then they went to Nixon. However, he wasn’t really their guy no matter how much of an anti-commie he was, because he brought in agencies such as the Environmental Protection Administration and legislation such as the Clean Water Act. They then found their ideal mouthpiece in Reagan.
Since the Reagan election, without wavering, the GOP has been serving three major interests. First is Big Oil and the other elements of what I call the “extractive industries.” They are, in addition, coal, big lumber, and mineral mining. Second is the military/industrial complex, also famously identified by President Eisenhower as a threat to both American democracy and the then American way of life. That way of life, by the way, imperfect as it may have been in such realms as segregation and the pervasiveness of white supremacy, and paying for health care, was characterized by a fairly broad level of prosperity and job security for white workers. Why? The major reasons were a relatively high level of trade union representation and high marginal taxes on the wealthy. They were both supported by Eisenhower, who is looking better and better in the rear view mirror.
Following the military/industrial complex in historical development as the third leg of the modern GOP stool is the prison/industrial complex. Its rise was fueled by the so-called “War on Drugs,” really a war on non-white users of certain drugs, such as heroin and cocaine (not others such as nicotine in cigarettes and alcohol, which are much more damaging on a population basis). This leg was started by Nixon, and it did fit right in with his “Southern Strategy” of developing the modern GOP as the party of racism. Because it is a war on certain drug users, rather than drugs themselves, the “drug war” is in fact at its base a racist enterprise first, and anything else second.
Consider, for example, that approximately 75% of the users of the “illicit drugs” are white; approximately 75% of persons imprisoned for drug-related offenses are non-white. The data go on from there. (As one of the principal creators of the original “public health approach to the drug problem” back in the early 1990s I am very familiar with the data. The PHA would both effectively deal with the drug problem that afflicts so many of people, beginning with alcohol and tobacco use in children, and enable the end the “drug war.”) The “drug war” has served both for-profit prison operators and state systems, for political purposes.
In California, the state prison system supplies so much employment that when this past year there was an initiative that called for the moderation of some of the most draconian of the state’s “drug” laws in favor of treatment for non-violent offenders, the prison guards’ union mounted an advertising campaign against it. But the GOP makes the most political hay out of the “drug war.” In certain states, the party also uses the results of the “war” to disenfranchise non-white voters who are “convicted felons” under the drug laws. A Bush follow-on for the prison/industrial complex was the creation of the national security state that, if it is ever implemented on a broad scale against American regime-opponents, would provide a bonanza for this complex.
This is the primary three-legged stool that the GOP serves now. It has until very recently also served the interests of the financial industry. The 1998 repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act (signed by Pres. Clinton and strongly supported by Pres. Obama’s principal economic advisor, Larry Summers) allowed investment banks to get into the mortgage business without having to meet reserve requirements anywhere near what commercial banks have to meet. This, of course, was coupled with the massive de-regulation that began under Reagan, which was continued, interestingly enough under Clinton, but then became a steamroller under Bush II. But with the financial/economic collapse that these Republican policies have directly lead to, the financial industry is looking more and more to the regulated markets that will once again be created, to a greater or lesser extent, under Obama. Likewise the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, which have flourished under the Republicans since the time of Reagan, are now seeing the handwriting on the wall and moving towards some kind of accommodation with some sort of national health insurance program.
So, while there are of course variations at the margins, the core of GOP support is to be found among these three major elements of the power elite: the extractive industries, the military/industrial complex, and the prison/industrial complex. That they are now running the Republican Party has been made very clear by the “debate” over the stimulus package, and will be made even more clear as such other major problems, such as climate change, are tackled by the Obama Administration. We shall stay tuned.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in both the academic and the lay literature on health policy, health and wellness, and athletics. On politics Dr. Jonas is a www.TPJmagazine.us Contributing Author; a regular Columnist for the webmagazine Buzz Flash; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC; a regular contributor to Thomas Paine’s Corner; and a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad.