I decided to post this one on Facebook. (Edit: Wait, no, on request from a reader, I’m posting it here.)
I’m not saying the Republican Party is all bad. Just mostly bad. I mean, Ron Paul’s strong anti-war and pro-civil liberties stances put most allegedly liberal Democrats to shame. (Ron Paul on wanting to abolish the Federal Reserve, on the other hand? Crazy.)
But for the most part, today’s Republican party stands for one thing: defending the interest of rich people. This has been true for a long time, and Democrats are no saints here, but the Republicans have gotten especially blatant about it in the past few years.
I credit Obama. Used to be, Republicans were the party of tax cuts, and the Democrats were the ones who wanted to tax and spend. (Wait a second, isn’t taxing and spending what governments have to do to function? Never mind, I’m on another point now.) Then Obama said, “Okay, I only want to raise taxes on the top few percent. In fact, I’ll cut taxes for the middle class.” Suddenly, the Republican Party goes from being the party of tax cuts to the party of tax cuts for the rich.
You know the “flat tax” that a number of Republican candidates, including Perry and Gingrich, keep talking about? It’s a scam. They’ll talk about simplifying the tax code, but having a small handful of tax brackets (so the rich pay proportionally more) isn’t really that much more complicated than having one tax bracket. If you want to simplify the tax code, get rid of deductions. Which Perry and Gingrich don’t do, entirely. In fact, analysts have realized that Perry’s plan would make the tax code more complicated (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/25/rick-perry-flat-tax-plan_n_1031705.html). The flat tax isn’t about simplifying the tax code, it’s about cutting taxes for rich people.
But the flat tax isn’t what’s really telling. What’s really telling is the number of Republicans who have explicitly embraced raising taxes on poor people. Bachmann, Perry, and Huntsman have all complained about the fact that under the current tax code, 47 percent of Americans don’t have to pay any federal income tax (though they still pay other taxes, including sales tax and the payroll tax that support Social Security). Of course, the reason for this involves the tax cuts, tax credits, and so on that Republicans used to support. Apparently they’ve changed their mind about that.
Most blatant of all, though, was Herman Cain’s tax plan. It included what amounted to a 18% sales tax, and sales taxes tend to be inherently regressive (meaning, they hit people who already don’t have much money the hardest). I seriously thought that as soon as word spread far enough about what Cain’s tax plan was really about, he’d be done for, but instead it took a sex scandal to sink Cain’s campaign.This is especially puzzling because all of the Republican candidates, to my knowledge, have continued to take a hard line on not raising taxes ever. In one of the debates, every single candidate insisted they would not even support a budget deal that had $10 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases. How on earth does that fit with thinking poor people don’t pay enough taxes? Are we supposed to just know that when Republicans talk about low taxes, they really just mean “low taxes for rich people”?
Now combine this with the fact that the current Republican presidential candidates mostly don’t have plans to help people who’ve been hurt by the recession. Whenever I see them on TV, the soundbites are always about how they’ll fix the economy by cutting taxes repealing regulations. But this isn’t an economic plan, it’s what they—and the rich individuals and corporations who support them—would want to do even if the economy were doing great. (And yeah, some currently-existing regulations are probably bad ones, but some are necessary, and in any case “repeal regulations” still isn’t an economic plan.)
So in light of all this, why does anybody (who isn’t rich) vote Republican? Or rather, why have Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich managed to attain mass-followings, however temporary? Why do people tell pollsters they’re going to vote for one of these guys next November?
One theory is that Republicans have managed to use the culture wars—a.k.a. “God, guns, and gays”–to get working class whites to vote against their own economic interests. Once upon a time, back in 2004, I got the impression that this theory was only advocated by out-of-touch liberals like Howard Dean and Thomas Frank (author of the book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”), but nowadays I see it being almost taken for granted even on fairly conservative blogs (for example here: http://theamericanscene.com/2011/11/29/war-as-culture-war). So maybe there’s something to it.
I can’t quite wrap my head around this idea, though. Take the “gays” issue. Conservative rhetoric around gay marriage has always been about “defense of marriage,” but how does that make any sense? Even if you think homosexuality is an abomination before God, or whatever Leviticus says, how does the government recognizing gay marriages hurt your straight marriage? What are you being defended from? And even if we agree that homosexuality is an abomination and gay marriage hurts straight marriage in some nebulous way, will gay marriages really hurt you *more* than rewriting the tax code to benefit the rich would?
Similar points can be made about just about any “culture war” issue. So… I dunno. Maybe, it’s not about the issues, some people have been listening Rush Limbaugh call liberals evil for so many years that they’ve stopped paying attention to the issues, and decided to just vote against the evil liberals. From my occasional brushes with Limbaugh and his many imitators, I suspect some people really do think more or less that way, but I have too much faith in humanity to think that thinking this way is common.
I wonder how much of people’s willingness to support candidates who don’t support their economic interests comes from an unwillingness to see themselves as one of the “little guys.” I think of the people who posted “We are the 53%” messages (in reference to the 53% of Americans who pay federal income tax) in response to Occupy Wallstreet’s “We are the 99%” messages. Being part of the 53% is a very strange thing to brag about. “We manage to make an average amount of money! Well, maybe not quite, but at worst we’re very slightly below average!”
I’ve read some of the postings of the 53%ers, and what I find is that the logic is terrible, the stories are heartbreaking, and the attitude is pathetic. “Get a job”? Unemployment is at 8.6%, the lowest it’s been since March of ’09. The unemployed are, by definition, people who want jobs but can’t find them. “Stop blaming other people”? Again, whether you think the recession is the fault of Wallstreet, or bad government policy, or whether you think it’s all Obama’s fault, it’s ridiculous to think that the people who’ve been hurt most by the recession are to blame. This is a case where it really is someone else’s fault.
Still, it’s impossible not to sympathize with many of the stories: people working multiple jobs, people working ridiculously long hours, people without insurance, people struggling to pay their rent. What makes it pathetic, though, is the way the 53%ers seem desperate to say, “HEY I MIGHT HAVE IT ROUGH BUT AT LEAST I’M BETTER THAN THOSE OTHER LOSERS OVER THERE.” It’s a common human impulse—being on the bottom of the pile is always more bearable if you can reassure yourself that at least you’re not on the very bottom. Incidentally, I suspect some of the contributors to the 53% blogs are too poor to be actually paying federal income tax (they may be confused about the difference between income tax and payroll tax, terms which frankly don’t make any sense to me even though I know what they’re supposed to mean).
The desire to identify with people richer than you probably warps American politics in other ways. I’m told that Europeans are baffled by our politicians’ obsession with “the middle class.” Probably our politicians have this obsession because in America, everyone wants to believe that they’re middle class. We don’t even have a good word for “below middle class.” “Working class” is the preferred euphemism, and even though I’ve used it in this very essay, it’s a horrible term. Logically “working” ought to include people with high-paying jobs, but that’s not what we mean by it. “Poor” isn’t quite right, because you can be struggling to a degree—working absurdly long hours for too little pay, stuck without insurance—and still be above the poverty line. “Lower class” sounds too much like “low class,” which we use to mean “trashy” (an unfortunate example of the human tendency to associate wealth with virtue and poverty with vice). “Underclass” has its merits, but don’t expect a politician to use the phrase “underclass Americans” in a speech any time soon.
I am not going to tell you to vote Democrat in the next election. I’m not going to claim that Congressional Democrats aren’t also largely in the pockets of major corporations, nor will I pretend not to be appalled at the way Obama has broken many of his promises for “change.” What I will say is that whoever the Republican presidential nominee is for 2012, they are almost certainly *worse* than the Democrats when it comes to protecting the interests of the vast majority of Americans. Why would anyone want to vote for that?