If Tea Party Republicans were political animals, they’d support President Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. I know that sounds insane. A federally mandated wage appears to embody most everything the Tea Party stands against.
But as the Tea Party struggles in this year’s midterm elections against the Republican establishment, perhaps it should rethink using the primary as its weapon of choice. If you want to beat the big-business wing of the GOP, challenging incumbents is only one way to do it. Another way is to hit big business where it hurts — and that means joining the Democrats in raising the minimum wage.
This is asking a lot. Tea Party Republicans believe maximum individual liberty means minimal government “interference” in the lives of individuals. Indeed, supporting any wage law might be tantamount to treason for some in their ranks. But it isn’t as ideologically distasteful as it first appears.
In economic terms, the Tea Party has a history going back to Thomas Jefferson. The founding father envisioned a decentralized government serving regional economies built by independent and self-reliant farmers, artisans and merchants. Today, these are called entrepreneurs, small-business owners, or the “engines of the economy.” To the Tea Party, these are the doers, the makers, the producers, the people who make America great.
Jefferson did not imagine a world transformed by an industrial revolution after which corporations dominated a national economy and employed legions of workers. The very idea of a corporation and a working class, historian Michael Lind once told me, runs counter to the dearly held image of the free yeoman farmer: “In the Jeffersonian system, wage-dependent proletarians are parasites, not producers, and the goal of Jeffersonian political economy is to turn proletarians into producers.”
Large corporations offend the Jeffersonian vision in another way. They use their enormous influence to bend government policy to their will, perverting free markets and corrupting fair competition. Some libertarian economists call this “corporatism” while others simply call it “crony capitalism.” Either way, it is the reality of small businesses. Mom-and-pop retailers in Connecticut pay higher taxes on less revenue than a Walmart store in the same town, because tax law permits it to claim that money in low-tax states like Arkansas.
At its best (that is, when expressed without the taint of racism), the Tea Party worldview would fix the economy by releasing the working class from the bonds of wage slavery and welfare, and by forcing corporations to compete fairly. The way to achieve that is by starving the federal budget to preclude handouts to corporations grown dependent on subsidies and to a working class grown dependent on wages and welfare.
One might think raising the minimum wage contradicts all this, but it doesn’t.
The Jeffersonian worldview makes room for government “interference,” as long as it helps those who help themselves. Yes, raising the minimum wage increases worker pay, but more important is that raising the minimum wage helps small businesses. As small-business owner said in a new survey conducted by Advocates for Independent Business: “We need to raise the minimum wage to get the economy growing again.”
Indeed, the people most concerned about raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour are the owners and managers of large corporations, because higher wages eat into their profits.
If Tea Party Republicans want to force the GOP establishment to stand for principle, they have to make the Republican Party’s big-business faction feel some pain, and to do that, they should threaten to join Democrats in raising the minimum wage. Higher wages are among the things big business fears most.
It’s not just a good political move. It’s entirely consistent with principles first laid out by one of the founding fathers.
The question is whether Tea Party Republicans are aware of their history and whether they can disentangle themselves from big-business benefactors who have since 2010 exploited the Tea Party’s energy to achieve their profit-preserving objectives.
Indeed, if Tea Party Republicans did decide to stand for raising the minimum wage, they might see their funding disappear.
That shouldn’t deter a movement dedicated to principle above all.
AFP Photo/Andrew Burton