Democratic Underground

Staving Off Trickle-down Barbarism
May 2, 2001
by Paul Ryan

Staving Off Trickle-down Barbarism

The marketing professionals in the Bush administration have been less than forthright in selling their tax cut. The benefits would accrue to the wealthiest smidgen of the population and would do much less to stimulate the economy than the household rebate proposed by Democrats. It will radically reduce our fiscal wiggle-room and probably lead to a 1980s-style transfer of wealth from taxpayers to bond-holders; in other words, shift valuable resources from the American majority to a distinctly Republican constituency. Like much of what we have seen from this new administration, the tax cut appears to be based more upon paying-off benefactors than on sound public policy.

Republicans argue that progressive tax rates are unfair. But what about taxes that are actually regressive? Sales taxes, payroll taxes, utility surcharges, user fees, even fines like traffic tickets, take a larger--often much larger--relative bite out of the earnings of working- and middle-class families. The progressive income tax is not a way of sticking rich folks with the bill; it is a way of flattening the overall costs of the public sector. The idea, advanced by the Bushies, that affluent families are disproportionately taxed is untrue. In fact, it is another symptom of our country's moral decline.

This is America, for crying out loud. No one begrudges wealthy households their honestly-earned dollars. Compared to other advanced nations, rich people get a pretty good deal here. And, when push comes to shove, America will send her sons, poor and rich alike, as she has done in the past, to defend their lives, property, and sacred fortunes. But a country cannot simply be an economy. The United States is not--or ought not be--an enterprise zone in the Western Hemisphere.   It is a national community, with a shared heritage and common values. The Federal government is the incarnation of that community, the living embodiment of the American people--in Lincoln's formulation, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”   To pretend that "the people" are one thing and "the government" is another shamelessly disregards the very premise of the American experiment. Limited government, to be sure. Liberty, or at least the ordered freedom that confers dignity to our lives, certainly.   But this nation is governed with the consent of the governed. When rabble-rousers seek to gain political advantage by turning the people against their government, by arguing that the people’s government is some kind of monstrous beast, we must observe that they are abusing sacred principles, and indeed, acting like juveniles. Adult citizens treat duly constituted public institutions as an extension of their citizenship. Less mature citizens view these institutions as a child would a parent, whether for good or for ill.

Nor does it violate the precepts of limited government to deploy the public sector in softening the jagged edges of the marketplace. Markets are efficient, but they are also heartless. It is not “dependency” but the recognition that our country--like all countries--draws its posterity, its very decency, from its civic nature. Our shared duty is to make sure that the tender blossom of civilization is protected and nourished. If that means, among other things, "high taxes", then, as Oliver Holmes noted, that is a price to pay for living as civilized people. There is no reason to expect that civilization may be obtained on the cheap. Nothing in human history confirms that.

Our Republican countrymen are certainly patriots--one cannot doubt that. And they are religious as well. When President Bush was candidate Bush, he even went so far as to claim that Jesus Christ was his favorite "political philosopher." Many snickered over that, but in fact, Jesus did have a political philosophy. He was much more communitarian than libertarian--he probably would not have much use for American-style triumphalism or prosperity theology--and in any event, his approach to the body politic was oriented around a distinction between God's Kingdom and Mammon. He maintained that one could not serve both, that one must choose. In his words, "no servant can be slave to two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn."   The fatal flaw in contemporary Republican doctrine is their willingness to turn over our country to mere business interests. All the traditionalism and conservative principles and best moral intentions in the world will get swamped--overrun--when consumerism drives the culture. In their adoration of the markets--which prudently constrained, do have a place in modern society--Republicans unwittingly choose Mammon, the exact opposite of the civic vision enunciated by Jesus.

These advocates of a flatter income tax should remember Lester Thurow's distinction between an establishment and an oligarchy.   Every country has an elite--not just a "cultural elite," as the right-wingers claim, but the practical movers-and-shakers of the nation. In itself, that is not a bad thing. Human beings, contrary to leftish doctrine, are not equal. As John Adams said, there is greater variation between man and man than there is between man and beast. Elites are probably in the natural order of things. And in any case, their children go to the finest schools, know the most powerful people, have the best opportunities. Whether an elite is an establishment, which our country had as recently the mid-20th century, or just an oligarchy, which the American elite arguably is now, they are better connected than you or me. It is not a grand conspiracy. National elites does not move in concert--at least, not consciously. They are simply the demographic within the general population that supplies the country with its economic leadership.

Elites set the tone, but they are not the same. An establishment family recognizes that privilege carries responsibilities. I forget if it was GW's favorite political philosopher, or one of his apostles, who said that much is expected of him who is given much. Oligarchs, on the other hand, seek further aggrandizement of family privileges. One links the nation's success to their own success. The other cares only--when reduced to brass knuckles--for their own enrichment. If our country seems more savage than it was two or three generations ago, it is at least partly due to the fact that our elite families are acting less and less as though they have a stake in our common destiny. Not to overstate the case, the Bush family itself is an interesting microcosm of this transition from establishment to oligarchy. The President is certainly genial and well-mannered, but one suspects that--notwithstanding all the posturing to the contrary--he is not an especially honorable person. Among an establishment, and for that matter, among the Bushes of prior generations, honor was holy currency.   Now it is a rhetorical device, a bludgeon used to curry cheap political leverage with the people.

Our elite has grown increasingly barbaric. The Bush tax plan only reinforces this barbaric behavior. Unfortunately for the broader society, and no less than tax cuts themselves, barbarism has a trickle-down effect. TS Eliot wrote: "A church for all, a job for each; every man to his work."   We have different stations in life, but we all share in this precious flower called civilization. Our liberal compatriots sometimes imagine that civilized society is the given--it is not. The benefits conferred by civilization take many generations to acquire and only a few to destroy. It is the delicate fabric that makes our humanity valuable, indeed, that makes life worth living, and it can be easily lost. Bush's selfish and oligarchic tax cut leads to the forlorn observation that where one finds barbarians in the country clubs, one should not be surprised to find savages in the streets.

At the same time, the current situation is filled with opportunities for the Democratic party. The silent majority is at last on our side. The rancorous minority is over on the right, almost the mirror opposite of the situation when President Nixon coined the term a generation ago. In those days, the loud minority was to the left and the great American majority was center-right. The election in 2000 proved that the electorate, much less the larger public, in now center-left. Gore and Nader received a majority between them, running issue-driven campaigns. A fair percentage of Bush supporters, in contrast, voted for him, not because of his conservative views, but because they bought the "character" argument and decided that being "dumb" was less of a character flaw than being a "liar."   One cannot fault them for that decision. It was based upon correct moral prioritization.   The fact that this kind of distinction between Bush and Gore was a part of the political conversation--which, however untrue, benefited the Republicans far more than the Democrats--is a failure of Democratic party operatives, not the American people. Bush is not stupid. Gore is not a liar. But lying is evil and being dumb is not. Here is a fact you can take to the bank: it is better to be the stupid party than the evil party.

We Americans are less libertarian than commonly believed.   Yes, there is a libertarian streak to our approach, but it is more a secondary characteristic than an overarching one. We subscribe to the principle of maximum liberty coextensive with the liberty of others, not the principle of maximum liberty as such. And even then we have reservations. We are pluralist, not multiculturalist. We have a tolerant, live-and-let-live view of life, and yet we take ourselves seriously, sometimes to the point of narcissism. We are good-humored and informal.   We are family-oriented. We are spiritual people. We yearn for love and belonging. Bill Bradley was precisely right when he pointed out that there is an aching loneliness spread out across our land. This beautiful country, this land of plenty, is the world's living exhibit of the time-worn truths that happiness cannot be bought, that value and meaning are shared experiences, that communities are comprised of families, not individuals, and that human individuality is relative, not absolute. Our country's civic life is ripe for re-socialization, and the mechanism for that re-socialization is the Democratic party.

Where is the center of the American electorate?   In many respects the great American middle is to the left of Left and the right of Right on the political spectrum. Taken as a whole, Americans are fiscally liberal and socially conservative. If one remembers properly, Clinton was elected in 1992 upon that platform (although it was not identified as such). It is ironic, and noteworthy, that the "centrist" politicians of our era are the exact reverse: culturally liberal and economically conservative. How like us Boomers, this morally-earnest generation of Americans, to get it bass ackwards!

Still, the moment for gaining a permanent advantage on the GOP is at hand. We are on the threshold of an unbridled Democratic majority, not unlike the Republican majority that "emerged" in the late 1960s. But it will only be achieved if Democrats can bring themselves to honor the hard-won wisdom of the ages, to hold dear the institutions and civic-virtues that flow from our heritage; in short, by embracing a form of cultural conservatism. It ought not be hard to do. Like the better angels of our nature, it is right and good to cherish the civilizing nature of our moral traditions. Not the overly stringent ones, nor the overly lax ones. Both stringent morality and lax morality is the stuff of barbarians. We are not barbarous. Civilized people find in their moral traditions the middle way, a "golden mean" between laxity and stringency that shapes the trunk of the tree of civilization. Our branch of that tree, the American branch, will only be preserved if we, the humane and the just, take ownership of our classical heritage. And that won't happen as long as the GOP claims "market-share" over the hearts of social conservatives.

The Bush tax cut, and the less-than-honest means by which it is being foisted on the people, illustrates the stakes involved. The Republicans are basically about turning the country over to fundamentally rapacious and amoral commercial forces. While there are fine people in that party, our good and decent friends, the private profit approach to public policy makes them, however unintentionally, the party of Mammon, of money, of consumerism. That opens the door for Democrats to be the party of citizenship, the party of the higher values.   Let them be the party of business--we should be the party of the American household. They shall always have more cash, but as long as we are faithful to the nation, our truths will find the majority. After all, as a great Republican once said, "you can only fool some of the people all the time.."

It is in the area of values, of moral principle, that we must meet the Republicans head-on. Here is where they have slaughtered us and here is where we can push them to the periphery.   The Clinton years revealed a distasteful Republican propensity for being affronted at the moral transgressions of non-Republicans.   It was largely an opportunistic moral outrage, an outrage that strained at the gnats of one's enemies while swallowing the camels of one's friends. It was too often, and quite simply, the morality of intrusive blowhards. While character assassination is an effective short-term strategy, demoralizing Democrats while animating their own ranks, it is human nature to get sick of those who rarely trespass, but are relentlessly trespassed upon. Americans are basically waiting for the Democrats to smoke the Republicans out on this issue. Alas for Democrats, it requires a willingness to accept the moral terms of political discourse. (I might add that had Democrats been a little less Machiavellian and a little more morally engaged, we might be in the White House now. Moral principle, which respects the power of the Presidency enough to hold a solemn regard for the consent of the governed, seeks to recount the votes in all states within the margin of error: New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Oregon, in addition to Florida. Amoral jockeying seeks to change the "dynamic" by recounting the undervotes in four chiefly Democratic counties.)

Moral terms of discussion should not frighten Democrats.   Morality grows out of our interpersonal lives, our nature as high social creatures. Many cultural conservatives claim that the moral erosion our country has experienced over the past several decades is a function of “moral relativism.”   Those old moral “absolutes,” they say, have been supplanted by the “feel-good” values of today. That may be true as far as it goes, but it is rather a distinction without a difference.   If moral absolutes are unsubstantiated assertions, or conversely, legalistic nonsense, and relative morality contains sharp, clear lines--albeit at 99% rather than 100%--who cares how it is branded?   Rather, moral decline in our country stems from the fraying of our common moral perspective.

More on that shortly. For now, we may reiterate that moral regulation is derived from our collective being. We live among other people, often many other people. Robinson Caruso is not compelled to behave in a moral way. We are. What is more, moral imperatives tend to be more relevant the more crowded the population. City dwellers often have a better feel for moral interchange than rural folk, if only through their greater contact with the panorama of characters comprising the moral drama; that is, through their more numerous encounters with the human condition, or even simply the American condition. Rural people may have more integrity than their urban counterparts, having been less exposed to the temptations and vices of the big city, but they are perhaps less morally insightful. Our system, as the last election painfully demonstrated, is structured to give rural Americans a disproportionate voice in the body politic. That is unjust, because an election is an act of judgment, and even if we concede the superior virtue of our rural countrymen, there is scant evidence of their superior ability to judge virtue. On the contrary, the natural Democratic constituency is better positioned to employ moral considerations in its voting decisions. It is the Democrats who benefit when political dialog becomes moralized. Indeed, Democrats have the responsibility to outline for Americans the moral thrust of political issues.

Republicans like to guffaw that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. Tom Wolfe answered, in "Bonfire of the Vanities," that a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. Reality itself is the delimiter of right-wing morality. As long as people have a friend who is gay, a cousin who could not shake his addiction to street drugs, a child who made a bad choice or two, much less an ability to honestly evaluate their own behavior, the either/or nature of Republican moral reasoning will smell false. Our conservative countrymen certainly gain clarity with their dualistic moralizing and, to an extent, clarity helps sell their agenda. Republicans like Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura and the host of other right-wing pundits are attractive precisely because they distill complex moral realities down to simple dichotomies. It is with reason, I suppose, that we fell from Eden when we ate from the tree of good and evil knowledge. Unfortunately for these commentators, folks with a little experience under their belt understand that the conflict between good and evil is ambiguous, often confusing, and very often ironic. When people who reduce moral shades of gray to clear-cut whites and blacks discover good things labeled "evil" and evil things labeled "good," it is not “immorality,” nor even the complexity and nuance of moral life, that creates these juxtapositions.   Rather, it is their own laziness, their own slovenly moral habits. In a word, they prefer clarity to truth. It is only too bad that the rest of us must endure the social--or more correctly, the anti-social--consequences of that slothful thinking.

Talk radio is a pretty reasonable indicator of the state of conservatism in this country. It creates the illusion of a marketplace of ideas, when in fact, it is merely a marketplace.   The truth is that conservative talk radio is all about the host : letting voices speak, turning them down, cutting them off, interjecting a summarizing opinion, breaking endlessly to sell more crap. What appears to be the free exchange of ideas is in fact rank authoritarianism. On a certain level, most individuals realize that their souls are not being edified by the stark nonsense emanating from the Republican right. On another, they hear the moral language that all souls crave. It almost does not matter that the content is slovenly and egotistical. The very fact that it is the language of the ages makes it resonate in the souls of men.

It is an untruth of liberalism, classically understood, that the law and the market are all that is needed to maintain the secular order. The order in any community, secular or otherwise, also requires a shared sense of equity. The events of Florida in the last election illustrate how much we have depleted our communitarian stock—these common moral resources.   Counting votes to determine who really won an election is a simple enough task, not much more complicated than setting up rules for a sandlot football game (do kids play schoolyard games any more? or have those been trumped by Organized Youth Sports?). The fact that the media and a significant fraction of the public bought the idea that hand-counts are inherently flawed says as much about the erosion of our interpersonal capacities as the venality of those advancing that argument.   In any event, it is clear that, other than the courts, which are themselves contemptibly hegemonic, Americans do not have a basis for resolving moral quandaries. In fact, when it comes to morality, we barely speak the same language. Alasdair MacIntyre warns us that when morality becomes a matter of emotional assertion and counter-assertion, when passion, and not critical rationality, endow moral principles with legitimacy, when there is nothing like the church, or some other communitarian framework, built up over the generations, and essentially pre-legal and pre-economic in nature, to adjudicate moral disputes, to resolve the questions of what is right and what is wrong, the descent into barbarism is complete. Our accepted moral wisdom--the stock of moral truths we collectively trust because they are derived from our moral struggles through the centuries--only illustrate where our country is relative to other civilized nations. The absence of this common faith removes us from the civilized portion of humanity altogether and rather unceremoniously dumps us among the savages.

I am not unaware that my language may strike some Democrats as offensive. I frankly do not care--or rather, I do care, but only because I, like any good communitarian, yearn for the approval of other people. I do not care that some Democrats, like some Republicans, are readily victimized by the moral shortcomings of others. That is exactly the attitude which must be overcome if any type of American reconciliation is to take place. Just as there are pro-choice Republicans, there are--or at least, should be--pro-life Democrats. If there were still such animals as liberal Republicans, I might be one. Unfortunately, they are a vanished breed, and our country is worse for it, but we Catholics may still cling to the age-old trinity of American Catholicism: family, church, and the Democratic party. That party--our party--is America's last, best hope. Pockets of civilization will survive regardless of what happens to America, but if our nation is to remain civilized, it will only come through a morally re-invigorated Democratic party.

The stakes over the next few years are very high. The task of preserving our civilization, let alone building it, is a daunting one. The GOP has no contemporary track record when it comes to humane treatment of the orphan and the widow, the poor and the imprisoned. Since they are running the show now, we may anticipate protracted efforts to appeal to the baser instincts of the population, while channeling scarce public resources towards the enrichment of business owners and creditors. That is bad news. The Bush tax cuts are an example of the socially destructive forces that we Democrats must stave off, and continue staving off, for the sake of our country.

In terms of our moral capacities as a people, as Americans, Florida seemed to indicate that we have lost the ability to simultaneously compete and cooperate, at least in the manner required by the daily interaction of civilized human beings.   It is an egregious loss, and in historical terms, a recent one. It is egregious because an order of civilization requires nothing other than striving for human excellence while retaining a measure of equity. Without that golden balance, without a celebration of achievement within the shared sense of fairness, civilized society is simply impossible. And it is recent because other generations of Americans would have laughed--simply scoffed--at the notion that something like a hand count of votes was beyond our capacity to organize in incorrupt manner.

It is our turn, as Democrats, to create a "big tent"--not in the sense of "diversity" and all those other tiresome phrases that lack moral authority, or even much resonance, but in the sense of articulating a cultural and fiscal agenda that is rooted in the better part of our moral heritage. The bigness of our tent must rise from the magnificence of our souls, e pluribus magnificence, to be sure, but which affirms, above all, unum. Creating this big tent is our duty during this season in the wilderness. If we do it properly, the public backlash against the loudly self-insistent and frequently nutty voices on the right will be so immense that they shall be effectively silenced for a generation. In terms of our posterity, in terms of American civilization itself, that can only be to the Good.

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