In all of the Republican presidential debates – including the one last Tuesday – candidates were quick to call for large increases in military spending. Indeed, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has repeatedly dubbed himself the “most militaristic” of his challengers.
But a massive defense buildup – like the one during the Reagan administration – is a dangerous proposal. It is dangerous not just because it would enlarge US imperial power and add to an already bloated defense budget, but because it would allow Republicans to further pursue austerity measures.
Republicans have done this for 70 years. Since World War II, Republicans have relied on the American defense budget to divert federal funds away from social welfare in support of a military-industrial complex that is ever-growing. As the Cold War demanded federal investment in sophisticated weaponry, the white-collar workforce fled the old northern industrial belt in the cities for jobs in suburbs in the South and West, whose economies were dominated by the military-industrial complex – and that leaned Republican. The Cold War helped create a Rust Belt, furthering racial segregation in housing, education and employment (and solidifying the white base of the Republican Party since the 1960s).
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Republicans therefore exacerbated racial and class inequality by expanding the arms race. Such was the case until the late 1960s, when defense contractors came under scrutiny from the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. When The United States’ military power failed to defeat guerilla forces in Southeast Asia, the defense budget was slashed, forcing contractors into an existential crisis.
But the crisis was temporary. Richard Nixon allowed the defense industry to avert criticism at home by exporting weapons abroad. Global arms sales surged after 1968. Weapons sales only escalated from this point, contributing to blowback against US foreign policy in the developing world. As New York Times journalists Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper reported, increasing arms sales worsen sectarian strife. Companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin have raked in large profits in arms deals, selling aircraft to the Saudis to wage war in Yemen and to the United Arab Emirates to bomb Syria.
And even when military contractors faced insolvency in the 1970s, Republicans in Congress bailed them out. Faced with bankruptcy due to financial mismanagement and internal corruption in 1971, the federal government guaranteed Lockheed’s loans totaling over $250 million, sparing the company from ruin.
Military contractors fared even better with Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength” meant vast gains for white-collar technocrats in the military-industrial complex. The Reagan buildup, particularly programs like the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was a boon to white, highly-educated scientists and researchers, who by the 1980s profited most from defense. Expanding the Cold War abroad thus meant growing economic inequality at home, in the years when incomes began to separate the most.
Not much has changed since the end of the Cold War. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the defense budget doubled. Bush also sent Cold War weaponry to police departments in suburban America to fight crime and the “war on drugs,” militarizing poor communities in the process. Moreover, the defense industry continues to profit from global conflagrations while laying off its domestic industrial workforce, marginalizing unions, closing factories and leaving many communities jobless.
Republican supporters of increased defense spending depict the United States’ global military as necessary to the national security of the United States, and vital to maintain jobs and keep economic growth flowing to local communities now struggling in the wake of a Great Recession. None of these statements are true. The largest benefactors of the military-industrial complex continue to be wealthy suburbs in the South and West that also heavily lean Republican. This explains why Republicans advocate wealth-creation through war while promoting tax cuts and deregulation for the rich. The existence of the military economy has allowed the Right to sell the military as a remedy for joblessness, even while supporting austerity policies that enlarge the gap between the rich and poor.
Americans can only resolve these problems by tackling the relationship between economic inequality and the military-industrial complex. It is therefore not enough to reject Republicans’ demands for a bigger military budget. An economic alternative to war capitalism must be provided – one that provides full employment. Doing so will offer Americans independence from a structure that has not served the broader interests of the poor and working-class; or, the country as a whole.