Ideology Trumps Progress

Grover Norquist may be the least discussed, most influential force shaping some of today's biggest political debates. Born wealthy and privileged, Norquist started into politics at an early age and has shaped himself into the arbiter and gatekeeper of conservative ideology, particularly when it comes to taxes. He co-wrote the 1994 'Contract with America,' a document directly responsible for the modern conservative movement in Washington and whose ideas originated from the Heritage Foundation, a Libertarian-slanted think tank poised to eradicate the influence of Big Government in most areas of modern American life.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that members of Congress, particularly Republicans, are encouraged to endorse when they enter the fray of Washington politics. The 'Taxpayer Protection Pledge,' drawn up by Norquist's organization, is an oath currently signed by 41 Senators and 236 Representatives from the 112th Congress. Most of the signers (excluding 2 Democrats) are Republican.

The TPP, and the political pressure its signers are under to maintain that pledge, is the primary reason that the current fight over raising the debt ceiling has stalled for so long. There is an argument about whether or not voting for revenue increases (which refers to the closing of tax loopholes for corporations) constitutes a tax increase. Most would consider that it does not, but there is almost no argument among Republicans that rolling back once-temporary tax cuts from the G.W. Bush years constitutes a tax increase. Either way, those who have signed the pledge - including those who recognize the severe gravity of our financial situation and would otherwise be willing to show some political flexibility - are instead bound by their oath to Norquist's organization and will not budge.

Aside from Norquist's considerable heft in Washington, there is also the issue of whether or not taxing the wealthy kills jobs. Michelle Bachmann, a 2012 Republican Presidential candidate, has repeatedly referred to herself and other wealthy Americans as 'job creators.' According to this particular brand of extremism, wealthy people in general are in the business of 'job creation,' a claim that cunningly implies that the non wealthy should be grateful for their benevolent beneficiaries. This is yet another brilliant marketing strategy on behalf of the GOP. You see, despite the undeniable fractures in the GOP right now - numerous incoming Tea Party-elected Freshmen, hard-line conservatives, moderate conservatives, and independents who tend to vote conservative - this willingness for these disparate elements to unify their voice for the sake of the cause is downright supernatural. Say what you will about the GOP in Washington - it is a truly stunning model to behold - both diverse and disciplined, a rare combination.

Even a unified Democratic Congress could never stay on message so successfully.

Consider this pitch: wealthy Americans are not just wealthy. They are: benevolent entrepreneurs and job creators. Tax them out of their ability to create jobs, and you stymie their ability to bring jobs to the Americans who need them the most. Therefore, it can be implied that any attempt to increase taxes, particularly on the wealthy, is an attempt to kill jobs. In other words, if you tax the wealthiest American citizens - including those Corporations that, under Federal Law, have been blessed with Constitutional citizenship - you are, in fact, injuring the poor.


This, of course, debatable, but the message sticks, doesn't it? Democrats are too busy feeling flustered, red-faced and indignant over the significant gains of their conservative counterparts that they haven't found the self-control to band together with a unified message. If they could, it might sound something like this:

Wealthy Americans - particularly the top .01% (yes, you read that right) - don't create jobs. The customer demand of average, middle-class Americans - those making between 30k and 100k a year, for instance - creates jobs, and that middle-class is eroding.

It's helpful to look at the facts. Uncertainty and nervousness about Government policies under Obama has got to be the culprit for why businesses are floundering, right? No. As the It's a lack of demand. There is all kinds of evidence to support this (just ask any local business owner which is the bigger problem: uncertainty about taxes, or the fact that customers aren't walking in the door?). A recent Wall Street Journal survey elucidates this.

Just don't ask Steve Wynn. His recent complaints about Obama accuse the Administration of 'pure socialism' and of being 'the greatest wet blanket to business, and progress and job creation in my lifetime.' Wynn's hyperbolic histrionics persevere, despite Wynn's huge financial gains in recent years. Wynn (and Trump, and other corporate moguls) are analogous to the kid who is handed back to parents after a carefree summer with the lax, carefree Uncle. They're crying for the Uncle, and pouting because the very basic rules of ethical conduct are being re-instituted. Like I said above, this is all a bunch of whining from those who are used to getting away with the worst offenses. The historical (and economic) cognitive dissonance so many like Wynn are suffering from has, from their perspective, taken a far right stance and made it moderate. The moderate stance has shifted far to the left. Policies that Reagan would have found reasonable are now being labeled 'ultra-liberal,' and by and large, we have think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and their puppets in Washington and on cable news to thank for that.

Proportionately speaking, the wealthiest Americans (and I'm not referring to the small business owner who makes several hundred thousand dollars a year, but rather than media moguls and hedge fund managers who are in the business of making more wealth for already wealthy clients) are not shouldering the sort of tax burden they've historically shouldered in this country. This has allowed for record profits. Some businesses (like GE) aggressively push for lower tax rates, which have, even through the Clinton years, fallen steadily over the last 75 years and now sit at a low 35%.

The narrative that the wealthiest Americans already do too much is a narrative constructed with a faith in Americans' cognitive dissonance about the USA's historical stance toward taxes and taxpayers over the last century. But in the shadow of the extremism taking over the GOP, an extremism that many conservatives are even aghast at, Obama is suddenly reckless tax and spend liberal. The reckless spending during the Bush years, (two un-winnable wars, a prescription drug plan, and massive deductions and tax cuts on the wealthy) is rarely mentioned. The Government's Bush-era deregulation of financial institutions whose recklessness precipitated the housing and financial crisis is rarely spoken about.

Obama's spending proposals, on the other hand, are investments that some numerous economists feel are necessary to facilitate recovery from such broad calamities. I'm not going to debate their merits and drawbacks here - it's too broad a subject - but one thing is for sure: Obama's continually acknowledges the need to cut waste from Government programs. He also sometimes takes a break from chiding corporate jet owners and CEOs to acknowledge that without the success of corporations, we lose our place in the world. Conspiratorial voice will doubtlessly claim this is his way of soothing the John Galts of the world while sharpening the knife of Government takeover behind their backs. I don't buy it. I think Obama is too much of a pragmatist and too much of a listener to buy into any one extreme ideology. Any one who has met him, or debated him, can attest to that. He is not the stuff that extremism is made of.

Apart from the usual accusations about Obama being a radical Socialist, I also hear much complaining complaining about how he has victimized 'job and wealth creators' (the very wealthy). Any president, even a moderate one, following in the footsteps of the radical George W. Bush years, had the thankless task of making even the most moderate actions not look ultra-liberal by comparison.

Consequently, Obama, a remarkably patient, professorial and stubbornly cautious and moderate bureaucrat, has been successfully portrayed as just another tax and spend liberal fanatic with dreams of converting the country to Socialism.

The modern conservative movement - born out of the Reagan years, fully realized in 1994 with the Contract with America and thriving now in part thanks to the rise of a Libertarian fiscal ideology in part spearheaded by elements like Norquist, Gingrich, the Heritage Foundation, Paul Ryan, and many other prominent politicians, taken seized hold of the narrative in this country about who deserves what and why, and they are winning.

We are being told:

You would be nothing without your wealthy benefactors. Those who create wealth are superior, smarter than you, more ambitious, and more disciplined, and should be entrusted with the quality of your life.

You'd be right if you interpreted the above statement as a subjective moral and ethical assertion. It is. In fact, this whole debate hinges on it. The problem is, it's not being portrayed that way. It's being made into an endless numbers game, an endless, increasingly loud series of anecdotal assertions, unprovable, unmovable,  and unbearably frustrating for most citizens.

There are two extremes in this narrative, and only one of them really exists. The first imaginary extreme is this idea that Socialism will take over the country. The fact is, forms of socialism already exist in Government programs. Social Security, public schools, pensions, interstate highways and bridges, fire and police departments are all derived from socialism. Government run programs that taxpayers support which are devised to help all citizens - this is nothing new. In fact, as history shows, it's not perfect, but it works. This notion of social services is not only quintessentially American, it's straight out of Norman Rockwell. These existing programs are being sold now as inefficient, unnecessary, outdated, and in need of eradication. The threat to social services - another Norquist / Libertarian / Heritage Foundation aim fueled by pure ideology - seeks to associate these services with waste. Additionally, the push to maintain these programs - programs that have existed for generations and have been shown to work - is now being framed as an attempt to 'push Socialism' on the American populace. This notion is spurious, disingenuous, misleading, and stupid, and preys on the fears of Americans, much like the way Senator Joseph McCarthy preyed on the fears of Americans in the 1950s.

The second extreme - one that is very real - is the one I've spent a good portion of this post describing. It embodies the recklessness, deregulation, disproportionate influence and legal rights of many multinational Corporations. It embodies the kind of slick marketing campaign that enough money will buy - a marketing campaign that has convinced a frightening number of Americans that Obama is not American, or is a socialist, that Liberals want to socialize health care, that holding firm to a rigid, black and white ideology is courageous and will result in an 'ultimate victory' of one ideology over the other.

This fundamental lack of acknowledgement on the part of hard-core Libertarianism and right wing extremism that there is another valid point of view has benefited their side immensely. When there is no room for the other point of view to thrive, then it is all-out war. On the other hand, while some of it is lip service, the Left's acknowledgement that businesses need to be given the tools to succeed, albeit not without some regulation, that time it takes to cover more ideological ground weakens the force of the message. It's why Conservatives are the pointy spear and why Liberals are the push broom. It's the secret to GOP success. The more narrow and myopic your point of view, the more efficiently you can convey it, in a marketing message, or a commercial, or a speech, or a sound bite.

The solutions to this mess are beyond my grasp. I just know that there are reasons for why it is a mess, reasons that are - by and large - not being discussed or focused on. As I've said before, a number of the pillars forming the foundation of the political issues grasping hold of our public consciousness are made up of moral and ethical disagreements. Moral and ethical issues are, by their very nature, subjective, so I wonder how long it's going to be before someone tells Grover Norquist and those like him that the side playing for absolute victory never stays the victorious for long.


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